Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 66-71
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John C. Rodrigue
J. William Harris. Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. xiv + 454 pp. Maps, illustrations, appendix, notes, essay on sources, and index. $45.00.
Scholars have long recognized that the American South, however different from the rest of the United States, has never been a monolith. At a minimum we must distinguish between the upper and lower Souths, and even within those two subregions much diversity exists: Tidewater, Piedmont, Appalachia, Sea Islands, Gulf Coast, Delta, black belt, lowcountry, upcountry, hillcountry-and the list goes on. Geographical differences within each southern state, moreover, have profoundly influenced each state's social, economic, political, and cultural development. It is still possible, of course, to speak of the South, be it one defined by slavery and racial oppression, war and defeat, environment and weather, or by some other distinguishing characteristics. Nonetheless, we must also acknowledge that to generalize about the South is to participate in something of a charade; we can only speak of the South if we also admit that the region is marked by such diversity as almost to belie any notion of regional cohesion other than as contrivance.
In his new book, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation, J. William Harris confronts the issue of regional diversity within the American South. Specifically, he explores the question of whether it is even possible to make overarching generalizations about the Deep South, let alone the South as a whole. Harris maintains that although there may be such a thing as the "Deep South," we nonetheless cannot speak of it without also being aware of the many different communities that it comprises, and of how those communities have themselves changed over time. For Harris, time and place matter, and both are critical to any understanding of either the Deep South in particular or, by implication, the South in general.
In demonstrating the importance of time and place, Harris undertakes a comparative analysis of three distinct Deep South communities or regions: the Mississippi-Yazoo Delta, Georgia's eastern Piedmont, and the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia. Harris chose these regions evidently as a way of revisiting communities that had previously been the subjects of classic--though each in [End Page 66] its own way flawed--studies from the 1940s: William Alexander Percy's memoir, Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter's Son (1941), for the Delta; Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (1940), by the Georgia Writers' Project, a New Deal agency, for the Sea Islands; and sociologist Arthur Raper's Tenants of the Almighty (1943), a study of Greene County, for the Piedmont. However different they were from one another, these societies shared certain characteristics: black majorities, plantation agriculture, and slavery before the Civil War, followed by secession, military defeat, emancipation, and black political empowerment during Reconstruction. If Harris set for himself a formidable task in his choice of places, his time frame is equally imposing, extending from the end of Reconstruction until the Second World War and the advent of the modern civil rights movement. Moreover, few topics seem to have escaped Harris's vision, as he integrates economics, politics, and social and cultural developments into his panoramic portrait of the Deep Souths during the era of racial segregation and black disfranchisement.
Harris's larger goal in his ambitious, at times sprawling, book is to dismantle the myth of a timeless, unchanging Deep South that is itself the quintessence of the larger South. In both the popular mind, as evidenced by the novel and film Gone with the Wind and by the writings of William Faulkner, and even at times within the scholarly community, the romanticized notion of a single Deep South, untouched by time, has, according to Harris, demonstrated remarkable resilience. Yet not only is the concept of the Deep South of more recent vintage than many people might realize, dating only from the 1930s, but the caricature...