Sunday, February 28, 2010

Southern Distictiveness

I've just finished reading a book of selected essays by noted Southern and Civil War historian Charles P. Roland, titled History Teaches Us to Hope: Reflections on the Civil War and Southern History. I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. Roland a couple of weeks ago at a meeting held to develop interpretive themes for the Kentucky Historical Society's approach to the the Civil War Sesquicentennial commemoration.

Dr. Roland is a native of West Tennessee and received his undergraduate education at Vanderbilt and his graduate degrees from Louisiana State University. At LSU he was a student and research assistant for noted Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley (author of the invaluable soldier life studies, The Life of Johnny Reb and The Life of Billy Yank). Dr. Roland served as an officer in World War II and retired from teaching at the University of Kentucky in 1988.

In his essay "The Ever-Vanishing South," published originally in the Journal of Southern History in 1982, Dr. Roland went to Southern author William Faulkner (pictured above) and his recognized work The Hamlet for an illustration on the difference between Southerners and Northerners. It is as follows:
"Another of Faulkner's characters demonstrates humorously the southern sense of concreteness by explaining the difference between how a southerner and a northerner go about establishing a goat ranch. The southerner does it unceremoniously when his herd of goats grows so large it can no longer be accommodated in the barnyard or on the front porch. The northerner begins with no goats at all but with a pencil and piece of paper to reckon how many yards of fence and how many acres of land are needed for a given number of imaginary goats. The southerner never has the problem of making the number of goats match the length of fence or amount of land. They never matched, and he doesn't expect them to. If, on the other hand, after the northerner has set up his business he is unable to make them all match, he resorts to pencil and paper again. Now said Faulkner's speaker, instead of a goat ranch, the northerner has an 'insolvency.'"

While I found all of the essays contained in History Teaches Us to Hope enjoyable, Dr. Roland's essays in "Part Two: Secession and the Civil War," and "Part Four: The South in Fact and in Myth," were especially enlightening. Of particular interest to me was "A Slaveowner's Defense of Slavery." This "faction" (blend of fact and fiction) letter from a Southerner in Louisiana to a Northerner in Illinois in January 1861, who had been classmates at Princeton, is quite impressive. Dr. Roland explains that, "The persons and the letter are imaginary, but the arguments and outlook are not; they have been gleaned by me from thousands of letters and diary entries of the time, supplemented by information from published histories of the South and the nation." As the title indicates, the lengthy illustrative letter contains the viewpoint of a majority of Southerners at the time in defending their economic, social, and political way of life.

I highly recommend History Teaches Us to Hope to anyone interested in array of easy to read essays on Southern and Civil War history.

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