Archive | September, 2021

Review of A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape, by W. Ralph Eubanks

28 Sep

Having lived for several years in Mississippi and been involved in researching and writing about aspects of its past at different times over the course of my career, I feel like I have earned the right to make some candid judgements about the place. I have grown to be very interested in the writings of those who similarly have a connection to the state and have published their thoughts on its cultural heritage. It is a profoundly interesting place with a profoundly flawed past that, while not in truth all that much different from the heritage of its neighboring states, seems to manifest itself in daily life more than in most locales. Things change slowly everywhere in the South, but in Mississippi, that pace can seem especially sluggish and it, for better or worse (mostly for the worse) has acquired a reputation as a place apart as a result. “There’s America, there’s the South, and then there’s Mississippi,” once noted President Lyndon B. Johnson. That was over five decades, though, at the height of the movement for Civil Rights which highlighted all that was wrong with the state and its intransigence in accepting the future. Certainly much has changed for the better since that time, and as a former resident I can attest that Mississippi is indeed as fully modern as any other state in the region of which it is so prominent a part. Yet its reputation as a different sort of place persists in popular imagination.

In no small part, that fascination is rooted in the state’s robust literary legacy. The way the past lingers in Mississippi has allowed some of the most celebrated literature to come from the state to become a singular lens through which to view the influence of the past on the present in all of America. The writings of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty, for example, are populated by quintessential Mississippians, inextricably tied to settings which can be experienced at least in part still today, but whose stories and experiences are relatable to the nation at large. There is something of a literary industry built upon exploring Mississippi’s peculiarities and the way the past haunts the land. Among the most recent writers to examine how the past looms large in Mississippi today is W. Ralph Eubanks with A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape. Eubanks is a Mississippi-born writer who has worked with the Library and Congress and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in recognition for his memoir Ever Is A Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi’s Dark Past. With A Place Like Mississippi, he undertakes to examine how the landscape itself has been a factor in the creation of Mississippi’s robust literary heritage. In its pages he explores the state’s physical setting and distinct histories region by region to understand the influence that past exerted on the writers that have drawn upon them for inspiration. It seemed like an intriguing concept, so I was eager to listen to an audiobook version when I noticed it listed.

Those familiar with the state will recognize the distinct regions that subdivide the book—the Gulf Coast, the Delta, the northeastern hills, and the unique literary scene in Oxford that came to life in the wake of William Faulkner—as much as they will recognize the writers he discusses. Faulkner, Welty, Willie Morris, Richard Wright, and a host of others, some contemporary and perhaps lesser known to those outside of the region, receive attention. While the focus is clearly on writers who have produced fiction that in some way connects to a special landscape and setting that can be explored in Mississippi today, the grounding in a real past is obvious and well-presented.

Perhaps I should have expected it, but the legacy of racial inequities assumes a prominent place in the author’s analysis. Indeed in some sections it consumes it, transforming the landscapes he discusses into mere backdrops for troubled racial history. Realizing the way an antiquated binary understanding of society manifests itself in Mississippi so clearly still today—white and black during an era in which a multi-cultural and multi-racial society is more the norm—I am well aware that this fact alone is an unfortunate but enduring component of the state’s perception by people across the nation. I found the explanation of that racially-charged past to be repetitive even though eloquently stated in places. More intriguing, and the reason I think the book merits a read for those interested in the Magnolia State and Southern history in general, is Eubanks’s insightful discussion of the nuances in landscape and associated history in a state that is far more varied physically, socially, and economically than most of America realizes. The interplay of place, past, and people in storytelling is compellingly discussed in the book, even if the overarching theme is one that invariably comes back to the separate worlds in which its white and black citizens so long lived. In hindsight, I am not sure the state in both its romance and its reality could be investigated in any other way, though.


Book that Started it All

21 Sep

Almost every historian has a book (or books) that ignited their interest in the field and I am no exception. History, specifically the Civil War, became of special interest to me due to my mother’s prodding and one book in particular. Civil War Battles, written by Curt Johnson and Mark McLaughlin in the late 1970s, opened a world to me that I have explored for the past forty years. As you can see from the weathered book jacket, I absorbed this book from cover to cover and for better or worse, it led me down my path to a career in history for which I am thankful.

