The South and the Sectional Conflict
The Burden of Southern History
One sometimes wonders what Americans would have done had the South not existed: what regional mysteries would there have been? Until the blacks themselves demonstrated that racism has been a national, not merely a sectional, disease and that Northern liberalism had little left to offer their liberation movement, the South served splendidly as the American scapegoat. The black revolt has shattered the hypocrisy and undermined the smugness; we may now expect a serious reappraisal of Southern history and culture in the years ahead. In this, as in so many other ways, black militancy, in both its directly political and its intellectual manifestations, has already contributed substantially to the positive reorientation of American life.
In the past, southern history and culture have been the special province of white southerners; with a few important exceptions—most recently and notably, William Freehling and Winthrop Jordan—northern white scholars have been blinded by self-righteousness whereas blacks have largely restricted themselves to those problems which bear most directly on their own people. It is now only a question of time, however, before we will get studies of, say, planter-poor white relations or of the economics of the plantation by black writers, who will bring their own points of view to the wider subject matter of history—that is, they will follow the path already opened by John Hope Franklin and a few other black historians who have refused to limit themselves to “black” subjects.
That southern history has been largely dominated by white southerners has been unfortunate only to the extent that we have needed to hear other voices as well. Contrary to the slanders of professional South-baiters, the level of scholarship of the best white southern historians has been unusually high. The volumes of interpretive essays under review represent years of work and thought by two of the best minds in the historical profession. Together with Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, whose productive life ended more than thirty years ago, David Potter and C. Vann Woodward are the greatest of southern historians. Both are from the Deep South—Potter from Georgia, Woodward from Arkansas; both attended Emory University; both have lived and taught in the North for many years; both are now close to sixty; both have won the admiration of their profession.
Ideologically, Potter is the more conservative, whereas Woodward combines a strong Populism with liberal political views. Both are notable for their willingness to take ideological opponents seriously.
Taken together, these books represent the culmination of several decades of white southern scholarship, which left far behind the racism and regional chauvinism of Phillips and sought to reinterpret southern experience in a sympathetic but uncompromisingly critical spirit. whether future historians, black and white, succeed in explaining the paradox of the South will largely depend both on their willingness to absorb what Potter and Woodward have written and on their ability to transcend those formidable performances.
Both books are rich but necessarily uneven. Each covers a great deal of ground, and every essay deserves lengthy discussion. One cannot do…
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