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Many Souths: A Short History

By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
February 14, 2007

The Making of the American South

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 southern history.

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 Constitutional Convention.”

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 primary sources.

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.

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