Friday, March 17, 2023

Q&A with W. Fitzhugh Brundage



W. Fitzhugh Brundage is the editor of the new book A New History of the American South. His other books include Civilizing Torture. He is the William Umstead Distinguished Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 


Q: What was the inspiration behind this new book about Southern history, and how do you see it differing from previous studies of the South? 


A: We have learned a great deal about the history of the South during the past three decades that is still not assimilated into the common (“popular”) understanding of the region’s history. Our goal was to pull that new knowledge together and present it in a coherent history of the region that has a strong narrative thread.


We have written a book that is intended to be of interest to a wide range of readers and while it is, admittedly, a long book, we are charting a millennium of history that we hope does not “read” like a long book. 


It differs from previous single volume histories in a few ways. First, and most importantly, every contributor is a noted specialist in her/his topic. And each brings her/his perspective to the topic. There are single author histories of the South but none that I can think of that are collaborative like this volume. Each chapter is the product of a single author but each chapter was shared, “workshopped,” and revised collaboratively.


The aim of this process, which is not commonplace in my experience, has been to ensure that the “voices” of the contributors are in harmony (so to speak) and that the narrative threads are maintained consistently through the volume.


In short, the work is the result of a truly collaborative conversation among scholars with expertise across more than three centuries of history. Perhaps because of that quality, I found the experience of working on this volume to be one of the most interesting and engaging undertakings of my career. 


Q: How did you choose the authors to contribute to the volume, and how were the topics selected? 


A: I had a mental list of scholars whose writing style, “cast of mind,” and expertise made them ideal potential contributors. Then I discussed the topic with each of them to see if they were intrigued by the project. Once I recruited a core group I discussed with them other possible contributors. Eventually, we arrived at a full cohort.


Of course, life events, etc., prompted a few contributors to drop out and then I had to recruit new contributors. Given the integrated and collaborative nature of the project, the entire team building and re-building took longer than it might have if each chapter was stand-alone, but the delays were hardly unexpected. 


The attributes that each of the contributors share are elegant prose, a lively and original perspective on their period of expertise, and an interest in placing their work in conversation with larger questions about the history of the South. They were all keen to offer a fresh take, rather than a summary of current wisdom, on the region. 


Q: In your introduction to the book, you discuss writers' efforts over the years to define the region. What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the South and its history? 


A: Now this is a Pandora’s box of a question if ever I saw one! I could go on and on and on and on about this topic. But I’ll do my best to be concise.


First, I think there is still a pronounced tendency to “essentialize” the South. Evidence of this predisposition is abundant in popular culture, cookbooks, political commentary, etc., etc. It starts with the basic assumption that the “South” is a coherent, recognizable place defined by a set of distinctive attributes.


As we show in this book, the literal and figurative boundaries of the South have changed profoundly. Just to make a simple point, New England was and is pretty much the same region in the popular imagination now as it was in 1725 or 1800. By way of contrast, the “South” has grown from the South Atlantic seaboard to Texas and Missouri.


In sum, we hope to have emphasized that the “South” did not emerge at a specific moment of time but rather has been under creation continuously.


Second, and very much related to the first point, the South has been a region subject to profound, wrenching transformations. It is deeply engrained in our national culture to portray the region as hidebound, as resistant to modernity, etc., etc. And some Southerners themselves have clung to this notion.


But the economic, social, and political foundations of the region have been transformed time and time again. So the other major point is to emphasize the extent of change and transformation in the history of the region. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book? 


A: The importance of the history of the South for an understanding of the history of the nation. A cynic of course will observe that we, as historians of the South, have a self-interest in emphasizing the history of the region. But the contributors are interested in the South because of the role of the region in the nation’s history, not out of some sense of regional jingoism.


The dialectic between the ever-evolving South and the rest of the nation in fundamental to any understanding of our nation’s political institutions and conventions, popular and high culture, economic development, etc.


For reasons too numerous to list here, the region has exerted a disproportionate influence on the evolution of the nation. Sometimes that influence has been laudable; what would American popular music be without its “Southern” elements? Arguably, that influence has been lamentable; the history of White Supremacy is not unique to the South but nowhere was it carried to a higher stage of development than in the region.


In short, to ponder the history of the South is to simultaneously grapple with questions and challenges that have vexed this nation for centuries. 


Q: What are you working on now? 


A: I am completing – knock on wood – a history of Civil War prison camps. The topic grew out of my previous work on the history of torture. I hope to convey the unprecedented scale and intensity of the prison camps during the war and their significance in the evolution of mass imprisonment across the 20th century.


I realize that “unprecedented” is an overused term at least by historians. But in this instance I believe it is warranted and will do my best to explain why. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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