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  • The Other Side of the WorldBattling the Exceptional South
  • R. Blakeslee Gilpin (bio)
Undead Souths: The Gothic and Beyond in Southern Literature and Culture
Edited by eric gary anderson, taylor hagood, and daniel cross turner
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015
Landscape and Identity in North America’s Southern Colonies from 1660 to 1745
catherine armstrong
Surrey: Ashgate, 2013
Dixie Redux: Essays in Honor of Sheldon Hackney
Edited by raymond arsenault and orville burton
Montgomery: New South Books, 2013
Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development
Edited by sven beckert and seth rockman
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016
Slave against Slave: Plantation Violence in the Old South
jeff forret
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015
The Origins of Southern Evangelicalism: Religious Revivalism in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1670–1760
thomas j. little
Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013
296pp. [End Page 443]
Institutional Slavery: Slaveholding Churches, Schools, Colleges, and Businesses in Virginia, 1680–1860
jennifer oast
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016
The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832
alan taylor
New York: Norton, 2013
Death and the American South
Edited by craig thompson friend and lorri glover
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015

The truth can no longer be disguised, that the peculiar domestick institutions of the Southern States, and the consequent direction which that and her soil and climate have given to her industry, has placed them . . . in opposite relation to the majority of the Union.

—John C. Calhoun, letter to Virgil Maxcy, 1830

While the idea of American Exceptionalism has suffered heavy and irreparable damage, the idea of southern Exceptionalism still flourishes.

—James McPherson, “Antebellum Southern Exceptionalism,” 2004

When Virginia settlers first successfully cultivated tobacco in the 1610s, they ensured the future economic viability of the United States and the regional divisions that would define the nation. It is no coincidence that this signature moment occurred at nearly the same moment that Virginia colonists began to import West Africans to these shores. Indeed, the journey of the “20. and odd Negroes” (“John Rolfe”) up the James River in 1619 forever bound human chattel with the economic success of Virginia, the South, and the United States. Within those degrees of separation—from colony to state to region to nation—comes a series of jarring correlations and disassociations.

In their eagerness for a cash crop export, Virginians unwittingly defined the South as a peculiar and exceptional space, securing the region’s first [End Page 444] bulwark against history itself. That exceptionality would demand special historical consideration. In other words, because the South became a slave society within a radical national experiment with representative democracy, human equality, and liberty, any analysis of the region’s role in that nation and the South’s complex evolution was short-circuited in service of its peculiarity.

Therefore it should not be surprising that the nine books considered in this essay, exploring the South from the early colonial period through the present day, are all deeply concerned with the peculiarity of the region. Some reject the concept and others would like the American norm to be the slave South and the exception to be New England. Regardless, in this cross section of excellent recent scholarship, each driven by a wide range of questions, all are torn by the realities of southern peculiarity. So in addition to exploring that concept from its creation in the early seventeenth century, this essay tries to reconcile the popular swing toward a dynamic national narrative that emphasizes capitalism as a unifying force with the useful elements from previous misadventures with southern exceptionalism.

Since the 1600s, all manner of explanations have been offered for the South’s exceptions. In the vein of John C. Calhoun’s nullification revelations, some suggested climatological or geographic rationales. Others proposed ethnic background, temperament, or the lagging pace of industrialization. For nearly a century, the historical profession was dominated by the absurd and offensive suggestion that the southern way of life, including slavery, had been a unique and positive force and that the loss of innocent white lives over petty political or economic grievances was only...


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