Laura Edwards’s A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction

This post is long overdue. I am beginning what will be a new series for the blog. For the next few months, I will be posting short precises on a number of books on the Civil War and Reconstruction. This series is designed to serve two functions. One, it will keep me writing and thinking analytically. And two, it will serve as a catalogue of book reviews, which may or may not be helpful to have in the future. The casual reader may be turned off by the style of the posts, but I feel they are important nonetheless. These books have and are currently shaping the historiography of Reconstruction and, if pondered seriously, will spark further questions. 

 

A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights

In A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights, Laura Edwards argues that the Civil War transformed the American legal order by altering the relationship between the government and its people. This transformation, however, was not the predetermined result of war time governance. Rather, the emerging legal system evolved as a dialectic: the Federal Government expanded its legal authority as ordinary individuals simultaneously carved out spaces whereby they could provide new meaning to their rights. Broad interpretations of the Reconstruction Amendments conflated the distance between civil and political rights and notions of equality and justice. Tensions arose, Edwards insists, because even in the midst of this evolution, the foundational structure of American law endured. Law affirmed legal principles, not rights, and jurisdiction remained with local and state governments rather than the federal government, diluting the Reconstruction Amendments’ overall effectiveness. Suits only made it to the federal level via a series of appeals. Thus Edwards concludes that Reconstruction died, in part, because Congressional Republicans could not muster a new legal system to match the new legal order. Rights were relegated to being bundles of privileges that granted one access to the legal system.

 

A link to an interview of Dr. Edwards’s discussing here book can be found here.

 

 

 

Remembering Pat Conroy

 

On March 4, 2016 we lost one of our greatest writers. At the time of his death, however, Pat Conroy was a mystery to me. One evening, as we waited for a table to open up at our local Olive Garden, my uncle and I popped into the Barnes and Noble next door and on a whim, he bought me a copy of The Prince of Tides. Caught in the midst of a final undergraduate semester, it shamefully sat unread on my bookshelf for over a year. It wasn’t until I caught wind of his death that I dusted off the front jacket and dove in.

My first impression wasn’t great. I found the prose, like the dialogue, to be too much (Full disclosure: I’m dire hard Hemingway-ite. I love sparse language and, as Cormac McCarthy would say, a clean page). What I did not know in those first one hundred pages or so is that Conroy was only preparing me for the emotional cleansing that would soon follow. Needless to say, I loved the book. Its characters are comical in some ways yet real in every way. They needed help but in their dire conditions, they reach the reader and tug on the chords of what it means to be human, to suppress pain, and, most of all, come to terms with who you are. Never have I encountered a book quite so emotionally candid. Prince of Tides taught me quite a few things, things that I will hold on to for the rest of my life. One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from it is that to write and to write powerfully requires pulling back my own skin and mustering the courage to deal with the emotional receptacle in which I place my own baggage.

The book also taught me to be Southern. I’m sure you might ask: Haven’t you always been Southern? And you would be quite right to ask because I have. But being Southern, at least for me, has always been a struggle. I know my history. I know what my region is famous for, and its hard not to be ashamed. No rational being could see the legacy of Slavery and Jim Crow without some emotional distress. And I, like Tom Wingo, trace my heritage back not to the Pilgrims, Puritans, or some trans-Atlantic ship in Ellis Island. No, I am an heir to the legacy left by men like Anse Brundren. Yet somehow–in some unexplained way–Conroy has given me peace about it. He’s taught me that no matter where I go, how hard I try, or how defiant I may turn in opposition to it, this strange place has marked me forever. There’s no sense in fighting it anymore.

Above all, however, Prince of Tides  taught me to never give up on the people I love–and that includes my self. Of its many messages, redemption is perhaps its greatest. Not only does he find away to redeem his relationships, but Tom Wingo also finds away to redeem himself, becoming the man he always knew he could be.

Since finishing Prince of Tides, I have read Conroy’s Lords of Discipline, and while it is no Prince of Tides, the same themes seep through the pages. As is the case with all of his works, so I’ve heard, Lords of Discipline is 500 plus pages of emotional intensity. You end the book feeling strangely hollow yet satisfied. I’m convinced that all of his books operate this way, and I’m excited to find out. My one regret is that his death is what ushered me into his world. But even in his death, I–we–are still indebted to him. I closed Prince of Tides for the last time thousands of feet above the earth in a Southwest Airlines Jet. When I descended the tarmac, left the terminal, and drove out of the airport’s parking lot, I did so a changed man, and for that, I will always be thankful.

 

This video was published a day after his death.

