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304 Shorter Book Reviews Anne Norton. Alternative Americas: A Reading {~fAntebellum Political Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, I986. ix + 363 pp. This book purports to be a scholarly analysis of how the North and South perceived themselves and each other during the period 1815-1865. Unfortunately it is a rambling, tendentious and unpersuasive work which fails to document it~ major arguments. All too often the author echoes, rather than analyzes, sectional myths which have skewed our view of the American past. Norton portrays the antebellum North as an increasingly repressive andexploitive society, governed by an elite of white male industrial capitalists. Seeking 10 preserve their hegemony, this elite allegedly jettisoned the republican idealsofthe American Revolution and resmTected the repressive, patriarchal values ofthe Pilgrims/Puritans (Norton uses the latter two terms interchangeably). ThePuritan ethos of the antebellum North, coupled with the exploitive system of industrial capitalism, argues Norton, promoted the repression of various marginalor "liminal" groups-women, blacks, Catholics, Southern whites and Northern industrial workers. · In her indictment of Northern sectional culture, Norton argues that Northerners subordinated nature to civilization, denigrated the family, and patterned pubhc institutions after the factory. Finally, Norton contends that the No1ihembraced a patriarchal model of political culture which repressed women and espoused militarism. If Norton views the North as exploitive and repressive, she portrays theSouth as a proud, independent and freedom-loving land. Like the antebellum Southern leaders she cites, Norton believes that the South remained loyal to the idealsofthe American Revolution. Secession from the Union allegedly reflected the South's commitment to government based on consent of the governed. Norton alsoargues that the antebellum South embraced a maternal model of political culture:one dedicated to the preservation of nature, individual rights and family life In her eagerness to portray the antebellum South in a positive light, Norton disturbingly minimizes the racism and violence inherent in the institutionof slavery. She stresses that Southern whites viewed the master-slave relationship as a familial or domestic bond. A desire to protect this bond from unwarranted government interference allegedly characterized the Southern defense of slavery. At the crux of Norton's positive portrayal of Southern life is her beliefthat antebellum Southerners rejected Northern capitalism and remained loyal toaprecapitalist agrarian economy. Significantly, Norton stresses Southerners' sympa· thy for the plight of Northern industrial workers. By contrast, she dismisse, abolitionists as "procapitalist" apologists for the exploitive industrial eliteofthe antebellum North. As my summary of Norton's major topics suggests, Alternative Americas offm a provocative interpretation of antebellum sectional cultures. Unfortunately. i ShorterBook Reviews 305 vanousshortcomings mar this book. Norton fails to define key terms such as "industrialelite," "modernizing elite" and "established elite." These terms are usedinterchangeably to refer to the industrial capitalists who allegedly controlled Northernsectional culture. Norton, however, never identifies or illustrates who belongedto this elite. She also fails to distinguish among different kinds of capitalism. A curious inattention to the dimension of time also characterizes Alternative Americas.Imp01iant chronological shifts within a particular sectional culture are generallyignored. Similarly, Norton fails to recognize regional variations within a section. Instead she portrays the North, South and West as monolithic and unchangingentities. Portrayalof the American past in simplistic terms also mars this book. The mostobvious example of this occurs when Norton contrasts the "Puritan" industrialNorth with the "Cavalier" agrarian South. This interpretation of sectionaldifferences ignores certain basic facts. First, the antebellum North was primarilyan agrarian region. Although Norton occasionally concedes this, she generallyportrays the North as an industrialized area. Second, Norton's interpretationof the South as a pre-capitalist agrarian society ignores the fact that many Southernerswere capitalists. As James Oakes has recently shown in The Ruling Race,thesecapitalists included various groups of slaveowners who dominated the antebellumSouth. Useof such archetypal terms as "Puritan" and "Cavalier" is also problematic. Theseterms obfuscate, rather than clarify, important developments within and betweenthe antebellum North and South. Conflation of Puritan and Victorian values, for example, characterizes Norton's discussion of antebellum Northern culture. She also offers a skewed interpretation of Puritanism. Even a cursory readingof the scholarship on Puritanism shows that Puritans were much more complexthan the grim, repressive elitists Norton portrays them as being. Perhapsthe most serious shortcoming of this book is Norton's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 304-306
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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