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  • Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South by Timothy J. Williams
  • Jennifer R. Green (bio)

Antebellum South, Education history, Masculinity, Class, Intellectual history, Southern U.S. history

Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South. By Timothy J. Williams. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015. Pp. 284. Paper, $39.95.)

Combining intellectual history, history of education, and reader response theory, Timothy J. Williams’s Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South examines how University of North Carolina (UNC) students conceptualized their transition into adulthood. He argues that they self-fashioned “intellectual manhood,” a focus on the self that aligned with a national bourgeois culture, retained some traditional southern aspects, and entailed overcoming the tensions between boyhood/manhood, dependence/independence, mind/temperament, and impulse/restraint.

The book’s sections focus on institutional structures (from administration and curriculum to family) as context for the students’ self-fashioning; student-created “informal curriculum” of reading, literary societies, and courting in which they lived; and debates engaging with public issues (93). Boys and adults alike wanted students to leave behind the violence associated with boyhood and move into what Williams terms intellectual manhood, that mental maturity directly linked to the male gender. Not surprisingly the manhood that the collegians created rested on hierarchies of race and gender, in which they placed themselves at the top.

Williams well stresses the agency of students in their maturation process. His vast sources provide their words: journals and correspondence; 4,000 debate topics, 800 addresses, and volumes of society minutes; student magazines; and library records. His text is interspersed with interesting detail and discussion about the inner lives of young men at UNC; the institutional and informal settings receive some good treatment, but are used as settings for the youth’s internal development. Regrettably the depth of the source base can be obscured, either through language such as “often” or “usually” or when a subsection’s evidence [End Page 186] rests on the shoulders of one man (for example, James Dusenbery dominates the presentation on illicit sex). Comparisons to other schools suggest the UNC student body’s experience is more widely applicable.

The final chapter discusses the most common debate topic of current affairs; unfortunately, few speeches exist and results are not given or are unavailable. Williams concentrates on reform/internal improvements, women’s rights, Indian removal, and slavery to illuminate the collegians’ views of themselves in relation to these issues. How the social world in which those views existed affected student or cultural understandings still needs to be explored.

This book expands our understanding of antebellum southern manhood, a relatively new area of historiography. Specifically, Williams writes “a history of intellectual life, [in which] students’ ideas about manhood take precedence” (5). His reading of assigned texts, pictures, and novels is a valuable interdisciplinary aspect of the book and relies on a strong underpinning of masculinity studies, reader response, and UNC history. Williams better examines the students’ curricular experience than many history-of-education works, and his attention to the significance of reading in southern men’s lives is an important addition to scholarship. Engaging with Lorri Glover, Stephen Berry, and Steven Stowe on southern manhood, however, could have been done with more consistent specificity. His addition of self-fashioning, or perfectibility, seems very appropriate, although it has been removed from its religious context, and religion could be more prevalent for its role in collegians’ mental and moral development. Furthermore, covering 1790 to 1861 in a way that downplays change over time—which appears to be a conscious choice as “this book has largely examined cultural continuities of intellectual life”—does not account for the accepted idea that the American concept of manhood transformed in those years, especially with the market revolution (171).

Although well representing the active construction of intellectual manhood, the dichotomies (“tensions”) can be repetitive in the text. The larger problem is the lack of clarity in the content of bourgeois culture and of traditional southern manhood and how the concepts do more than co-exist within or alongside intellectual manhood. The text inconsistently identifies the traits of bourgeois and/or Victorian culture...


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pp. 186-189
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