Title: The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction
Author: Ed Ayers
Categories: Regional History, Political History, Cultural History, Synthesis, The South
Place: American South
Time Period: 1877-1910
Ed Ayers deals less with an overarching thesis and more with restoring contingency to the region in the Gilded Age. He operates from a base position of C. Vann Woodward's Origins of the New South and although he agrees broadly with Woodward's interpretation, he inserts some differences. First, he works to create a big umbrella that includes blacks and women back into the narrative of the New South. Second, he has a more optimistic viewpoint on the region - whereas Woodward saw it as desolate and stagnant, Ayers argues that it was bustling and full of energy, and enjoyed more economic and social dynamism than historians have given it credit for (although it was active in fits and stats and unevenly across the area).
The first half of the book involves chapters that look at different perspectives on the South - from stores to mills to towns to race relations to religion. Some contributions and arguments from this section include: political divisions and multiplicity (even within the seeming stronghold of Democratic party), the fact that Southerners did not hide from market froces and instead sought out the market, the importance of lumber mills and forest products to southern industry (rather than factories), and the unevenness with which racial exclusion and lynching took place. The next section covers Southern populism, and Ayers has a much more sympathetic view of the Populists than other historians - although he's tentative in taking strong historiographical sides, he paints the Populists as having a strong understanding of the market and society and wanting instead to improve their position within that system (rather than being afraid/against the system itself). Finally, the last section covers different elements of popular culture - sports, women reformers, literature, black blues and music, and Holiness preaching. Ayers sees these as hidden sources of vibrant culture and creativity that historians have overlooked in dismissing the dismalness of the New South. Although a more optimistic book about the region, it still ends at the turn of the century with things going downhill following the 1896 election - with racial segregation hardening in a way that wouldn't be fixed for another half century.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Contingency - uneven political narrative, uneven economic development, uneven racial progression
- Surprising degree of economic and cultural dynamism and fluidity - emphasizes motion of people, goods, culture
- New South Populism as a transformative period (before exclusions of black people and women), turning point downwards in 1896 election
- Story of little boy listening to a phonograph of a lynching - combination of modernity and racial landscape
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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