Archive | January, 2023

Review of The American South: A Very Short Introduction, by Charles Reagan Wilson

31 Jan

Charles Reagan Wilson’s “very short introduction” to the American South is a diminutive book, containing just 126 pages and printed in a small format that could almost fit in one’s pocket. But readers should not be fooled by the size of the publication. It is packed with information about the cultural, social, political, and economic history of the distinctive region that is its focus and a surprisingly thorough and comprehensive overview of the region’s past.

Wilson, the former Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi and former director of the school’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture, brings a lifetime of teaching, research, and writing to the task he undertakes in The American South. Few academics have studied the region more broadly and in more diverse projects than Wilson. In addition to editing several books and authoring a few acclaimed volumes of his own, such as Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 and Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, he served as coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.

In his introduction to the complex history of the American South, Wilson explores the region as a blend of native, European, and African cultures which has had unique and lasting influence on the rest of the nation. The book is chock-full of information, with every paragraph a marvel of conciseness that manages to explain a topic without being cursory. Virtually anything one might want to know about the history of the South is touched on in some way in this book—from religion to music and Civil War to Civil Rights—in a narrative that unfolds as a story of development. The most impressive thing about Wilson’s writing is that he manages to bring depth and flow to a story of over 400 years of history in such a slim volume.

Of course Wilson cannot and does not devote equal space to every topic, and focuses his book more on the enduring consequence of developments in regional history than a blow by blow account of the events themselves. Hence his overview of the fighting of the Civil War, for example, is brief indeed, but his explanation on its long-lasting impact on the region is given more space. Wilson certainly has specific subjects that he knows and loves that receive attention, such as Southern music and food, which might not get as many words devoted to them had another author undertaken the task. Overall, however, I found the book to be engrossing and surprisingly informative. I highly recommend it as a short but substantial statement on what makes the South a unique part of the nation’s heritage.


Review of The Kingdom of God Is At Hand: The Christian Commonwealth in Georgia, 1896-1901, by Theodore Kallman

10 Jan

This review originally appeared in the Fall, 2022 issue of Muscogiana

Thanks to the diligent research of San Joaquin Delta College (CA) history professor Theodore Kallman, the remarkable story of a little-known late nineteenth-century Christian colony which stood just a few miles east of Columbus, Georgia has at long last been written. His book on the subject of the forgotten community, The Kingdom of God is at Hand, was published last year by the University of Georgia Press. It will surely be of note to those interested in Columbus’s past if for no other reason than the novelty of the overlooked episode it chronicles.

As Kallman explains in the book, the community, known as Commonwealth, was one of several utopian Christian colonies established in the United States during the era. These enterprises were a part of a larger movement of reform-minded spiritualists who sought an alternative way of life to America’s capitalistic society. Believing mainstream churches were inadequately addressing modern social problems of the era caused by what they viewed as the selfishness and inequity associated with an unchecked capitalist economy, these Christian dissidents attempted to create their own communities based on principles of collective contribution. While each of these entities featured some differences in philosophical underpinning and approach, most shared some vision of creating a physical reflection of their understanding of the kingdom of God on earth by working, sharing, and distributing wealth equitably among residents. If it sounds a little like communism, it is because the founders of these colonies endorsed some of that political ideology’s tenets and believed that in sharing wealth rather than seeking individual financial gain, they might come closer to living as God had planned.

The community of Commonwealth stood between Columbus and the community of Upatoi on lands that are today largely located within Fort Benning. Organizers bought the property, the core of which was an old plantation home and fields, in 1896 after considering several locations across the country. Perhaps a sense of the type of agricultural community they hoped to create is revealed by the fact that, as related by Kallman, the founders attempted to have the land deeded to Jesus Christ upon their purchase. Since Jesus would not be paying the taxes, though, county officials convinced them this could not be done. Commonwealth organizers may have been high-minded in their motivations, but they proved practical in their approach to creating a sustainable agricultural community in Muscogee County and worked diligently to further its development.

About a year after its founding, the enclave claimed nearly one hundred residents drawn from across the country. They constructed their own housing, took their meals in a communal dining room, and in place of cash received food and shelter for their labor. Colonists planted thousands of fruit trees and berry plants, grew peanuts, sweet potatoes, and an assortment of other vegetables, built a school, and even established a towel mill which they planned to use as a major source of communal income. A printing press produced a few books in addition to a monthly newsletter, The Social Gospel, which at its peak was distributed to every state in the union and seventeen countries. None other than noted Russian author Leo Tolstoy encouraged the experiment in rural west Georgia and monitored its growth and development. Within a few years, however, a combination of factors brought about the demise of the colony—struggles in creating a stable economy, an epidemic of typhoid which drove several members to relocate, and no little internal dissension including a nasty court case over the expulsion of a disgruntled member. Commonwealth had ceased operation by 1901.

Kallman presents a straightforward chronological narrative of the colony in his book, taking readers inside day to day life there while helping them understand its philosophical foundations within the context of the larger national scene. Most readers of this journal will probably have less interest in Commonwealth’s place among similar institutions of the time than how it interacted with the citizens of Columbus, however. The city seemed genuinely intrigued with this novel social experiment, and accounts of activities at the colony regularly appeared in local papers. At one point colonists even staged a religious revival at Wildwood Park. Thoroughly researched, clearly written, and enlightening on a topic about which few captivated by this area’s history are likely to have any previous awareness, the book is a unique contribution to the historiography of the Columbus area.