 

Williamson, Lynch Law, and the Radicalization of Southern Politics

I had a moment of embarrassment earlier this summer. While engrossed in an episode of C-SPAN’s lectures in history, the question was posed: why did Jim Crow happen? As in, why did the legal processes that produced Jim Crow occur when it did? I was floored by the question. I had known about the 1890s and the constitutional conventions that stripped African Americans of the right to vote, but I suddenly found my historical hubris inverted into historical humility. I simply could not answer the question.

Much of my summer reading has been designed to answer this question. C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow, what I understand to be the seminal book on the topic,still sits in my Amazon shopping cart. I have,however, approached the issue by reading Woodward’s Origins of the New South, and I currently find myself in the middle of Joel Williamson’s Crucible of Race. Both of these classics have not cleared up the issue entirely, but they have already sparked a number of thoughts that I would like to elucidate here.

To begin, I find Williamson’s book to be full of problems. From reading After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, I knew he would make the argument that African Americans isolated and “disintegrated” themselves from the core of American society. What I did not know, however, was just how confusing and ahistorical his analysis would be. I found it to be based entirely upon conjecture rather than known facts. Perhaps I am being too harsh, but whenever anyone begins to chart a “mentality” as Williamson does, I can’t help but be skeptical.

His central argument–that between Reconstruction and World War One the country underwent a racial realignment whereby Southern Whites went from being dependent on blacks to aligning themselves with the white masses in opposition to black freedom–strikes at the question I want to answer. How he goes about making this argument, however, was not what I expected. In a turn toward intellectual history, he lays out three Southern ideologies that he argues has shaped the country’s race relations. The first is conservatism. According to Williamson, racial conservatism was what characterized Reconstruction. White Southerners and so called “redeemers” entrenched themselves in defiance to the Radical Reconstruction and vowed to preserved the old racial order. African Americans, they maintained, were inferior beings and, therefore, unfit to work, govern,–indeed exist–outside the purview of white control. Conservatism, Williamson argued, pervaded the period, fending off only a slight challenge by racial liberalism in 1880s. Styled by Williamson as a reform minded movement, southern racial liberalism was a rare phenomena.  It posited that African Americans had an untapped potential and if tapped properly, they could be transformed into vital components in the remaking of Southern society. Yet to be clear, as progressive as it my have been for its place and its age, it should in no way be conflated with notions of social equality. Even the Southern liberal would not dare to make that argument–at least not publicly.

The third ideology, Radicalism, germinated in the 1890s and was grounded in the belief that African Americans were regressing to the point of total extinction. If not kept completely separate from whites, African Americans would infect the whole of American civilization, causing the country follow along the path to extinction. It should be no surprise, then, that the rise of radicalism mirrored the meteoric rise of Southern lynching. As Williamson notes, lynching was a western phenomena until 1890. Thereafter it became the means by which Southerners policed the most bestial and atavistic characteristic of supposed black regression: black male hyper-sexuality, otherwise manifested in what Williamson calls the cult of the “black beast rapist.” Southern womanhood was under attack. Protection, so the radicals protested, could only be achieved by first subduing African Americans and then excising them from Southern life so as to make their downward spiral into extinction swift, smooth, and, more importantly, entirely singular. Southern culture could withstand war and social revolution, but the cultural consequences of race mixing would be its doom.

The emergence of a radical racial ideology, however, does not fully explain why the onset of Jim Crow occurred when it did. To answer that question more fully, Williamson turned to politics. In 1893, the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which guaranteed equal access to public accommodations, unconstitutional. The door to “separate but equal” had been flung open by an 8-1 ruling whereby the supreme court ruled that the federal government had no power to prohibit discrimination by private individuals or groups. Most alarming, though, was what white radicals called the Force Bill, a measure proffered by Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge that would ensure fair elections. If it passed, keeping African Americans away from the ballot box would become much more difficult. Radicals took the Civil Rights ruling in stride but fought the Force Bill tooth and nail. A filibuster eventually defeated the bill, but its success in the house proved to white radicals that a more permanent solution was needed.

Of course, as congress debated the Lodge Bill, the great “Agrarian revolt” swept in from the western plains and pulled the chords of Southern class consciousness. Populist leaders like Tom Watson called for the Southern farmer to revolt against his “Bourbon” betters. All across the South, rank and file democrats committed apostasy and pledged their support to the third party Populist. Even within the democratic party, men like Ben Tillman of South Carolina made war on its ruling elite. The same men who, during Reconstruction, sought to return the South to its pre-war social order were now under attack from a force totally anew. White radicals–men like Tillman and eventually Watson–demanded white solidarity, across classes, in the face of African American advancement. As Williamson shows, Tillman almost single handedly orchestrated the disenfranchisement of African Americans in South Carolina and later became one of the South’s foremost advocates of lynch law. Out of this matrix came the calls for state conventions and new state constitutions. It is perhaps too much to say that Populism caused Jim Crow, but the political culture populism introduced can neither be forgotten nor ignored.