Civil War Battles is a basically a “coffee-table” book that provided everything I needed as a child around ten years old. Although it contained sections on causes of the war, the men who fought it, and the science of the war, it was the section on battles that caught most of my attention. It covered the war’s most famous battles, from Bull Run to Petersburg, and I read every sentence more than once. Its maps captivated me as I read about the movement of armies and its divisions along the battlefield, starting a love for military history that has never faded. I read the section on each battle’s commanders so many times I could nearly recite it. The book contained a plethora of images, especially of generals. Those photographs left a last impression, whether it was the sad eyes of John Bell Hood or the incredible facial hair of Ambrose Burnside. The book encouraged me to continue my study and read as much as I could to learn even more. Little did I know it then, but my future was cast. Like many generals in the book, there would be no turning back.

My collection of books has of course continued to grow, but I always leave a special place on my bookshelf for this one. I know little of the authors, and a simple Google Search has not told me much. In fact, they may not even be with us anymore. I do wish, however, that I could have told them about the impact their book had on me. And in truth, isn’t that all any writer can hope for?


The Best Books on the Creek War of 1813-14

14 Sep

(A version of this list has been published at

The Creek War of 1813-1814 was a cataclysmic event in the history of the Gulf South, with repercussions extending far into several aspects of America’s historical development. Among several reasons it should be remembered are the facts that the war dramatically impacted the fate of the Creek Nation, contributed substantially to paving the way for statehood for Alabama and Mississippi, and brought to national attention a military hero named Andrew Jackson. Yet the war still stands among our nation’s least understood and least studied conflicts. Below is my list of the best books to consult to gain an appreciation for the importance of this event in American history.

Battle for the Southern Frontier: The Creek War and the War of 1812

By Mike Bunn, Clay Williams

We do not claim our contribution to this subject is the definitive source by any means, but as it was written and arranged with the general public in mind we believe anyone interested in a quick introduction to the time period will enjoy this comprehensive book. It was among the first to chronicle both the Creek War and the closely connected War of 1812 along the Gulf Coast and document the sites on which they were fought. The book sheds light on the progress of the wars and how they led to the forced removal of Native Americans from the region, secured the Gulf South against European powers, facilitated increased migration into the area, furthered the development of slave-based agriculture, and launched the career of Andrew Jackson. Also included are biographies of key individuals and transcriptions of significant original documents.

A Paradise of Blood: The Creek War of 1813-14

By Howard T. Weir

Weighing in at 466 pages, Weir’s account of this transformative conflict is the most detailed yet published. He describes in-depth both the iconic events which led to the war and the course of its fighting, including the famed Creek conference at Tuckaubatchee at which Tecumseh spoke, the ensuing Creek Civil War, and the vicious fighting between Red Sticks and American forces at places like the Holy Ground, Autossee, Talladega, and finally at Horseshoe Bend—where more Native Americans died than at any other battle in American history.

Struggle for the Gulf Borderlands: The Creek War and the Battle of New Orleans, 1812-1815

By Frank Lawrence Owsley Jr.

Drawn exclusively from primary sources by one of the preeminent historians of his era, this inclusive book was one of the first studies to comprehensively integrate the stories of the Creek War and the War of 1812 in the Gulf South. It was originally published in the 1980s, but it has stood the test of time extraordinarily well and still ranks as among the most authoritative studies on the subject to be printed. The book is a model of clarity and conciseness, and a great starting point for understanding what the historical record tells us about these interrelated conflicts.

A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813-1814

By Gregory A. Waselkov

In this book, talented archaeologist and historian Gregory Waselkov finally gives the Battle of Fort Mims the thorough analysis it so long deserved. The book features the most detailed and informed account of the tragic attack which brought the brewing conflict on America’s southwestern frontier to the nation’s conscious. While its scope extends to the treatment of the larger region in which the fight occurred and the battle in historical memory, the richly informed account of the fight here is unparalleled and definitive.

