Thursday, September 26, 2013

Just Finished Reading - Constructing Townscapes

Recently I received an email from a reader asking why I sometimes post my thoughts on books that were published several years ago. At first, I did not know quite how to respond, but when I thought about it, I explained that I hoped my thoughts proved helpful to anyone looking to read about a particular subject. I know I appreciate when someone brings a book to my attention regardless of how long ago it was published. Certainly not everyone will agree with my take on what I read, but if I can direct someone to a different perspective, offer another source, or even save them a buck or two on a purchase, well, its worth doing. I know I often search out what others think before buying a book.

Constructing Townscapes: Space and Society in Antebellum Tennessee by Lisa C. Tolbert (1999) was brought up in a book discussion group when I inquired if anyone knew of a study on slavery as it was experienced in small towns. After reading a couple of online reviews this book sounded like a very intriguing read, so I found a used copy. Constructing Townscapes is so much more than just a study on slavery in small towns. And, while I actually wish more of that particular subject would have been covered in this book, I was not disappointed in what it did explore.

For this study Tolbert looks at four small towns in Middle Tennessee: Franklin, Shelbyville, Murfreesboro, and Columbia. All were county seats and all developed in relatively the same time period, the early-19th century. She studies how citizens constructed these towns and how they rebuilt and rearranged their structure when circumstances initiated change. One interesting examination involved the growth of educational facilities in these towns. While academies for both males and females had been popular in the early-19th century, the growth of colleges often changed how people lived. Female colleges were likely to be found in central residential areas of the towns, while male institutions (much less prevalent in these Middle Tennessee towns) were located on the towns' edges. Tolbert credits the fewer number of male colleges versus female colleges in these towns to the established male universities in the states of North Carolina and Virginia that many of the Middle Tennessee families had migrated from.  Another consideration were those colleges with significant academic reputations in the North, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton all being draws for the sons of middle and upper middle class citizens that largely made up the towns' populations.

My favorite part of the book was the second section, "Walking the Townscape." Here Tolbert looks at how town life was experienced by three groups of people that held relatively little power in the antebellum era: women, young men, and African Americans. Tolbert makes good use of primary sources such as journals and letters kept by women and young men, and court cases involving both enslaved and free African Americans. The author's brief discussion of how the towns' water well served as place of information exchange among the towns' slaves was especially thought-provoking. I was somewhat surprised to see that little use was made of the WPA slave narratives, to expound on the town slave experience. While I am not sure, it seems probable that small town slaves' stories would have received some coverage in the WPA narratives. Instead, Tolbert used Harriet Jacobs's famous story as a small town slave in eastern North Carolina to provide some additional information.

Constructing Townscapes is a fascinating read that provides some much needed coverage of antebellum life in small towns. Towns often get overlooked in favor or studies about southern rural farms and plantations and cities.  Farms and plantations receive so much attention because they covered the vast majority of the South. And cities, although fewer in number in the South produced  large amounts of primary sources for historians to study. I highly recommend Constructing Townscapes to anyone interested in antebellum southern history. It fills a much need void. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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