The drastic implication of Williamson’s argument is that Reconstruction and the New South, broadly speaking, are rendered periods of fluidity. As Williamson points out, Slavery bound African Americans to servitude, and Jim Crow, buoyed by cries of “Separate but Equal,” codified racial segregation into Southern state law books. In either case, social equality was off the table. The years between 1865 and the turn of the century, however, mark a period in which American race relations could have charted a drastically different course. Though Reconstruction is often characterized by its intense levels of racial violence, Southern white intransigence, and legal injustice, Williamson shows that American race relations, as it was known in the twentieth century, and Reconstruction are not quite as connected as one may assume. Indeed, it took nothing short of a radical cultural takeover to create what we now know as Jim Crow segregation.

 

 

 

The Difficulties of Text Mining: The Southern Sounds Evaluation

My digital project, Southern Sounds: A comparative Study of Early Old Time and Blues Music, did not turn out as I had hoped. The source of the problem was an issue I wrote about at length a few posts back: my project was just not big enough. The softwares that I used, Voyent tools and Antconc, were excellent. I could see myself using them in future projects. But they are designed to handle large amounts of texts, upwards of 1,000 DOCUMENTS! My project consisted of only 600 songs separated into two categories of 300 songs a piece. Needless to say, I fell very short of the expected document number. As a result, I had skewed results. When trying to cluster words in context, the softwares produced a number of interesting clusters, but they did so with a very small range. In lay mans terms, the clusters were only being generated from one or two documents, meaning that particular songs were throwing off my results.

I did though make a really cool map of all the artists whose lyrics I used. You can view the map by clicking here. The site for the entire project can be accessed here.

 

Image Url: http://www.nunwood.com/engineering-techniques-identifying-root-causes-poor-customer-experience-text-analysis/

Animated Maps and Archival Capabilities: A Look at Creating History in the Digital Age

I must admit, this post is a “reblog” so to speak of a web review I did from a year ago now:

 

Harvard historian Vincent Brown’s Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative tells the story of a slave insurrection in Jamaica known as “Tacky’s War.” Brown documents the story of the revolt primarily through the use of an animated map. Situated on a timeline, the map carries the user through the insurrection, highlighting major events, troop movements, and conflicts as they occur. As Brown notes, the map offers an “argument about the strategies of the rebels and the tactics of counterinsurgency” as well as “the importance of the landscape to the course of the uprising (Brown).” The map, in other words, captures the rebellion’s spatial dynamics in a way that print or rhetoric alone simply cannot. However, as adept the map is in using digital media’s spatial affordance, it seems to be lacking a similar encyclopedic character. That is not to say that the site does not contain any pertinent information, but, by design, it is not an “exhaustive database (Brown).” While it has some archival properties, its focus is strictly on the spatial functionality and usability of the map. This essay offers an analysis of how Brown utilizes the spatial affordances of digital media and, at times, under utilizes digital media’s encyclopedic capabilities in order to create an animated, participatory, and cartographic digital history site.

 

Janet Murray refers to the spatial affordance as digital media’s ability to “represent space using all of the strategies of traditional media, such as maps, images, video tracking, and three-dimensional models (Murray 438).”. Brown relies heavily upon the spatial affordance by making the map the focus of the site. Though not three-dimensional, the map allows Brown to recreate and represent Jamaica as it was in the 1760s. He gives the user the ability to toggle back and forth between the place map which offers locations such as cities, regions, and rivers and the terrain map which discloses the Island’s significant mountain ranges. When the play button is clicked on the timeline, the events of the insurrection begin. As evident in the image below, movements made by each of the parties involved are documented by corresponding colors–burgundy for the rebels, blue for the navy, teal for the militia, purple for the maroons, green for the army. Significant events are also documented by a similar set of icons and colors, all of which are visible on the map key.

Above: Animation from Slave Revolt in Jamaica (Brown)

 

However, as Murray notes, what distinguishes the spatial affordance of digital media from that of other traditional mediums is its navigability (438). In Slave Revolt in Jamaica, while the map moves through the timeline and each movement or event is highlighted, the user has complete freedom to operate and maneuver the map as he or she wishes. He or she can can click on some of the icons or movements for more details about that particular action. The user can also adjust map by zooming in zooming out. If something catches the his or her eye, all he or she has to do to stop the animation is click pause. Even the map’s organization facilitates navigation. In the simplest form, the map is organized by individual movements or actions, but those events are grouped together by day. Instead of following along the animated timeline, the user can click on what ever day he or she wishes to see events of that day unfold, giving him or her complete control of the map.