Tennesseans at War, 1812-1815: Andrew Jackson, the Creek War, and the Battle of New Orleans

By Tom Kanon

In this book longtime Tennessee archivist Tom Kanon presents the most detailed analysis of the Volunteer State’s role in the Creek War and the War of 1812. That role is disproportionately large, considering that it raised the majority of the troops involved in the former and supplied the pivotal American leadership which played significant roles in winning both in the form of Andrew Jackson. The book is not exclusively focused on Tennesseans despite the title, and does a commendable job of telling the story of the war and the Battle at New Orleans in their entirety.

The Creek War of 1813 and 1814

By H. S. Halbert, T. H. Ball

This book was originally published in 1895 and was a model of scholarship for its period, featuring a significant amount of research, familiarity with the locations where the war raged, and was informed by interviews with actual participants. Certainly, contemporary treatments are more informed on many details. But because this book reigned for decades as the essential and virtually the only book-length treatment of the subject and influenced generations of historians of the war, it is an invaluable reference source for anyone interested in the history of the Creek War.


Review of The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard

7 Sep

Few historians, indeed few people among the general public, are not at least somewhat intrigued by the stories of the legendary pirates of the Caribbean. Swaggering, larger than life, figures surrounded by more myth than fact, their names—including Blackbeard, Black Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane, and Anne Bonny—are still familiar to many today centuries after their infamous and haphazardly documented deeds. The common denominator among the lot, and something few at first realize, is that most of those we have likely heard of lived and worked in a relatively short period of time in the early eighteenth century known by historians of the subject as a sort of “golden age” of piracy. That age was quickly put to an end by authorities after a brief heyday of only a few decades. Here to explain the rise and fall of these storied buccaneers and their times in their actuality is Colin Woodard with The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down.

Woodard is a nationally-recognized journalist and author. A correspondent for various newspapers and magazines, he is probably best known for his books such as Ocean’s End: Travel Through Endangered Seas, The Lobster Coast, and American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. As Republic of Pirates (released in 2008) has garnered considerable praise and is credited with inspiring at least two television dramas (“Crossbones” and “The Lost Pirate Kingdom”) I thought I would listen to an audiobook version during my travels.

The book alleges to tell the real story of the celebrated pirates of the Caribbean, a ragtag group of colorful outlaws who operated out of a base in the Bahamas in the early 1700s and terrorized Atlantic shipping and stood almost unopposed for the better part of two decades. They were eventually brought to bay by Woodes Rogers in the latter part of the second decade of the eighteenth century. The band, individually and at times collectively, wreaked havoc all along the coasts of Caribbean islands and the Atlantic seaboard from Charleston to Boston. Clearly, the recipe for a compelling story is contained in the reality of these pirates, and I was intrigued to learn more about them and the time period in which they operated.

Woodard’s story is indeed entertaining, but over the course of some 400 pages the repetitive narrative of individual heists and on-shore shenanigans tends to blend together into an overly-long story. With so many tales detailed, the book in my estimation might have benefitted from a selective retelling of the most interesting or most representative of the pirates’ capers. Certainly, there are those that will revel in the litany of encounters on the high seas detailed, but they are so similar as to be indistinctive in hindsight. Woodard chose to make his book an exhaustive chronicle, though, and he can hardly be faulted for an attempt at inclusiveness. Readers might be more critical, however, of his rather far-reaching claim that the pirates were in essence revolutionaries and their actions and loose alliances introduced a new form of popular resistance to colonial rule in the New World that, at least by inference, culminated in nothing less than revolution. I found this claim to be exaggerated and barely touched upon in the narrative despite its placement front and center in the marketing for the book. With all this said, Republic of Pirates is still an entertaining and authoritative account of the golden age of piracy. Readers should know it is only one of several books to attempt essentially the same mission. For its treatment of a subject of endless fascination, Woodard’s book must still be on the short list of books to consider for an authentic history of the Caribbean pirates.