Reviewed by Leslie Dunbar
Vol. 15, No. 4, 1993, pp. 20-22
The Promise of the New south: Life After Reconstruction, by Edward L. Ayers (Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, xii, 572 pages).
Historians take the past on its own terms (or should), but the commonalitycommunity [sic] of us want to know its “lessons.” There is, in fact, a sense in which all history, as has been said, has “the character of ‘contemporary history,'” because the questions which the historian asks of the past, and which have put her or him to work, are born in present day life and its circumstances. As I read Ayers he has one big lesson to teach—that all is complexity—but leaves to his readers lesser conclusions about the late 19th century’s meaning to us, almost as though he disdains making them himself.
So we read, “the number of female-headed households rose in the villages, towns, and cities of the New South; 25 to 30 percent of all urban black households between 1880 and 1915 had only a mother present”—and we wait expectantly but vainly for his remark on resemblance to the present.
If he doesn’t make it we are not stopped from doing so, and one of the rewards of reading this massive book is the lode of such parallels we can mine, and from them learn how durable have been some of the South’s problems and conditions, and how ours is not, by any means, the first generation to labor over them.
For example, we learn that, “The New South was a notoriously violent place. Homicide rates among both blacks and whites were the highest in the country, among the highest in the world. Lethal weapons seemed everywhere. Guns as well as life were cheap.”
Or again, we can see, even if Ayers doesn’t direct our eyes, that when the report was that “most of the ablest men in the [Virginia Constitutional] Convention are acting in the interests of the big corporations rather than in the interests of State. “that nothing has changed, in this most docile and corporate bossed region of the country.”
Ayers leads us to record such recurrent, virtually continuous, aspects of the South. But like a good reporter—and it is hard not to see this book as an enlarged journal—he favors facts, rather than self-indulging “analysis.” And, mirabile dictu, we the readers learn all the more, perceive history’s “lessons” all the better. One can, for example, hardly come from this book still regarding as Southern heroes Jefferson Davis, or the new Piedmont industrialists, or Henry Grady, and certainly not the congressmen and senators “undistinguished in intellect or vision.” Instead, one sees how badly the molders of popular opinion have treated us by virtually shutting out of public memory John Spencer Bassett, George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, Oliver Cromwell, Dorothy Dix, W.E.B. DuBois (“Here,” in the South, “I found myself.”), Ellen Glasgow, Reuben Kolb, Charles W. Macune, Edgar Gardner Murphy, Leonidas L. Polk, George Henry White—these and other men and women like them who worked for a truly new South. These, not the custodians of power and money, were the deeply interesting and humanly valuable representatives of “life after Reconstruction.” In allowing us to see that, Ayers’s book is, indeed, radical.
Some of these were leaders of the populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s. Chapters 9 and 10 of this book tell of that, and are one of its highlights. Despite all the movement’s sizeable faults and shortcomings, it did boldly confront corporate and banking powers of the United States: its “language rang with disdain for monopoly capitalism and monopoly politics.” Not since its demise has there been such spark, such backbone, in the South. Did the white South wear itself out in the 1890s; masochistically shackle itself on the ideology of white supremacy; learn then its lasting habits of obedience?
Ayers might raise those questions, but hardly does. It is puzzling. He closes Chapter 10 with the statement that populism “would not rest with the defeats it suffered” in 1892. But the remainder of the book discerns no signs of later life; indeed, the title of his very next chapter is “Turning of the Tide”—and it is a reactionary turning he describes. There is a lot of enigma in the book. I, for one, have no idea what the title means; what was, what is, “the promise of the New South?” In the preface, three—only three—”more hopeful” achievements of these years are noted; the birth of blues and jazz, the spread of “vibrant new denominations,” and “an efflorescence of literature.”