While Brown makes great use of the spatial affordance to create a highly interactive, navigable map, the opposite can be said for how he used digital media’s encyclopedic affordance. According to Murray, “When the encyclopedic affordance is appropriately exploited, large information resources are semantically segmented at multiple levels of granularity, sorted, classified, and labeled with controlled vocabularies (Murray 418).” Because of the computer’s encyclopedic capabilities, it has become the “most capacious medium,” and when the encyclopedic affordance is used correctly, it can, as Murray puts it, create an “experience of immersion (Murray ?).” When browsing through Slave Revolt in Jamaica, however, the immersive experience is strangely absent. Sure, the animated map is informative and highlights the patterns of counterinsurgency, but its relatively minimal amount of information inhibits both further exploration and immersion. When an event takes place on the map–whether it is movement of forces or a clash between two groups–all that appears is an icon. Some events give the user the option to click on the icon for details, but the details generally only label what specific groups–as in regiments or battalions–or how many men were involved in the event. So while the animation may be great, without any additional information, the user has to interact without any context for what the animation denotes, inhibiting the him or her from having an immersive experience with the site.

 

To be fair, Brown never meant for the project to become, as he puts it, an “exhaustive database (Brown).” However, a few minor tweaks to the maps design could have given the site certain archival capabilities without transforming it entirely into a database. By giving the site a more archival character, it would then, in turn, foster a greater sense of immersion and exploration. For an example of how Brown could have tweaked the site’s design, take The University of Richmond’s Visualizing Emancipation–a site that, like Slave Revolt in Jamaica, uses animation to track the Emancipation events occurring in the post-Civil War American South.

Above: A Source from Visualizing Emancipation (Nesbit and Ayers)

 

In Visualizing Emancipation, as each event occurs, a dot appears on the map that, when clicked, opens up a box with a plethora of details about the event. Most importantly, however, the box provides the event’s source as well as an excerpt describing the event from that source.Though not a database or an archive in the traditional sense, this feature provides the user with an opportunity to engage with the map on an archival level, moving him or her far beyond simply interacting with the map. Also, in providing this level of detail, the user is given the appropriate amount of context to help fully understand the events that are being represented. For a better understanding of how Visualizing Emancipation organizes its information, watch the video included below:

A reason behind Brown’s relative under utilization of the encyclopedic affordance hinges, perhaps, upon a major question facing digital historians: should a site tell a story or should it catalog information? There is quite a marked difference  when it comes to creating both a narrative and a database, and it is often very hard to strike the delicate balance needed to combine the two. One component generally has to be sacrificed for the other. The major problem is that while the sheer amount of archival information in a database tends to obfuscate any real specific narrative being told. Likewise, in order for a site to hone in on a specific narrative, it often has to exclude any corresponding contextual information.For example, Visualizing Emancipation catalogs a large amount of slave emancipation events, but the scope of the project is so large that it inhibits the user from seeing an organized sequence of events. Therefore, Visualizing Emancipation highlights emancipation trends but not individual stories. In contrast, Slave Revolt in Jamaica is working with a much smaller data set and fewer sources, allowing Brown to take a much more narrow and narrative approach. It makes sense then that the encyclopedic affordance of digital media is strikingly absent in much of Brown’s site. Judging from the subtitle, “A Cartographic Narrative,” Brown obviously chose to sacrifice his site’s archival properties in favor of its spatial properties–an affordance that, in Brown’s case, is much more conducive to relating a narrative.

With that being said, then, Slave Revolt in Jamaica accomplishes Brown’s goal. As he states on the site’s homepage, the site “does not examine major themes such as belonging and affiliation among the insurgents or the larger imperial context and interconnected Atlantic world (Brown).” Instead, the map is designed to simply offer “an illuminating interpretation of the military campaign’s spatial dynamics,” which, when viewed in totality, provides the user with a better understanding of the patterns and strategies associated with counterinsurgency. Though a not quite as immersive or encyclopedic as it could be, it stands as a strong example of how digital media allows historians to spatially recreate historic events and carry users through time.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Brown, Vincent. Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761. Web. 24 Feb. 2015.

            <http://revolt.axismaps.com/>.

Murray, Janet H. Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design As a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012. Print.

Nesbit, Scott, and Ed Ayers. “Visualizing Emancipation.” Visualizing Emancipation. University of Richmond. Web. 5 Mar. 2015. <http://dsl.richmond.edu/emancipation/>. 

