Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era by Jennifer L. Goloboy (review)
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Charleston and the Emergence of Middle-Class Culture in the Revolutionary Era. By Jennifer L. Goloboy. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016. Pp. 208. $54.95 cloth)

Jennifer Goloboy focuses on the adaptive merchants of Charleston, South Carolina, to challenge the supposed misconception that being middle class in the nineteenth century meant being "devout, socially progressive, [and] Northern" (p. 2). She is especially keen on dispelling the "idea that 'middle class' inherently implied 'nice': economically and socially progressive, engaged in a nurturing and close family life" (p. 4). In Goloboy's contention, middle-class life was much more mercurial and was largely based upon men's ability to alter their own values and practices to most effectively navigate the shifting market economy.

Goloboy organizes her slim book into six chronological chapters. Chapter one covers rather well-trodden ground in surveying the development of the southern merchant class and, in turn, colonial ideologies of hierarchy and imperial allegiance. Chapter two proceeds into the American Revolution, investigating how the middle classes navigated the ever-tenuous balance between mob violence and political power as Charleston's economy seemed to crumble around them. Chapter three surveys the economic boom of postwar Charleston, arguing that while colonial middle-class merchants had been deferential colonists who concentrated on gentility, their postwar counterparts [End Page 670] were wild, rootless capitalists who only cared about getting ahead. In chapter four, Goloboy reviews ideologies of friendship, sentiment, and family connections through the lens of the early-nineteenth-century merchant, while in chapter five she demonstrates how many of these self-supported networks of assistance were destroyed by the War of 1812, which not only greatly damaged merchants' financial resources but also their popular image. Chapter six, finally, is a survey of popular historiographical arguments pertaining to the middle classes and the nineteenth-century South, in addition to closing thoughts on the place of the middle class in America's history and present.

Goloboy should be lauded for her ability to present a clear, quickly digestible argument. Yet, the brevity of Goloboy's chapters (two are only thirteen pages long) sometimes limits her analytical ability. Most of the chapters are based largely around summarizing the development of Charleston's economy, which has been extensively detailed by previous scholarship. Only after walking these well-worn paths does Goloboy provide relatively scant attention to the middle-class men whom the work is ostensibly devoted to uncovering. For example, Goloboy spends the first fourteen pages of chapter three explaining how Charleston was enmeshed in a global economy of trade, allotting only nine pages to investigating who these men were, and how they cultivated a new sort of middle-class identity.

Chapter three is indicative of larger hiccups: specifically Goloboy's use of terms and choice of wording. Throughout the work, Goloboy repeatedly references "cowboy capitalism" (pp. 54, 75, 96) in describing Charleston merchants, without any explanation of what this phrase might mean. At one point, she exclaims, "like cowboys in a Western movie, Charleston's merchants resorted to violence because they knew the state would not help them … their goal was to run a business, not a Sunday school" (p. 77). Are we to compare Charleston's nineteenth-century merchants to fictionalized characters inhabiting a world created by twentieth-century Hollywood film executives? In a larger example, the book's title sets the analysis in "the Revolutionary Era," yet nowhere in the volume does Goloboy [End Page 671] explain what she means by this. Only one chapter is dedicated to the American Revolution, with the bulk of the analysis devoted to the nineteenth-century South.

Goloboy is effective in portraying Charleston's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commercial development through the lens of middle-class merchants. She displays illuminating characteristics of middle-class men and presents an interesting hypothesis of how they constantly shifted their values to render the greatest economic success. Unfortunately, Goloboy sometimes oversimplifies human complexities in her assertions of change over time, generalizing colonial merchants as deferential do-gooders as foils for her rowdy "cowboy capitalists," even though numerous scholars (Alison Games, David Hancock, and Mark Hanna come to mind) have demonstrated the complicated identities and...


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