- A Sphinx on the American Land: The Nineteenth Century South in Comparative Perspective
The most valuable insight of this slim new volume comes in its closing pages, and has nothing particular to do with the American South. Peter Kolchin's epigrammatic claim that "almost every historical statement of significance is implicitly comparative" is followed by the equally provocative suggestion that "disagreements among scholars often rest more on the differing comparative frameworks that implicitly underlie their judgment than on differing understandings of what actually happened" (116). Historians in some sense are all comparativists, he might have said, even if some are more self-aware about being so than others.
Kolchin has more than earned his own self-awareness as a comparativist. Over the last quarter of a century, he has surveyed systems of bound labor in the American South and the Russian countryside and is now completing research about how these societies nearly simultaneously adopted systems of free labor. His elegant one-volume history of slavery is attuned to how the experience of slaves in the "southern" context compares with others.1 A Sphinx on the American Land focuses more intently on the endeavor of southern history, per se, and ranges over a very broad range of topics. These qualities result from the book's origin as the Walter Lynwood lecture series and from Kolchin's own conscious pride in being a "southernist."
The first of three chapters takes up the leas self-conscious of three types of historical comparisons—the broad tendency to set the South apart from the rest of the United States, which Kolchin calls the "un-South." Divergences between a unified region (which is often seen as aberrant and outside the mainstream) and the rest of the United States (typically assumed to be normative) derives from the nineteenth century South's defining features—the embrace of slavery by regional elites and the rebellion on behalf of slavery mounted by these men and women during the Civil War. These dual regional "signifiers" establish a polarity between the South and the "un-South" that have long framed economic, political, and cultural accounts of both regional and national history. There are perils of this approach, the book warns, especially the tendency to obscure national trends within the South and regional trends outside of it.
The next chapter considers those historians who dismantle the South/un-South polarity by exploring meaningful differences between the "many Souths," thus emphasizing variety over cohesion. Works that distinguish between distinct [End Page 1155] geographic sub-regions are surveyed here, as are those that analyze the same area at two distinct periods of time. Most disruptive of monolithic renderings of the South are those approaches that investigate social categories like gender, race, and class, and those that emphasize the conflict within the region during periods of crisis. In this last category, special attention is given to struggles within the region during the Civil War and to those multiple forms of southern identity that circulated during the war's long aftermath.
The book's third and final chapter makes the case for transnational comparisons, explaining how putting the American South next to "other Souths" can reduce parochialism and help historians form meaningful generalizations and disprove unsound ones. Kolchin here details topics that are well-mined (such as the rich comparative literature on slavery) and those that are strangely underdeveloped (such as the nature of nationalism during the Confederate war). He concludes by turning from the historiographical approach that marks most of the book to a sustained discussion of his own research dealing with comparative emancipation in Russia and the United States. In a preview of work to come, he details similar developments in family, education, and social structures in these two societies while noting that changes in them operated at strikingly different patterns of pace and scale.
Kolchin owes his notion of a sphinx-like South to the late David Potter, whose comparative work—often pursued at the international level—he groups with that of C. Vann Woodward...