Image Url: http://digitalmedia.wikidot.com/digital-humanities-approaches-perspectives-challenges

 

Thinking about Size, Scope, and Samples–And Music

My project is going well, but it has not been without a few pitfalls. Per usual, the process of actually doing the project precipitated a rethinking of a number of my design decisions. The issues all have to do with either size and scope or whether or not representative samples are important.

1. Size: I have decided to venture into the world of topic modeling. I think it, more so than any other mode of analysis, is essential to getting what I want out of  my analysis. The problem, though, is that I have read that topic modeling is best when used on an extremely large dataset. One manual-esqe style article suggested that one would need at least a thousand documents for topic modeling to really be effective. Needless to say, I do not have a thousand documents. Currently, I’ve cataloged only three hundred blues lyrics and three hundred old time lyrics, but because I am going to be comparing the two, they are mutually exclusive in terms of a combined document count. I could increase my collection of lyrics but doing so would take quite a bit of time and cause me to alter the projects scope.

2. Scope: I initially decided that I would restrict my search for lyrics to artist born prior to 1900, very much what I took to be the founding generation of commercially successful Southern musical artists. The thought behind this decision was if I could categorize artists based on generation, I could then potentially track change over time if I decided to expand my project forward. I now realize, however, that this logic has quite a few flaws. For one, what about the “tweeters?” And what I mean by that are those artist born right on the cusp of  1900. For instance, is Blind Willie McTell, born 1898, and Son House, born in 1902, really a part of two different generations just because their births fell on opposite sides of the century? In hindsight, I say no. Another problem is that I naively believed that those born after 1900 might not be a part of the same artistic community as those born prior to 1900. Of course, I now realize that age has little to do with whether or not an artist will become popular and when. The popular artists of the 1920s comprised of men and women of varying ages.

3. Sample: Another decision that I made, perhaps in too much haste, was to try to make my blues samples congruent with my old time samples. What I mean is that I wanted to have an equal number of  blues songs to old time songs from an equal number of artists. This endeavor, though, is next to impossible. The blues have been much more accessible than old time country. And naturally, some artists were much more popular than others, creating an imbalance between what will be accessible and what is not.

I am somewhat torn about what to do if I wanted to expand the project further than what is required in the class. I think that the project’s comparative nature is what is most important, but, at the same time, topic modeling both and doing it correctly would require a much larger set of data. Therefore, if I were to expand it, I am very tempted to just analyze one of the two genres. Doing so, though, would eliminate its comparative element.

Image URL: http://ccriderblues.com/wp-content/uploads/CC-Rider-Banner-2014-DRAFT-Mar5.jpg

Thinking About Space

Historyonic’s post “Place and the Politics of Past” hints at what I find to be the real value behind digital mapping and geo-referencing. Sadly, as the author admits, the technology is still not there yet, so to speak, to be able to capture this capability in its entirety. In fact, the very idea is almost too nebulous to pin down. I am thinking about “networks” and what they might mean for the historian.

The word itself has three definitions–As a noun, it’s an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines or a group or system of interconnected people or things. As a verb, it’s to connect as or operate with a network. For our sake, I think of a network as a group or system of interconnected people or things, which is still rather ambiguous. But the ambiguity is, perhaps, a good thing for the historian because it suggests that nothing is out of reach.

Anyway, I find the concept of a “historical network” rather interesting and pertinent to my own project. I am attempting to text mine a database of blues and old time country lyrics in an effort to compare the two. In addition, I want to be able to create a database of place names, meaning various locations like states, cities, towns, and counties, and then build a heat map from that database. The goal is to be able to see which places registered the most “hits” and then create an imagined geography for both the Blues and Old Time music based on those locations.

From these place names, we can then pin people to them. For instance, we can tag each bluesman that sang about Memphis to the city, and we can do the same, to be impartial, for each old time artist that mentions Nashville or Atlanta. What we will then have is data allowing us to see how interconnected each genre’s artists were based on the places they sang about. Who knows, this interconnectivity may even cross genres, revealing that the U.S. South, at least in its music landscape, was much more integrated than we might think.

On a related note, “Toward Critical Spatial Thinking in the Social Sciences and the Humanities” brings up another good point about spatial projects and, in my mind at least, networks. The article suggests that rather than thinking “spatially,” we should really be thinking in”spatio-temporal” terms. As in, we should be thinking about and trying to capture not a static representation of space but a dynamic one, where change over time can be easily visualized and understood. Thinking in this way only enhances our understanding of historical networks. If we can project a supposed network over time and space, can we not then see at what points in time the network changes? For instance, drawing again from my own example, if we can situate “memphis’s blues network” over a timeline, can we not start to see changes in that network over time or across certain time periods, say decades or years? Then, we can start making broader historical conclusions about what caused or even what altered human interaction to space.

