Virginia Libraries Logo

Virginia Libraries

Current editors:
Beth DeFrancis defrancb@georgetown.edu, Editor
John Connolly jpconnolly@crimson.ua.edu, Assistant Editor

January/February/March, 1997
Volume 43, Number 1

DLA Ejournal Home | VALib Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search VALib and other ejournals

Virginia Books

Reviews prepared by the staff of the Division of Publications and Cultural Affairs, The Library of Virginia Julie A. Campbell, Editor

Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1996. xvi, 496 pp. $49.95 (hardcover); $19.95 (softcover).

This book is a highly sophisticated analysis of the evolution of colonial Virginia's several cultures. Eagerly awaited as a comprehensive new look at the history of women in early Virginia, it is that and much more. Kathleen M. Brown breaks new historiographical ground in gender studies by carefully analyzing how the lives and expectations of each gender affected the lives and expectations of the other.

The volume also cuts across other divides within the population. Throughout the colonial period, the population of Virginia comprised changing proportions of men and women, of rich people and poor, of masters and servants and slaves, and of persons of African, American, English, and mixed-race descent. Writing about Virginia's history up to the middle of the eighteenth century, Brown takes account of how each group's lives were governed by who they were, where they lived, and how they interacted with members of the other groups.

Brown identifies Bacon's Rebellion of 1676 as one of the most important of several critical pivot points of the colonial period. As a result of the problems that produced the uprising, and as a consequence of the altered economic and political conditions that followed, Virginians of African descent (both male and female) were rapidly and systematically reduced from a wretched servitude to something resembling the mature system of chattel racial slavery familiar to students of eighteenth-century Virginia history.

Virginians of Indian descent were marginalized but left in a position distinct from (and probably better than) the position of the African Virginian population. Distinctions between groups of Virginians of European descent widened as social and economic inequalities intensified. By the eighteenth century, Virginians lived in (and perceived that they lived in) a highly stratified society, each segment of which reacted differently to the others. From wealthy white men at the top of the most privileged class to enslaved women and children at the most vulnerable bottom, the races and classes and genders were separated by a multitude of occupational and gender roles as well as by class and by race.

Brown singles out for extended analysis the changing perceptions about the economic roles of men and women that Virginians of American, African, and English heritage held when they began to live and work together in Virginia. She shows through thorough research how those perceptions of class and gender roles evolved during the seventeenth century into a distinctive colonial society. Her analysis relies heavily on an understanding of the importance of women's roles as laborers as well as their participation in family life as daughters, sisters, wives, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers.

This study produces a significantly different social and economic portrait of the colony than older political and economic studies. It not only enriches our understanding but also offers excellent guidance and suggestions for future studies. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, & Anxious Patriarchs is one of the most important and interesting books ever published about colonial Virginia history.

-Reviewed by Brent Tarter 


Noel Rae, ed. and comp. Witnessing America: The Library of Congress Book of Firsthand Accounts of Life in America, 1600-1900. New York: Stonesong Press Book, published by Penguin Books USA Inc., 1996. xiv, 556 pp. $29.95.

Witnessing America's aspirations are worthwhile, and difficult: to tell the story of America's past in the words of those who lived it. To this end, editor Noel Rae has gathered printed material from the collections of the Library of Congress-as well as illustrations, advertisements, and broadsides-to paint a picture of life in America from 1600 to 1900. The book's eleven chapters are arranged topically to follow "the general progression of life from the cradle to the grave." Virginia being an important colony and state, several selections are by and about John Smith, Pocahontas, Jamestown, slavery, and others.

Excerpts printed in Witnessing America cover the range of human experience, from birth to death. Bostonian Samuel Sewall worried when his "dear wife" was "brought to Bed" with their first child. After fetching a midwife and spending the day in prayer, Sewall rejoiced at the birth of his son. Virginian William Byrd had an entirely different reaction to his wife's confinement. Byrd groused that his wife "complained all day very much of her belly, but to no purpose"; two days later, when she felt "very bad," Byrd sent for a midwife, said a prayer, and went to bed. Awakened when his wife was "happily delivered of a son," Byrd drank some wine and went back to sleep. These accounts, though radically different, illustrate that before the advent of modern medicine, birth brought with it the very real threat of death.

