The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress ed. by L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, Frank Towers (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 85-86
- View Citation
- Additional Information
FALL 2012 85 The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers, eds. Until fairly recently, historians seldom portrayed the Old South and modernity on speaking terms. Long seen as the backward, ugly stepsister of the “modern” North, historians have uniformly portrayed the South as economically retrograde and politically reactionary. Within the past couple of decades, however, this portrait of the Old South has undergone a series of strong and increasingly convincing challenges, first by the so-called cliometricians of the 1970s and 1980s and more recently by a growing body of discerning and insightful historical work. Rather than assuming the region to have been the antithesis of modernity, the cumulative impact of this growing mountain of research has placed the Old South both in and of the modern world. The seventeen essays comprising The Old South’s Modern Worlds advance this new and exciting interpretation to the cutting edge of historical scholarship. Contributors include an array of both established and rising scholars who cover a remarkably broad spectrum of subject matter, from the mainstream southern fare of economics, politics, and religion to less studied aspects of the Old South like Indian culture and even planter sexuality. Taken as a whole, these articles combine to create a compelling work of insight and significance. Despite its wide ranging focus, however, two themes explicitly or implicitly run throughout The Old South’s Modern Worlds. First, the contributors have jettisoned rigid definitions of modernity for more fluid alternatives that assign southerners themselves a role in determining the conditions of the debate. In their excellent introduction, editors L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers summarize the arguments over the process and manifestations of modernization in Old South historiography. They posit that modernity is best understood as “both a matter of cultural outlook and material achievement” (10). While similar in many ways Book Reviews L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, and Frank Towers, eds. The Old South’s Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 352 pp. ISBN: 9780195384024 (paper), $29.95. BOOK REVIEWS 86 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY to the North, Great Britain, and elsewhere, the South nevertheless adapted modernity on its own terms and under its own circumstances. Deviations from the northern model were not simply signs of the South’s backward, premodern nature, as contemporary critics and generations of historians have argued. Rather, they demonstrate how the Old South developed its own peculiar manifestations of modernity. This uniqueness appeared most prominently in southern social and political attitudes, but also shaped the region’s economy. Southerners saw themselves as modern in their actions and attitudes , even if their critics did not. The second recurring theme is that slavery, far from a hindrance, frequently proved the catalyst behind the South’s embrace of modernity . Slavery’s expansion, both geographically and into new fields of labor, spurred industry, transportation, and commerce. The slave trade created interregional markets and spawned innovative financial arrangements and communication networks. Slaves themselves even embraced modernity, developing their own internal economy that encouraged entrepreneurship and proffered material rewards to those most adept at negotiating their increasingly complex economic landscape. Southern apologists, looking at the world around them, saw slavery as the superior benchmark that placed their region economically and morally in the vanguard of global civilization. As contributor Matthew Mason observes, southerners deemed slavery to be “the bloom, not the thorn, in the garden of progress” (55). Contributors to The Old South’s Modern World employ a variety of research strategies . Several take a comparative or global approach to their respective topics. Like most essay collections, some of the contributions fit the overall theme of the volume better than others. Charles Irons’s analysis of white and black missionaries in the Old South and Craig Thompson Friend’s novel discussion of the evolution and ritual of planter patriarchy both make fascinating reading, but do not quite jibe with the overall theme of modernity as well as the other essays. Unsurprisingly, the economic contributions fit most seamlessly into the modernity paradigm, especially Larry Hudson’s examination of slaves’ internal...