Archive | February, 2016

Review of Wicked Phenix City, by Faith Serafin

23 Feb

The History Press’s most recent book series, “Wicked,” highlights the darker side of the history in communities across America in relatively brief, richly illustrated books aimed at the general reading public. It’s a catchy title and an interesting concept that one might argue could, in theory at least, make for a nice counterpoint to the almost inherently upbeat approaches of telling the story of arrival and relevance which characterize most of their city histories. The problems are many and obvious for the serious historian, though. These books often feature mere repackaging of tales of unfortunate chapters in a community’s past that are forced together into some sort of false narrative of continuous sin and vice, devoid of context. Each entry in the series must of course be judged on its own worth, but most of those I have seen can only be described as light entertainment and a somewhat curious way to explore the currents of daily life in any of the places they explore. Only a few convincingly attempt to tell the intriguing and the sensational in a fair and truthful way.

Wicked Phenix City

Phenix City, Alabama is represented in this series by local author Faith Serafin, a prolific writer whose previous work has gravitated as much towards tales of the paranormal as narrative history. Her subject would on the surface appear to be a rich one, for if ever there was a city which seemed tailor-made for the “Wicked” series—to the enduring consternation of locals—it is Phenix City. An otherwise sleepy bedroom community located across the Chattahoochee from Columbus, Georgia, it assumed a surprising and infamous place in popular culture due to the 1950s film about the notorious acts of the criminal syndicates which once controlled its ballot box and law enforcement offices and threatened, in deadly earnest, anyone who dared oppose them. At the peak of their power, the kingpins who ran the bars, gambling joints and prostitution houses in the city possessed enough swagger to brazenly gun down the state’s Attorney General-elect on the street outside of his law office and have good reason to believe they could get away with it. After all, they always had. But the murder of Albert Patterson was the turning point in that sordid saga and the city has, thankfully, never looked back.

Serafin attempts to flesh out this core narrative in an admittedly unique style. Rather than the myopic focus on the heyday of crime in the early twentieth century in the South’s “Sin City” as is the wont of many before her, she attempts to include it in the broader sweep of events in the community’s past dating as far back as the era in which it was still the heartland of the vast Creek Indian ancestral domain. The results are entertaining but unfortunately predictable. There are insightful stories associated with the Creek Wars of 1813 and 1836, dramatic accounts of duels, and grisly tales of frontier justice haphazardly stitched together into a halting, weakly unified narrative striving to communicate the persistence of insidious violence and vice. To her credit, Serafin unearths some interesting chapters in local history that are not widely known, and gives texture and personality to some of the region’s well-known as well as lesser recognized historical figures—the fiery Creek Chief William McIntosh, murdered by his own kinsman for his greed; upstanding Hugh Bentley, who openly battled the Phenix City syndicate even after having his own home dynamited with his family asleep inside; the walking incongruity that was the grandmotherly club owner “Ma” Beachie, at once gentle benefactor and ruthless operator in the Phenix City underworld.

The retelling of their deeds, however, is too often melodramatic in pseudo-Victorian fashion, consistently overstates the general level of depravity by extrapolating much more than it probably should from isolated events, and is marred by small errors of fact and in typography too numerous to mention, especially concerning events of the early nineteenth century involving the Creeks and some of the area’s first American settlers. An exceedingly slim bibliography, describing a mere nine books consulted—one of them the author’s own—renders the depth of research questionable. In final analysis, Wicked Phenix City will have an unmistakable appeal to many for whom the incredible story of what occurred there in the 1950s still resonates and is an entertaining and at times revealing narrative, but it cannot be recommended as an authoritative source on the events or eras it chronicles.


Is Military History Passé?

16 Feb

As one who grew up reading (make that devouring) military history books, I am concerned over the recent trend in military historiography. Books focusing on military campaigns that trace the movements of soldiers across the landscape and descriptions of the battles themselves have somewhat become passé as there has become a strong push into studying other additional sidebars related to wars rather than battles themselves. These include such topics as the home front and the role of civilians, especially women. I am pleased that historians are taking a broader approach to learning and interpreting these important historical events, but I feel this has come with a price.

Foote trilogy

First of all, I wonder if this surge to delving into other aspects of war studies has not in some cases lessened the understanding of the paramount military role of soldiers who took part in these conflicts. Placing so much emphasis on such topics as the home front and women’s daily lives seems to almost demean the efforts of vast majority of soldiers themselves. Equating the unimaginable horrors faced by men in the military as they went through combat and the difficulties in fighting a stubborn foe with the efforts of those at home is not possible and by placing so much emphasis in military studies on these extraneous issues lessens the overall main purpose of military histories. Devoting page after page discussing food rationing and the changed gender roles of women cheapens the sacrifice made by thousands who shed blood so these side issues could even be discussed in the first place.

Secondly, I understand that “old fashioned” military studies have been done to death on the Civil War, World War II, etc. and the knowledge gained by studying other aspects of these conflicts paints a more complete picture, but emphasis on these ancillary issues has gotten out of proportion with the main purpose of military studies themselves, which I thought was to relate the movements and clashes of armies. It seems that any historian who publishes something concerning a military campaign is criticized severely for not including ample coverage of things outside the military realm. It seems clear to me, although not to hardly anyone else in our field, that the military campaigns and the lives of the soldiers and generals, along with decisions made by high-level political leaders, is what has driven the course of history in the first place. Overemphasis on these other side issues has skewed our understanding of the relevance and overall general history of the conflicts and we have simply lost “the forest for the trees.”


