Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865–1915 by K. Stephen Prince (review)
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Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865–1915. By K. Stephen Prince. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Pp. 321. $39.95 cloth)

Based upon its title, one might expect Stories of the South: Race and the Reconstruction of Southern Identity, 1865–1915 to fall squarely and primarily into one historiographical field—the perpetually growing body of publications devoted to examining the construction and significance of southern identity—with, in this case, particular emphasis on race in the era of what the late historian Howard N. Rabinowitz called “the first New South.” But the title of K. Stephen Prince’s book does not quite suggest its scope, for Stories of the South in fact draws upon and situates itself within two schools of historiography, ones that, as Prince notes, are generally not well intertwined: the scholarship on southern identity as well as the works examining the northern and federal retreat from Reconstruction, or, as Prince aptly describes it, “the late nineteenth-century abandonment of racial egalitarianism in the South” (p. 6). The reason why Prince connects these two fields is that, in his estimation, the reconstruction of southern identity in the decades after the Civil War helped lead to, or at least pave the way for, the demise of Reconstruction and “the nation’s fifty-year retreat from racial democracy” (p. 11). Although Prince specifically disavows any claim of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these two developments, he clearly does argue that the latter tragic development could not have occurred had conservative southern whites not prevailed over African Americans and white racial liberals in selling their version of southern identity to the white northern mainstream.

Prince views the reconstruction of southern identity after the Civil War to have been a product of storytelling—“stories that Americans told about the South”—by whites, blacks, men, women, politicians, journalists, novelists, businessmen, concert and minstrel show performers, and, eventually, filmmakers, among others (p. 11). As such, the quite impressive array of primary sources that he examines [End Page 757] includes not only the historian’s typical primary sources, such as newspapers and periodicals of the era, government documents, and the proceedings of political conventions, but also playbills, song books, poems, accounts and descriptions of minstrel shows, and, in the book’s epilogue, the infamous film from 1915, The Birth of a Nation. Even travelogues played a role in shaping southern identity, for their words “did not reflect a preexistent reality; they helped to shape that reality, to ‘create’ the South of the postwar world” (p. 21). So did the words of Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady and Louisville Courier-Journal editor Henry Watterson, which described a “New South” in which a new generation of white men had forsaken animosity towards northerners while discovering the virtues of hard work. Grady and other New South boosters, meanwhile, became more boldly insistent by the mid-1880s about the irrefutability of white supremacy, often blaming the “race problem” in the South on carpetbaggers, who by then were viewed unfavorably even by many of the northern voices that were telling “stories of the South.” In the 1890s, conservative white southerners began to sell their northern brethren on the idea of a “Negro problem” as a means of justifying the subjugation of the black population. African American voices, among them Booker T. Washington and the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, presented counternarratives in the hopes of undermining the rising tide of white supremacy, but to no avail, as reflected by the spread of Jim Crow laws and black disfranchisement across the South, and, notes Prince, the nationwide spectacle of “the Birth of a Nation juggernaut” in 1915 (p. 248).

Stories of the South is a very original and innovative book. Perhaps inevitably, then, it seems (to this reviewer at least) more suggestive than definitive; it is not necessarily possible to prove that the reconstruction of southern identity after the Civil War paved the way for or was even vital to the retreat from Reconstruction. Nevertheless, for anyone who is interested in the history of the first New South or American race relations during that era...