- Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South by Timothy J. Williams
Timothy Williams’ Intellectual Manhood offers the reader a valuable reflection on the life of the mind in the American South. In doing so he built upon a growing body of literature that has explored the mix of American and Southern culture in these early decades of the Victorian era. Intellectual Manhood ably complements other crucial works such as: Eugene Genovese’s The Slaveholders Dilemma, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese’s The Mind of the Master Class, Amy Greenberg’s Manifest Manhood, Thomas Augst’s The Clerk’s Tale, Scott Casper’s Constructing American Lives, and Michael O’Brien’s Conjectures of Order, among other key examples of recent scholarship, that helped frame the intellectual history of this period.
Specifically, Williams’ research explored “the intellectual culture of men’s higher education at the University of North Carolina, which opened its door in 1795 before any other public college or university in the United States” (p. 1). However this work is not a standard college history. Williams investigates the surface assumptions often associated with a gentlemanly establishment where Southern elite young men transitioned from boyhood to adulthood. His findings also do not portray the South as the cultural wasteland that some have so often argued. The University of North Carolina represented one of the largest universities in America during these decades. The students that formed the heart of Williams’ study were indeed part of an “educated class, (but one) which drew from both the upper and middle strata of southern society and united under similar cultural values and practices that defined the national bourgeoisie” (p. 3). In particular, the author saw his study as an exploration of “new perspectives.” These included: the transition from boyhood to manhood, the role of maturation in this growth, and the significance of the university as a [End Page 595] place for the development of bourgeois culture during a time of transition (p. 2).
Williams defined Intellectual Manhood as a “unique framework within which to understand southern collegians, but also power, class, and culture in the antebellum south” (p. 6). This broad-based approach provided an avenue for examining the phenomena of race, and class as well as the role of women in a society that operated two distinct gender spheres. Williams divided his writing into three essential parts: The University, Self, and Society. Each of these sections dissects a world that was moving from an agricultural base to a market economy, and one that was equally tied to a growing nation whose republican virtues were the subject of evolving understandings.
Williams made impressive use of Chapel Hill’s archives, as well as those of Wake Forest, in order to document the rich material that these students left in their wake. This effort permitted student and faculty biographies to take shape, though not always attached to individual images, but ones that nevertheless reflected both student and teacher journeys during this period. Further these sources provided the basis for analyzing the personal process of self-fashioning, and self-constructing within the university, the South, and the nation. Williams’ research, in particular his examination of college literary societies and their debate documents, allowed for interesting and original insights that “quantify, classify and contextualize” (p. 11). Student diaries, commonplace books, library borrowing records, rhetoric and oratory, and the diversionary and morally challenging antics of novel reading, were also sources that furnished a feel for the social background, mood, and interests available in antebellum student life. In addition, all students benefited from the rapidly expanding literary options afforded by the market revolution in publishing during this period that increased book availability as never before.
Most importantly, what Williams discovered in this case study of Southern education was that, not until the 1850s, was there a rise in a dominant regional or sectional atmosphere that could be labeled a Southern “proto-Confederate” worldview. Student life through these decades, even in the 1830s and...