I am sure there are holes in what I am trying to do, and I am sure this type of project may be more than I can do in a semester. But thinking about both articles has helped me formulate just exactly what I want to do with my project and where my limits might be.

Image Url: http://stanford-history.github.io/Farman-week-5-discussion/ 

 

 

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy

Suttree is either a descent into hell or romp through the Garden of Eden–I can’t seem to make up mind as to which it is. It all hinges on the interpretation of Cornelius Suttree, a river rat whose edenic paradise (or lecherous underworld) is the concrete environs of Knoxville, Tennessee. Knoxville is host to a bevy of urchins. From Ab Jones, a whiskey distiller with a penchant for scuffling with law enforcement, to weird Leonard, a supposed catamite who has neglected to bury his dead father so as to not lose the extra welfare money, Suttree rubs elbows with them all. Chief among them is his former workhouse mate, Gene Harrogate. Known as the “moonlight melonmounter” and “the city mouse” for reasons made painfully evident in the book, Harrogate is dimwit, a good natured dimwit but a dimwit nonetheless. Suttree becomes somewhat of a surrogate father to him, teaching him the ways of the city and looking out for him when his circumstances become dire. Suttree, though, is of them. While his detached perspective and noticeable intelligence sets him a part from urchin population, they are, without a doubt, his epicurean comrades, his merry gang of fellow sinners –after all, what good is debauching yourself if you have to do it alone? Through the eyes of Sutree–or really his liver–McCathy pulls back the curtain on Appalachia’s largest metropolis, revealing the sadness, destitution, and resignation of its subterranean class.

Even though the story follows Suttree’s seemingly aimless meanderings, not much is revealed about him. The reader learns that he is educated, more than likely at Knoxville’s own University of Tennessee, that he had a failed marriage, and that he has eschewed his family, a family, one can only assume, of some privilege. But as to why or how, McCarthy doesn’t budge.

On one hand, Suttree seems to enjoy the life he has made for himself. He catches fish for the market and lives in a ramshackle houseboat on the river’s edge. He lives below life’s law and order, shunning any responsibility and showing no desire to find a steady, “normal” job. If Knoxville is paradise, then the fruits of his societal rejection are his alcohol induced romps, which often leave him unconscious or in the arms of a prostitute. If Suttree is interpreted to be someone running away from the restraints of society, arguably a noble endeavor, Knoxville becomes not a place full of pitfalls but a place where his disavowal of the world, or his old life, can materialize. The city, its urchins, and his wanderings, therefore, are not signs of any moral failings as some of the characters insist. Rather they are rituals by which he can project his inner code, putting his repudiation of the world into motion.

But thats too easy. Someone doesn’t bring themselves to hallucination, once from malnutrition, another time from trauma, and from drugs and illness a third and fourth time respectively, all because he searching for himself or rejecting the world. Something else has to be going on, right?  Is he not a troubled man?  Despite his his friends and their bacchanalian ways, he is alone in the world. His only intimate relationship is with the ragpicker, a hermit who wishes death would go ahead and remove him from the earth. Of his two love interests, neither last. The Suttree who is perpetually battling his demons is not the same Suttree who lives in edenic Knoxville. No. To that Sutree, Knoxville is hell. It embodies the very chaos, anarchy, and destitution he can’t seem to wrestle himself free of. It becomes not a city that he has rejected but a city that has rejected him, forcing him to roam about its perilous underworld.

In truth, Suttree probably falls in between those two interpretations, borrowing a bit of both. In rejecting the law and order of life and its various man made systems, Knoxville is in some ways an edenic paradise, but in rejection comes alienation and alienation begets suffering. In perhaps the book’s most salient passage, he reveals that he has nothing to repent of, indicating an assuredness of his ways. His rejection it seems was self imposed. But he goes on to explain that the “last and first suffer equally.” His choice of language connects his fatalism to Matthew 19 and 20, both of which employ the same trop of the “last” and the “first.” The passage explains that both Jew and Gentile will be welcomed to a post-acopalyptic feast once Judgement arrives. Suttree, though, inverts the passage, suggesting that both Jew and Gentile, first and last, urchin or non are all destined for the same miserable fate. In the end, Suttree leaves Knoxville–his destination unknown. Perhaps he has had a moment of salvation, leaving his past vices behind? Or maybe he just on to the next stop, a new city with new faces who all share in his suffering? Like the other questions posed here, the answer, very much your answer, determines what the book is about.

