The writing of United States history is in the midst of a definite international turn. Whether this trend goes the way of other fads or whether it will prove to have legs is an open question. If this book is any barometer of what the future is likely to hold, though, the prospects for the transnational impulse in United States history look good. These essays—most of them, anyway—show that situating American history in an international context rests not on some flimsy theoretical foundation but on the historical record. Southerners, like other Americans, engaged deeply in the world around them, particularly Europe, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of British abolitionists before the Civil War, the world came butting into Dixie and forced the encounter. Just as often, southerners came calling on Europe—for capital, for recognition, as a mirror for identity, or for a myriad of other reasons.
Inevitably, the essays in a volume like this will vary widely in quality. The standouts include Sarah Silkey’s essay on how southern state governors eager to court British capital responded to the embarrassing details of Ida Wells’s reports by moving to suppress mob violence. Although hardly stirred by the purest of motives—governors sought not justice for its own sake, but the rehabilitation of the South’s image abroad—transatlantic pressure compelled them to move against white supremacy. Clive Webb explores how Britons puzzled over how to make use of America’s freedom movement. It was one thing to be inspired by the fight for black rights in the late Jim Crow South, but quite another to make its tactics—and even its goals—relevant to the struggle of West Indian immigrants in 1960s Britain. The West Indian community lacked the size, homogeneity, visionary leadership, and institutional foundation of its American counterpart. It also lacked an easily identifiable target, since racism in Britain was customary [End Page 128] and cultural, not legal. Lewis Massari’s essay on the background of Gunnar Myrdal’s American Dilemma is not only richly informative but entertaining and even funny. Myrdal collaborated with many American social scientists but particularly with North Carolinian Arthur Raper. Raper impressed upon Myrdal how ostensibly democratic institutions like the courts could be warped by racism. He also took from his American experience a greater faith in the power of sociology to promote social change, a faith that may strike modern readers as naïve, if well intentioned.
The essays on the pre–Civil War era are more uneven. Daniel Nagel makes good use of the perspectives of the German forty-eighters—republicans and nationalists exiled after the failed 1848 revolutions—on southern slave society. Although a diverse lot, in general they brought over with them a Hegelian worldview that led them to conceptualize the sectional crisis as a necessary, even inevitable one, pitting progress against reaction. The sooner a resolution came, the better for humanity, they believed. Kathleen Hilliard offers an interesting meditation on antebellum South Carolinians’ connections with Venice, a city whose past glories and contemporary decline held up a troubling reflection to the city of Charleston. Hilliard is to be commended for the tight focus of her essay, which bares down on Carolinians in one time and place specifically without yielding to the temptation to extrapolate about the South more generally. South Carolina after all was sui generis, which is useful to keep in mind when reading Lawrence McDowell’s contribution on the meaning of English chivalry for elite South Carolinians inclined to play the knight in chivalric performances. Here again it is necessary to remember that studies of antebellum South Carolina tell us very little about anything going on outside South Carolina. It was, after all, possible for women and men outside of the Palmetto State (even in Massachusetts!) to appreciate Walter Scott.
A short review like this can only shine a spotlight on some of the most interesting...