Antebellum South, Family, Race, Social history
A general consensus among social historians is that the family has long been viewed as the axiomatic interpretive variable of the Old South. At [End Page 329] the same time, modern southerners may be more self-critical of family stability than ever before. In recognition of both facts, the unpretentious goal of this collection of new scholarship is "to uncover more about southern family life and values than we have previously known" (6). In this regard, these essays easily surpass expectations and offer a broad array of nuanced themes that explore all the vital elements of antebellum southern historiography. More specifically, the authors call into question the monolithic centrality of the white nuclear family and its supposed constancy across space and time. By challenging popular definitions of family identity, racial homogeneity, gender orientation, and household economy, the essays collectively search for clues of familial evolution from the "traditional" to the "modern." Throughout the volume there are compelling examples of individuals who highly esteemed their own biological kin or, in their absence, often constructed disparate types of fictive kin in ways that were both temporary and long-term.
The editorial vision set forth by Friend and Jabour is sharp and refined as it seeks to draw the strongest contrast between twenty-first-century rhetoric (rooted in nostalgia for an imagined past) with an antebellum ambiguity (rooted in the reality of a contested past). However, in contesting the static view of family values attributed to modern conservatism while solidifying support for a more fluid model, the editors may be preaching to the choir within academe. The converts they seek in popular culture may not embrace this historically fluid model of family values for some time—for instance, consider the tenacious popular notion that race is not a social construct. Nevertheless, the debate is an important one, and the public beyond the ivory tower appears more eager of late to define the historicity of "family values" explicitly. Certainly any meaningful public discourse requires diligent framers, such as these essayists, who can advance the discussion within and without the scholarly realm.
The first and most ambitious section of the book's three parts explores the difficult questions of familial identities and boundaries. Nancy Zey's "Family Life in Orphan Asylums of the Lower Mississippi Valley" investigates the marginal world of the orphanage and proves that inhabitants and observers alike considered such institutions, when well run, sufficient and even nurturing substitutes for biological kin. Covering slightly more familiar ground in "Rethinking Cross-Plantation Marriages," Emily West expands on her earlier work and reaffirms the relative centrality of the cross-plantation marriage among South Carolina slaves. Her conclusion [End Page 330] that such unions were not single-parent families but self-actualized choices of the enslaved further strengthens our sense of the concealed autonomy within slave marriages. Craig Thompson Friend employs familial mourning and race as variables for questioning what, if anything, was "southern" about childhood death. Friend's aptly titled "Little Eva's Last Breath" draws on Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous deathbed scene from Uncle Tom's Cabin. However, in a compelling literary comparison he contrasts Eva with the protagonist in Cassy. Published three years after Uncle Tom, its anonymous author created an inversion of Eva's illustrious death surrounded by her family "black and white." Instead, the black child Cassy died alone only to be transformed into a white angel in the afterlife. Considering the plethora of untapped antebellum manuscript evidence on death, Friend offers an innovative paradigm for others to consider for the creative utilization of similar narrative sources. In "Female Families," Anya Jabour explores the possibilities of same-sex love in assisting a limited number of women in creating a temporary alternative to heterosexual patriarchy. Jabour simultaneously embraces and highlights the perils of research into intimate behavior during an era of profound feminine discretion. There is a great deal of room for interpretive differences in the attempt to decipher human intent, especially when...