The half-page epilogue—thus the book itself—closes with a short and, to me, virtually impenetrable paragraph. Perhaps, however, other readers will find meaning in these concluding words:
The signs of the First New South are easily visible a century later, reflected in glassy skyscrapers, scattered across raw subdivisions, strewn through housing projects. The longing and promise that beckoned then still hover over forsaken general stores and farmhouses, over discount malls, mobile homes, and electronic churches, over low red-brick houses turned toward the restless procession on the highway.
The chapter following “Tuming of the Tide” is titled “Reunion and Reaction,” and one is certainly right to infer an act of homage in this use of the title of one of C. Vann Woodward’s books. No one can read Ayers’s book, as he himself tells us, without measuring it by Woodward’s Origins of the New South. I had written in my copy of that classic, “would that I could write a book like this!” I can’t write one like Ayers’s either, but the wish to do so is small. His erudition is awesome, his energy in researching is amazing. His book does not replace Origins of the New South. To that, however, it does add a huge amount, and not only of data but of instructive insights, and ones that can enrich our comprehension of our own present times.
His emphasis on the sexual determinants of white supremacy (“the history of segregation shows a clear connection to gender”) and of the South’s addiction to violence (at one point he quotes approvingly, “The South is a pretty good organized mob.”) are by now accepted truths but he deepens the meaning of both. He enlarges Woodward’s interpretation of the effects of the Spanish American War, ones that lingered for decades, and perhaps do still.
The war against the Spanish, which so many black Americans thought might be a turning point in race relations in this country, in fact accelerated the decline, the loss of civility, the increase in blood-shed, the white arrogance. The major effect of the war seems to have been to enlist the North as an even more active partner in the subjugation of black Americans. The war brought Southern and Northern whites into contact with one another. They discovered, much to their delight, that they had grown more alike than they had expected. The war also brought blacks and whites of all regions into contact. They discovered, much to the dismay of the blacks, that they were even farther apart than they had imagined.
This reader especially appreciated the pages—quite a few of them—in which Ayers discusses the roles and contributions of Southern women during these years. Women as social reformers, women as church leaders, women as women—feminists, we might say, women as writers—all of these are here. Victories, however, were only individual.
Many young Southern white women belied the stereotype of passivity. The clubs they formed, the kindergartens and philanthropic groups they founded, the work they performed, the education they won all marked them as new women. Some went farther, demanding political and legal rights, demanding access to careers of the highest prestige. But the New South left little room for their ambitions. Politicians sneered. Husbands balked. Colleges turned their backs. The white women of the New South quickly
discovered the limits of how new the New South would be for them. Desire, determination, and hard work were forced into narrow channels.
This depiction of what finally happened to white women of the late nineteenth century returns us suggestively to Ayers’s historiography. In his treatment, there are no dominant causes, no determinism. Nor, perhaps, personal blame or responsibility. All is complexity. “No part of life,” he nicely says, “is background for any other part.” “Like everything else in the New South,” he says somewhat less convincingly, “segregation grew out of concrete situations, out of technological demographic, economic, and political changes that had unforeseen and often unintended social consequences.” It is the last clause that is to be doubted. The book nowhere gives reason to question that the white supremacists who led the region from Reconstruction on did not foresee or intend that their every act would maintain their controlling positions.
Ayers’s book ends a hundred years ago. We can still see in it the likeness of our life and times, our problems and concerns, our hordes of sorry politicians and our occasional good ones, our criminals and brutes, our noble spirits too—can, that is, see ourselves. We haven’t changed much. These hundred years did end legal segregation and did breach the walls of white supremacy, if not yet having toppled them. Women have gained new, wider vistas, and we are all the better for that. Not a lot else has improved. Some old diseases have been overcome, some new ones have emerged. So with other things. Edward Ayers’s portrait of the New South is like old family pictures, wherein the likeness of ancestors and descendants are clear and telling. We will for long be in his debt for revealing to us so much of the South’s and Southerners’ enduring character.
Former executive director of the Southern Regional Council, Leslie Dunbar lives in Durham, North Carolina.