Review: The Old South's Modern Worlds
L. Diane Barnes, Brian Schoen, Frank Towers, editors. The Old South's Modern Worlds: Slavery, Region, and Nation in the Age of Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 331 pages. ISBN 978-0-19-538402-4.
Inspired by historian Michael O’Brien’s important writings on antebellum southern intellectual history, the contributors to this eclectic anthology examine the degree to which the Old South was “modern” in ambition and outlook. Most historians describe the Old South as insular, backward, and provincial, a pre-modern land wedded to tradition, to an agrarian pre-modern Weltanschauung, in order to retain the region’s political economy of slavery.
The fifteen contributors to The Old South’s Modern Worlds disagree, arguing that pre-Civil War southerners were a diverse lot, fully engaged in the cosmopolitan modernizing trends of the nineteenth century, including moral reform, urbanization, industrialization, and territorial expansion. The editors insist that the essays in the collection interpret the Old South “on its own terms and as an active participant in, and even promoter of, change and progress” (3). In doing so they add a new twist to the old debate over southern “exceptionalism.” Rather than “making Southern exceptionalism the analytical start or finish,” the authors in this collection assert that the Old South was “exceptional” to the extent that it “did not fit comfortably within the dichotomies that have historically defined the literature of the antebellum South” (19).
The editors arrange the fourteen essays (followed by O’Brien’s “Afterword”) into five parts. In Part One, Peter S. Onuf, Matthew Mason, and Brian Schoen contextualize the antebellum South within international ideas of “nation,” proslavery thought, and interdependent political economies. Next, Larry E. Hudson Jr., Steven Deyle, and James L. Hudson examine slavery in a modernizing context. Frank Towers, William G. Thomas, and L. Diane Barnes follow with essays on southern urbanization, economic modernization, and free and slave labor, respectively. In Part Four, Charles F. Irons, Andrew K. Frank, and Craig Thompson Friend treat missionary activity, Native American policy, and gender roles, respectively. Finally, Marc Egnal and Edward L. Ayers consider the “long view” of the South, addressing questions of modernization and suggesting how the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction figured into world history.
Though historians will find it disappointing that this anthology devotes so little attention to religion, they nonetheless will welcome Irons’s excellent essay “Zion in Black and White: African-American Evangelicals and Missionary Work in the Old South.” According to Irons, whites not surprisingly considered the conversion of enslaved men and women an essential initiative in the late antebellum period. His contribution is to document how African Americans participated in three key ministries—colonization, missions to evangelize the slaves, and international (African) missions. This activity, Irons writes “both adds weight to the emerging redefinition of antebellum Southern Protestantism as modern and reveals new lines of influence that blacks exerted on the development of Southern evangelism” (210–11). Beyond this, black participation in these ministries illumines “the difficult trade-offs that black Southerners were forced to make within biracial churches as they balanced sometimes-competing desires for racial uplift, personal fulfillment, and the redemption of corrupt social systems” (211).
Despite its strengths in underscoring degrees of modernity in the Old South, especially in its slave economy, The Old South’s Modern Worlds lacks a sense of dialogue between the authors and those contemporary historians who disagree with their interpretive framework. Egnal’s “Counterpoint: What if Genovese Is Right? The Premodern Outlook of Southern Planters” appears almost as an afterthought, the editors burying their explanation for its inclusion in an endnote, stating that Egnal’s piece “seeks to further debate on reinterpreting the history of the antebellum South” (283n).
Notwithstanding this imbalance, this collection highlights how today’s historians increasingly define the Old South as modern-minded. It should serve as an excellent teaching text.