To quote Jerome Charyn, Suttree is a “fat one.” Characters come and go, and Suttree roams from location to location. For someone who doesn’t know Knoxville, keeping track could be challenging. Thankfully, Wes Morgan, a Psych professor at UT-Knoxville, has put together website called Searching for Suttree that features a map of Knoxville circa 1950s and photographs of some of the more notable locations in the book. He was also nice enough to label the map, showing where each picture would be.

Image URL: https://spiderwrite.wordpress.com/2010/03/13/suttree-another-gem-from-cormac-mccarthy/ 

 

American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia

Edmund Morgan’s classic work, American Freedom, American Slavery: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, tries to resolve what he calls the “American paradox,” that though slavery and freedom are irreconcilable opposites, the two developed almost in tandem.

The key to such a dual ascent was tobacco. Though the initial settlers embraced a certain democratic spirit so essential to frontier settlements (And it should be pointed out that slavery was never an inevitability in the early years,) the production of tobacco introduced social fissures in the form of class division. White indentured servants, mostly poor Englishmen thought to be indolent and given to vice, were soon shipped over to work the lands. The servants contracted their labor, agreeing to work for a set number of years, in exchange for one’s basic necessities and the promise of landownership once their terms were completed.

Problems arose, Morgan asserts, when these servants became free men. A number of factors–the lack of women in Virginia, which inhibited the formation of family units, the infertility of the lands they were given, and the overall reduction of tobacco prices among other factors–produced a poor, sometimes landless, and highly mobile class of discontented men. The source of their discontent, they charged, were the “big men” of the colony, a class of established tobacco barons and officeholders. These men determined the colony’s social structure and, so the free men claimed, maintained it in a way that preserved their power and induced the free men back into servitude. With the steady stream of new servants pouring into the colony, the fractious social structure underpinning colonial Virginia only grew larger as the voices of the free men grew louder.

Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 uprising, provided a solution. National Bacon, the rebellion’s leader and namesake, was hardly a leveler in any sense of the word, but he and his followers drove the colonial governor, William Berkeley, back to England, an ostensible victory for the “small men,” over not just the “big men,” but the “big man.” Yet Bacon’s rebellion possessed a dark shade of racial contempt, for the source of the Bacon-Berkely dispute devolved over a response to an  indian raid where a number of Virginia frontiersmen were killed. Berkeley balked and Bacon retaliated against the Governor’s orders, brutally massacring  the inhabitants of a neighboring Susquehannock village. Morgan argues that the teaming race hatred behind the attacks, the culmination of a series of confrontations with the indians along the frontier, provided a vital lesson for the colony’s big men: the scapegoating of a minority, particularly a minority of a different race, created a common union, an in group-out group mentality amongst the people. As Morgan puts it, “Resentment of an alien race” could prove “more powerful than resentment of an upper class” (269-270).

In the years following Bacon’s rebellion, indentured labor became less rational. England’s population plateaued, reducing the amount of potential servants, and the colony’s woefully high mortality rate decreased, making temporary indentured labor less economically expedient.  Yet labor was still in great demand, thus prompting the turn to chattel slavery–servitude that had no contractual stipulations or termination date. Morgan argues that the seemingly monumental shift was not so difficult, for slavery had already proved to be highly profitable elsewhere in the Atlantic and the slaves coming into Virginia did not have to be enslaved. The work of enslavement was the work of the contemptible traders; Virginians only had to buy them, which Morgan suggests assuaged their conscious about taking part in such a deplorable enterprise. The problem, however, was that unlike indentured servants, slaves had no incentive to work. Slaves had to be “disciplined” to work,” a particularly violent process that, in effect, re-enslaved the enslaved. Brutality was therefore inherent to the institution and no amount of rationalizing or hand washing could divorce the two.

Morgan maintains that the emergence slavery, along with a series of legal measures disassociating whites and blacks, suppressed class conflict by creating a social structure similar to what scholars in the 1960s termed a herrenvolk democracy. The slaves, representing a minority ethnic group, became the antagonists of the majority group, the white Virginians. Virginian’s both “big” and “small” thus created an “in group” identity, consolidating their individual interests into a powerful, class inclusive shared set of interests based solely on their whiteness. In effect, race replaced class as a the primary source of social strife. Morgan argues that such structure created a highly stabilized society as their was no expectations that the slaves would be freed, eliminating the prospects of a discontented class of newly fee men like there was in previous years. The system was so stable, Morgan maintains that it explains the lockstep growth of slavery and freedom. American ideas of republicanism, he argues, was born out such as system as powerful Virginians and soon to be Americans like Jefferson and Madison could preach leveling and equality without fearing the “mob.” The American underclass, unlike their volatile European counterparts, were perpetually fettered, bound to a lifetime of bondage.

