Civil War History 50.2 (2004) 195-196
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Few self-respecting Southern congregations can go for long, it seems, without a potluck dinner. Neither Lady Nor Slave follows that tradition, sampling the intellectual skillets of fourteen upstanding members of the church of working women of the Old South, a strivingly ecumenical bunch. As with most such socials, there is less of scholarly epicurianism or evangelicalism here than of parochial fellowship and method(ism) on a very minor scale. That is natural: coherence and consistency are seldom hallmarks of generic essay collections. Lift one lid here and something tasty and unexpected turns up; try another and delight becomes disappointment. Still we should give thanks that Delfino, Gillespie, and their twelve co-authors have cooked up a volume on so tantalizing—and neglected—topic. Historians of labor, the Old South, gender, race, material culture, and the Civil War will find much to digest in these pages.
These chefs know good cooking and are not shy about ladling out compliments to each other. The editors' introduction blesses the banquet in terms that seem to obviate the reviewer's task altogether. These are thirteen "pioneering case studies," we learn, blazing "significant new" trails for southern women's history, employing "consistently innovative," even "pathbreaking" methods (6, 9). These pages will challenge the portrait of the Old South as "a static, prebourgeois agricultural society inhabited by planters, slaves, and poor whites" (2). "[O]rdinary women" were "important historical actors" too (1). Listening to the multiplicity of their voices and experiences is vital, they declare, to understanding "the origins of the southern working class in all its variety" (10). Readers may wink at the mention of that "inadequate" old prebourgeois devil (who believes such stuff nowadays?), yet so fervent a grace is tonic to the appetite and the assessment of this volume's achievement.
Alas, there is more schmozzle than smorgasbord. There are many good things here, to be sure, but the collective achievement is decidedly underwhelming, especially after the introductory promise. Even the best chefs do [End Page 195] not always yield up their most delicious new recipes. Essays by Stephanie McCurry (yeoman households) and Sara Hill (Cherokee basketweaving) are reheated from award-winning books. Surprisingly though, neither Susan Barber's thoughts on wartime prostitution in Richmond nor Timothy Lockley's analysis of Savannah working women seem quite ready for the table. These are talented people treating important topics, but their essays do not go very far. Stephanie Cole's chapter on nursemaids, by comparison, is a gem of careful research and economic prose. Then there is the dreaded jellied salad with marshmallows—delicious and wholesome, some say, but perhaps not belonging to any of the essential scholarly food groups. Essays on nuns, more nuns, three Jewish sisters who were very devoted schoolteachers, and the well-tempered cupidity of Southern native women just cannot be expected to tell us very much about the transition to capitalism and the origins of the Southern working class. More valuable for this effort are Barbara Howe's research on women in western Virginia and two essays on cotton millworkers by Gillespie and Bess Beatty. Strangely, however, the festivities close with a tantrum. After prodigious—and pretty fruitless—labor to explore female participation in Southern iron and mining industries, Delfino charges that men have "silenced" the documentary record to make it conform "to accepted middle-class standards" (302). Maybe so, but Delfino's own strenuous efforts make her "invisible" women look imaginary (294).
That half-baked dish sums up the wildly uneven meal. Still, we ought not to turn up our noses, having gone hungry for so long. Delfino, Gillespie, and company deserve both gratitude and considerable chewing.
Lawrence T. McDonnell