- Race Not Place: The Invasion, and Possible Retreat, of British Historians of the American South
Does it matter where southern history is written, and who writes it? In the case of the writing of southern history by British scholars, there might seem to be straightforward answers both for and against. On the one hand, British academics, who speak (to some extent) the same language as their southern counterparts and are connected by increasing ease of travel and digital technology, have often considered themselves to be bona fide beans-and-greens-eating southern historians, sometimes working in offices replete with memorabilia from their sojourns to the region. Or, as Tony Badger, the most influential figure in the rise of academic interest in southern history in Britain, put it in 1992, reflecting on his doctoral study of the New Deal in North Carolina: “I . . . imagined myself to be a historian who happened to be British.”1 Pronunciation differences apart, the Georgia-based southern [End Page 397] historian James C. Cobb felt on home turf with southern scholars in foreign climes. “Badger can sound every bit the distinguished Cambridge Don that he is,” Cobb observed in 2003, “but off-duty he is a disarmingly downhome, diehard Braves fan who prefers Budweiser to Guinness.” (Badger has not, though, taken to root beer or grits.)2 Indeed, with the recent appointment of a handful of southern-born, southern-raised, and southern-trained scholars to posts in U.K. universities, an increasing number of British-based historians of the South literally are southern historians who happen to work abroad.
By contrast, on occasion the reception of British scholars within the South suggests that national origin or location could be significant. At the Southern Historical Association conference in Orlando, Florida, in 1993, for example, the Arkansas-based historian Elizabeth Jacoway responded to a panel of British civil rights historians that included Badger by pondering the challenges that the scholars with “charming British accents” faced in terms of understanding the nuances of southern culture.3 In the fall of 1995, the Georgia Historical Quarterly ran a special section on “British Scholarship on Georgia Civil Rights” that linked, via the authors’ national identity, three disparate articles whose topics stretched across four thousand miles, from civic pride in Savannah, Georgia, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the English city of Newcastle.4 Book reviews in U.S. journals have sometimes remarked on a British scholar’s identity. In 1976 in the American Historical Review, Atlanta-based Civil War historian Bell I. Wiley started his review of a major study of the Civil War by Peter J. Parish, at the time a senior lecturer at the University of Glasgow, by noting, “The American Civil War has always had great appeal to Britishers.” In a 2002 review, in the same journal, of a British-authored local case study of the civil rights movement, historian Jack E. Davis, who was at the time based in Alabama, began by commenting on “the new British invasion” of scholars who had recently published with [End Page 398] American university presses, naming a handful of other British historians of U.S. civil rights.5
Jacoway’s remarks were mostly positive; Wiley suggested that “some of the most engaging and perceptive writing about America’s greatest conflict has come from the pens of British authors”; and Davis was even more generous, comparing his list of British historians to the Beatles.6 More often than not, commentators about British writing in southern (or wider U.S.) history have welcomed “an outsider’s point of view,” to quote a 2004 review in this journal of a collection of essays on the Civil War that was a collaboration between British and American historians. Or as the South Carolinian historian of southern culture Charles Joyner put it in the opening essay in the same collection, “any history studied only by insiders, or any history studied only by outsiders, is only halfstudied.”7
The fact that nationality, or an outsider’s point of view, is remarked on at all, however, suggests that the question of where southern history is written from is worth...