In Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815–1845, Kim Tolley recounts the story of a northern teacher's tumultuous thirty-year residence in antebellum North Carolina and Georgia. Basing her analysis on Hutchison's diary, and filling in the blanks with extensive secondary literature, she depicts an ambitious, principled, and conscientious teacher, businesswoman, wife, mother, Christian, and antislavery sympathizer, making her way in, and often despairing of, an unjust world. Presenting her story in three sections—Hutchison's varied and successful career as an educator, her abusive marriage and the local Presbyterian community's intercession on her behalf, and the changing ways she understood and acted upon her antislavery convictions while living, and running a business, in the South—Tolley provides a welcome look at the under-examined world of the white, southern, evangelical middle class as its more liberal and reformist ideals gave way to the proslavery conservatism of the antebellum period.
Tolley is a scholar of education and builds her narrative around Hutchison's teaching career, yet, due mainly to the paucity of sources, [End Page 570] this section is the least satisfying. Hutchison's diary is more a terse record of events than a detailed recounting of her life in the classroom, and her one published essay on education, while informative, is limited. Tolley supplements with newspaper accounts of Hutchison's ventures, but these yield tantalizing glimpses—such as an 1815 mention of her female students conducting public chemistry experiments—more than they illuminate context. To compensate, Tolley compares Hutchison with leading educators of the day, including Emma Willard, under whom she brushed up her credentials before opening her own school in 1835. However, greater attention to other educators, such as Mary Lyon and her mentor Zilpah Grant, would have been welcome and perhaps more fruitful. Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary opened within two years of Hutchison's school, and her educational philosophy resembled Hutchison's own. Each deliberately blended the roles of teacher and missionary, taught middle-class students, and adhered to Congregationalist "New Divinity" teachings on benevolence and education (23).
Hutchison's personal life serves more effectively as a window onto white, southern, middle-class life. During her brief marriage, Hutchison struggled with the consequences of surrendering the autonomy she had enjoyed as a self-supporting single woman and recorded in her diary the struggle to reconcile her commitment to wifely obedience with the reality of her bad-tempered, spendthrift husband and her own powerlessness over family finances. Eventually, the situation became so dire that Hutchison's Presbyterian community sanctioned her husband and encouraged her to take her children and return to her family. Armed with a letter from church elders "documenting her good standing" (121), Hutchison was able to escape her marriage without losing either her children or her reputation. Hutchison's grim determination to do her duty, anguish at her failed marriage, and profound relief in her church-sanctioned separation, as well as Tolley's discussion of "the ways in which the Protestant churches served as important counterpoints to the civil courts" (126), especially for married women, is the book's most affecting section.
Also strong is the examination of Hutchinson's antislavery beliefs and the various ways she chose, and chose not, to put them into practice in her increasingly proslavery community. While Tolley overstates in the extent to which, even as late as the 1830s, Hutchison's "characterization of slavery as 'a great evil' marked her as a liberal among her contemporaries in the South" (165), her genuine opposition to the practice clearly made southern society increasingly distasteful to her. Tolley recounts [End Page 571] numerous examples of Hutchison's essential antislavery stance, revulsion at witnessing acts of physical violence against enslaved individuals, and surprised indignation when professing Christians also revealed themselves to be cruel masters. During her early years in the South—the 1810s and 20s—Hutchison prayed publicly with members of Raleigh's enslaved and free black populations, and read...