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.



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