Review of My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, by Rick Bragg

9 Feb

I picked up Rick Bragg’s latest book, My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, for the simple reason that I have been a big fan of his writing for a long time. I knew virtually nothing about it, but figured (correctly) that if it was anything like his other work, I would enjoy it. Bragg writes about the South, but rarely in a hokey, stereotypical way and never in a manner that portrays the region’s people as some sort of caricature of rural life in America. By this I do not mean that he does not discuss rednecks being rednecks on occasion, but he doesn’t contribute to perpetuating some version of the South that doesn’t really exist like they do in country songs about partying in corn fields and sleeping in barns. Instead, Bragg is a wordsmith of the authentic modern South, or at least the gritty, deeply personal middle class South he grew up in and so many of us that call the region home can relate to. His stories have a hint of nostalgia but are not wistful, and they are populated by hard-working mill operatives and ordinary folk who possess a deep sense of pride in who they are and how they live and have lived, even if their experience is touched with more than a little privation and an occasional pinch of resentment at the more privileged. He is fond of referring to his direct kin and the larger extended family of people from the Appalachian foothills of Alabama and Georgia as “my people,” and in his several acclaimed books (All Over But the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, The Prince of Frogtown, The Most They Ever Had) and dozens of articles I would argue he has given them an identity every bit as profound and endearing as the inhabitants of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha.


My Southern Journey is a collection of some of the best of Bragg’s articles on a range of subjects including culture, history, nature, food, and sports which have appeared in a diverse array of periodicals including Southern Living, Garden and Gun, Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, GQ, and Bon Appetit. They are witty, interesting, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. The book is at least in part a true personal reflection of some of the forces and experiences that have shaped Bragg as a person. Through being brutally honest and self-deprecating as well as bringing to bear his keen eye for observation, the articles collectively paint a portrait of a people, a place, a shared experience, and a worldview that is a thing unto itself. Readers should not expect these grand assessments to be overtly obvious, though, as there are no introductory essays to each themed section (“Home,” “Table,” “Place,” and so on), and the grouping of stories of various lengths and purposes, written at different times, is inherently incapable of forming a linear narrative. The book is an interesting and quick read nonetheless and at times can even be described as poignant. My Southern Journey affirms Bragg as a gifted writer if, for no other reason, it showcases the many angles from which he has approached examination of his favorite subjects over the years; a special place and its people.


The Myth of the Self-Funded State-Run Historic Site: My Personal Soapbox

2 Feb

We all have certain things that, for better or worse, just set us off—phrases or actions that when we hear or see them, trigger some unavoidable personal outrage. For me, having been an employee of various state and city-administered cultural heritage institutions since I left graduate school (and part of the time during my studies) it is hearing a politician say “we need to get you guys to be self-sustainable” when budgets get tight. Yes, of course. And I want to win the lottery.

St. Stephens

Now I’ll admit that state-owned museums, archives, historic sites and the like have a responsibility to offset the cost of their operation in every legitimate way possible. This is just good stewardship. And I’ll admit that there are a few state-owned institutions, blessed with fortunate geography and a particularly resonant attraction, that can generate a great majority, and in some exceedingly rare cases, all that is required, to fund them adequately. But most don’t have these advantages, and were never organized as state-run heritage organizations purely because of their potential to generate revenue. In fact, most state-run sites are government affiliated for the very reason that they inherently need government support to function. This does not for a second mean they are not worth funding. These are institutions owned by the people, serve the broadest possible constituency, and ultimately are to be passed down to future generations as critical parts of their shared heritage; museums, archives, historical parks. They provide invaluable educational opportunities and improve the quality of life in the communities they serve. When you think about it, they have an awful lot in common with a variety of other government services which, for some reason, are never even suggested to need to carry the full load of their operating costs. Have you ever heard anyone suggesting defunding the sheriff’s office if it didn’t turn a profit?

One might argue that cultural heritage sites aren’t “core functions” of state government, whatever that means. Perhaps this paper-thin argument is nevertheless to some degree true, but that line of thought has always struck me as, well… a bunch of hogwash. Government essentially provides the functions the taxpayers want it to. It’s the public’s money, and they should be able to determine how it is spent. I’ve never found an iron-clad cannon that sets forth what government can and can’t support, and, despite the drivel coming from so many of our political leaders these days, who more and more loudly shout that we have too much government while our state and federal budgets continue to inexorably grow, neither have they. They just have personal priorities, and increasingly their priorities do not include living up to a sacred trust to protect our shared heritages sites. We have a hard time funding historic sites where I live, for example, but we have no difficulty in locating heaps of cash for incentives for private businesses, so I’ve had about all the discussion of “core functions” that I can handle.

I’ve never argued that the services cultural heritage institutions offer are as vital moment by moment as, say, the fire department or our prison system, but I will never back down from asserting they play a very important role in a healthy, informed, society and the state has an important role in preserving important historical places. They are a government function, and an important one. I’m pretty tired of equivocation on the conditions of that responsibility. Further, determining the worth of historical sites based on their revenue generation is pretty shaky ground. Not only is it a morally bankrupt philosophy that ensures a future without any public sites—no history museum will ever outdraw Disney—but it encourages revenue production that is not compatible with the mission of the institution. Our Civil War battlefields could probably instantly improve their revenue stream by placing a gentlemen’s club on their lands, after all. It sounds ludicrous, but the point is made I hope.

The fact is, blind insistence that our invaluable state-run cultural heritage institutions fund themselves or not be funded at all is intellectually and morally bankrupt political rhetoric that contradicts generations of visionary leadership which has affirmed that shared heritage is a public concern in America. But it is a sad reality that in many places today, the most outrageous case study of late being the unfortunate state of Alabama, priceless public places and critical agencies are facing closure because of a combination of failure to acknowledge basic responsibilities and misplaced priorities among the state’s political powers. It promises a grim future for publicly-owned cultural institutions everywhere if we are not careful to fight it.