Of course, while American Slavery, American Freedom has become a standard history, it is not without its flaws. The biggest flaw, at least in my mind, is his rather muddied position of whether racism produced slavery or slavery produced racism. He goes to great pains to show that the initial intent of the English was to work with the Indians and reform them so that they could be incorporated into English society. The English even played the part of liberators, freeing slaves from the cruelty of the Spanish in the early battles of European supremacy that surprisingly took place, in part, in New World locations. And, of course, he points out that the shift to slavery only occurred when it was economically viable. Ostensibly, then, it would seem as if he falls into the scholarly camp maintaining racism was a product of slavery. Yet, he maintains that the English always looked at the indians with a sense of “otherness. Why else would they need reforming? African slaves were no different. To the English both the indian and the African represented a heathen people, a people, perhaps, more brute than human. Would the English enslave another European, much less another brother in Christ? No, they would not. Morgan therefore straddles the fence, refusing to align himself to one position. Nevertheless, American Slavery, American Freedom stands as the most astute explanation of how a country so synonymous with liberty was born out of a dedication to bondage.

For more about the book, follow the link below and see what the people at the Junto Blog had say about the book’s legacy:

The American Dilemma

 

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Saltwater Slavery by Stephanie Smallwood

“Saltwater,” Stephanie Smallwood suggests, defined the Atlantic slave experience. Metaphorically, spatially, and in terms of one’s identity, it represented a continuous but indeterminate wave of trauma inextricably bound to the experience of forced trans-Atlantic migration.

As a metaphor, Saltwater represented the market forces of the 17th and 18th century Atlantic. Inter-contenintal trade, operable only by the controlled whims of the ocean, drove the early Europeans to the West African coast. In the case of the Gold Coast, the primary subject of Smallwood’s study, the Europeans were, first, the Portuguese, in search of the valuable ore giving the region its European eponym. The turn of the 18th century, however, saw a shift–the Portuguese were replaced by the British, and the trade in Gold fell secondary to the trade in human bodies as the British feverishly sought to satisfy the labor demands of their new and increasingly profitable colonial holdings. Saltwater, in that it could be navigable and that it had to be navigable for purposes of trade, was thus the essential component of Atlantic commerce, thereby making it the origin of African commodification. To be transported across the Atlantic meant that slaves had to be brutally but systematically stripped of their ability to function as social beings, losing their humanity but retaining their physical, laboring form. Saltwater, in short, placed slaves in a deplorable middle ground between human and object, life and death.

Spatially, the open ocean, an unimaginably vast cauldron of salty liquid, presented its own form of trauma. First, the limitations of the water placed slaves in the strict confines of a sailing vessel, whose hollow interior, designed initially for European wares and goods, made for an insufferable home. Bound tightly for the duration of their journey–typically three months across–the captives struggled to not only survive but cope with the perpetual inevitability of death. As Smallwood suggests, death at sea was particularly traumatic as the watery mortuary of the open ocean did not allow for the typical African death rituals. Accordingly, then, one could never return to earth, return to home, in ones afterlife as would have been the case, so they believed, if the deceased had received a proper burial. Even in death, therefore, would remain a slave to the sea. Second, slaves from the African hinterlands, many of who probably had never seen the ocean before, struggled to make sense of what they were seeing and where they were going. The openness of the ocean, Smallwood points out, would have seemed as portal into whole other world, quite possibly a journey into the afterlife itself.

Saltwater also served as a demonstrative marker of Atlantic identity. When in the New World, “Saltwater” slaves were those non-American born slaves, those who wore the physical and emotional scares of the inter-continental trade. But the term “Saltwater” was more than an appellation. It was a window into their traumatic experience and social isolation. “Saltwater” slaves had experienced the social death of commodification, sundering them from their community, fictive or non, and brutally re-organizing them in inorganic and fragmentary collections at each point along their journey. “Saltwater” slaves, in other words, were the slaves still stuck in the social and emotional purgatory of the Atlantic.

Smallwood’s analysis has two major contributions to the larger historiography of slavery. For one, her idea that slavery equated to social death is irreconcilable with the idea of a slave expressing one’s agency, an occurrence, or better yet, an expression we know to be true to a certain degree. She does an odd thing with her book. She writes a social history, that in many ways doubles as a cultural history, while maintaining the preposition of social death. How can one be socially dead but very much culturally alive? Her methodology is tricky, but she makes it work. She also suggests that the slave experience is antithetical to the idea of a “Middle Passage.” Calling it a middle passage denotes that there is a beginning, an in between period, and an end. The actual slave experience was a series of contingent events, each with their own set of traumatic moments. And if the commodification process, a process that begun in the journey’s initial stages, signals social death, is death itself not an end point with extreme finality?

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