Rae likewise reminds us that death was "a grim and constant presence" in the American story. Included here are obituaries, epitaphs, and striking illustrations of tombstones, as well as accounts of burials and mourning. Louise Clappe, writing from California in 1851, recorded the "funeral of poor Mrs. B." Clappe was shocked when the coffin lid was nailed on at the graveside; the loud rings of the hammer, she thought, surely "must disturb the pale sleeper within." One afternoon in New York, lawyer George Templeton Strong witnessed a "strange, weird, and painful scene." At a construction site, two Irish laborers were crushed while digging a foundation; once the men had been "dragged, or dug, out," they were surrounded by a group of women keening, "raising a wild, unearthly cry, half shriek and half song, wailing as a score of daylight Banshees." For Strong, it was "an uncanny sound"; for the reader, it is a poignant expression of loss.

Witnessing America is richly illustrated with photographs, advertisements, broadsides, and magazine art. A page from McGuffey's Eclectic Primer is paired with a photograph of students bent over their slates in a New York City classroom; advertisements for "ready-made houses" and Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor join photographs of Chicago's urchins and sod homes in Nebraska. The written selections are balanced between voices new to the reader and those we have heard before, such as Puritan minister Cotton Mather, author Louisa May Alcott, Indian captive Mary Rowlandson, and naturalist John J. Audubon. With its lively selections and top-notch illustrations, Witnessing America provides a good starting place for those interested in the nation's social and cultural history.

-Reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid  


Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. xiv, 307 pp. $39.95.

The Continental Army was more than a fighting force of soldiers. The men had to eat, stay warm, mend their clothes, and support their families-and in these simple but vital pursuits they found help from the accompanying shadow army of camp followers. Mayer concentrates on the personnel of the Eastern, Northern, and Middle Departments, but discusses the Southern Department and, of course, the extensive operations in Virginia in 1781. Quartermasters, wives, laundresses, slaves, and sutlers-all fell under the category of camp followers in the eyes of the army.

The term has often meant prostitutes, and to be sure some women did fill that role between 1775 and 1783. However, as Mayer makes clear after combing an exhaustive list of primary and secondary sources, women followed the army for many reasons. They earned money to feed their children, tended the sick, washed laundry, and, as did Anna Maria Lane of Virginia, occasionally donned uniforms and shouldered weapons. Class divided the women as sharply as their domestic sphere separated them from men. The wives of officers acted as hostesses and cheerful ornaments in as comfortable accommodations as they could find; the wives of common soldiers endured the same strenuous conditions as their husbands.

The category of camp follower also embraced paid servants and African American slaves, civilian army employees, and noncommissioned officers. Presiding over this new and cumbersome organization were George Washington and the new revolutionary government, and part of Mayer's story is how the leader and the new bureaucracy learned to handle it all. "The Continental Army ¼ was ultimately an army for and of its time," concludes the author, "an eighteenth-century army that still relied heavily on nonmilitary support services and personnel. Its reliance on such people placed it historically with the European armies it took as examples." It became an American army in the process, its story told in Belonging to the Army, a combination of gender and military studies in one thorough book.

-Reviewed by Julie A. Campbell 


Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. xi, 736 pp. $35.00.

This is the first full-scale biography of Chief Justice John Marshall in more than twenty years. It is also one of a small number of biographical treatments of Marshall that is based on solid research and that does not focus principally on Marshall's long career as chief justice of the United States.

The first half of the volume is devoted to Marshall's life up to the time he was appointed chief justice early in 1801. It details Marshall's family history; his service in the Continental Army; his training for the law; his courtship, marriage, and early family life; his participation in Virginia politics and his role at the Ratification Convention in 1788; and his membership in the three-member commission that President John Adams sent to France. Marshall emerged from that commission-the famous "XYZ Affair" during which he and his companions refused to bribe the foreign minister-with such fame that he served during the closing months of Adams's presidency as secretary of state and received the appointment as chief justice.

