Many Souths: A Short History
By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
February 14, 2007
Old South. New South. Antebellum. Postbellum. The problem with the way
southern history has been taught and written, argues J. William Harris
in his new book, The Making of the American South: A Short History, 1500-1877,
is that “there was no common story, no single ‘South’” upon
which to hang these dichotomies.
The book synthesizes the work of many historians, for both the general
readers and for students, who might read it in the first half
of a two-course sequence on
In his book, the eighth installment in Blackwell’s “Problems
in American History” series, Harris views southern history in a
more complex way.
Doing so allows Harris to build a rich context for studying familiar
historical events in new lights and to chronicle the region’s diverse
peoples. The text includes material on Indian nations, settlement by
the English, French, and Spanish, and the introduction and
enslavement of Africans—from Biafra, Angola, Congo, and elsewhere.
The result, as one
reviewer wrote, is “the panoramic story of many Souths told crisply
and elegantly with searching clarity.”
Harris’s work acknowledges the work of many fine historians. For
example, his chapter about the new nation cites constitutional historian
Donald Fehrenbacher’s contention that “...slavery, as a brooding
presence in the land, significantly influenced the deliberations of the
By page 129 (the book is just 248 pages long), when Harris writes about
the Turner Rebellion in 1831, the reader has already learned of the long
history of slavery and slave resistance.
“If there ever was one South,” says Harris, “it was
at the end of the Civil War. Everyone had gone through this tremendous
turmoil. It gave everyone a common experience that lasted for generations.”
As in his teaching at UNH, Harris prefers to draw from primary sources,
and The Making of the American South is salted with quotes from such
Harris’s previous book, Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea
Island Society in the Age of Segregation, was a finalist for the Pulitzer
Prize in History in 2002 and won the James Rawling competition for books
dealing with race relations. This year, he is the recipient of the College’s
Lindberg Award for his achievements as an outstanding scholar and teacher.