- The Problem South: Region, Empire and the New Liberal State, 1880-1930 by Natalie J. Ring
Ring argues that most historians view the period demarcated in the book's title as consisting of a process of gradual national reconciliation and reunion between the former Confederate states and the rest of the United States, one that sought to politely ignore what was characterized as the region's deficiencies. The intense criticism that the South came under during the 1920s is then difficult to reconcile with the previous decades of reconciliation. Ring counters that in fact interest in the problems of the South can be traced back to the early postbellum years, when "an array of institutions and people, including northern philanthropists, federal officials, southern liberals, social scientists, national journalists, progressive reformers, clergymen, and academicians, helped fashion an image of the South as a regional, national, and even global problem" (pp. 3-4). This quote also serves as a list of the cast of characters Ring discusses in the book, as it is just these institutions and individuals whose actions and ideas make up the empirical material of the book: what they did, and why, in the South, and how they thought about their work in trying to bring improvements to the region.
These actors created an image of the South as a problem that served the ideological purpose of "reinforc[ing] the hegemony of the nation-state and creat[ing] a sense of urgency surrounding sectional reunion" (p 3). Northern and southern reformers worked together to modernize the South, and Ring places these efforts in the context of the development of liberalism in the early 1900s and its contributions to the process of national state formation. Investigations of the South's perceived backwardness rested in a liberal faith in the potential for social science to serve as a tool of reform, while at the same time producing an influential vocabulary for defining, analyzing and categorizing the South's problems. Thus Ring suggests that "the effort to reincorporate the New South into the nation was as much a process of rehabilitation and reform as one of political and cultural reunion" (p 5).
Ring places her argument at the intersection of studies of the "global South" and postcolonialism. Regarding the former, [End Page 455] Ring is careful to discuss the many ways in which the attempts at reconstructing the South after Reconstruction connected to the role of the U.S. on the global stage, and she continuously notes the similarities between the views about and experiences of the South with other places and regions outside the U.S. This transnational perspective is a central element of Ring's analysis, and she argues persuasively that "[i]t makes more sense to locate southern history in a complex web of intersecting regional, national, and global discourse, practices, and designs" (p 10).
In the context of relevant global discourses, Ring situates the conceptualizations of the South within broader debates on tropical and colonial settings elsewhere in the world, thus bringing us to the linkages with postcolonialism. In particular, Ring understands the discourse around the "southern problem" as a manifestation of what she rather awkwardly calls "southern neo-orientalism," a reference to Edward Said's critique of Orientalism as a discourse reproduced by various agents of the state as well as private citizens that reinforces asymmetrical power relations between various centers and their peripheries. However, Ring does not elaborate more on her own view of the similarities and differences between southern neo-orientalism and Orientalism or on what we may learn by applying Said's analysis to the study of the South.
The book consists of five empirical chapters. Chapter one, "The 'southern problem' and readjustment," traces the origins of the conceptualization of the South as a problem from the perspective of journalists, scholars, writers, politicians and government officials, and what Ring calls "cultural geographers" (which turns out to be a usage of the...