The John Marshall that Smith portrays in the first half of the book is a highly intelligent, cautious man of high morals who learned how to become a skillful lawyer and statesman and developed into an unusually persuasive political writer. The second half of the volume, covering almost half of Marshall's life, treats his years as chief justice. However, Smith continues to write a full biography and does not devote all his efforts and space to Marshall's leadership of the federal judiciary or to analysis of his most famous and influential cases. In these pages, the same John Marshall appears as in the first half of the book: a cautious, non-confrontational man who did not pursue his own political agenda as a judge and who sought to avoid conflicts with Congress, with presidents who differed from him in political thinking, and with advocates of a rigid state-rights interpretation of the Constitution. Marshall predicted-accurately-that if carried to their logical extreme, radical states-rights beliefs would bring about disruption of the Union.

Smith's interpretation of Marshall's judicial philosophy parallels that of Charles F. Hobson, whose recent book, The Great Chief Justice: John Marshall and the Rule of Law, portrays Marshall as a conservative lawyer, politician, and judge who perceived his role as a protective one-to protect the Union and the Constitution from what he considered its most serious threats, localism and states-rights advocates. Unlike many early writers, Smith joins Hobson in arguing that Marshall did not pursue a Federalist Party agenda while on the Supreme Court and did not seek to augment national authority. Rather, they interpret his judicial career as a conservative attempt to preserve the legacy of the American Revolution and to resist a restoration of the powerful position of the states that during the 1780s had almost lead to the breakup of the Union. Marshall believed that it was to guard against the breakup of the Union that the people (not the states) had adopted the Constitution in 1788.

Jean Edward Smith's John Marshall: Definer of a Nation is a fine addition to the biographical literature on Virginians and Americans of the early national period. It supplements, rather than replaces, the scholarship that treats politics and the law in greater detail.

-Reviewed by Brent Tarter 


W. C. Corsan, Two Months in the Confederate States: An Englishman's Travels Through the South. Edited by Benjamin H. Trask. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. xx, 155 pp. $26.95.

In the fall of 1862, the English merchant William Carson Corsan traveled to the United States to obtain a closer look at conditions here. He concluded his journey in Virginia. The American Civil War was in its second year, and the Union blockade of Southern ports was having a detrimental effect on English manufacturing, including the Sheffield-based cutlery firm that Corsan and two other men owned. Although Corsan was respected in business circles, his overly optimistic nature did not equip him for the risks inherent in larger enterprises, and his tour of the Confederacy may have been a gamble to save the partnership from ruin by coming to grips with the realities of the war. His firm did not survive, but he did produce a memoir of his travels that provides modern readers with both an eyewitness account of wartime conditions in the South by a foreign, though not disinterested, observer, and an insight into the attitudes held by the English merchant class.

On 12 October 1862 Corsan boarded the steamship Marion, bound for New Orleans; his object, to rekindle profitable business relations with former associates in the South. Arriving in that port city, he was appalled to find that virtually all commercial activity along the nine-mile-long wharf had been abandoned. As the Marion was docking, Corsan caught sight of Union General Benjamin F. Butler, the military commander of that occupied city and perhaps the most hated Federal officer in the South. (Corsan's publisher later mined Corsan's visit for all it was worth, subtitling the original edition "Including A Visit to New Orleans under the Domination of General Butler," a ploy to increase book sales by invoking the name of "Beast" Butler on the title page. Ironically, Corsan had nothing but praise for the public conduct of Union officers and soldiers.)

Over the next six weeks, Corsan traveled from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, then journeyed on to Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama, and through the Deep South to Charleston, where he rested for a few days before crossing the Carolinas to Richmond. After a short visit, during which he toured the battlefields and found the ravages of the Seven Days' battles of the previous summer still much in evidence, he left for the North in early December and returned to Britain, where he penned his account.

Corsan's treatment of the people and conditions that he encountered on his journey is sympathetic, and he is optimistic that the South will prevail in the war and that England will play an important role in the South's economic affairs after independence is won. But occasionally criticism slips in, as when he comments on the imposing buildings in a Southern city that become "a poor show on near acquaintance." A "Southerner," he complains, "after having once built a place and set it going handsomely in the world in the matter of fencing, garden, glass, and paint, never seems to think the plumber, gardener, joiner, or painter can by any possibility be needed again." Although he possesses the usual prejudices where race is concerned, he is also critical of slavery, which he describes as "a hateful trade, and one which I hope the South herself will soon stop."

For the most part, however, Corsan's prose evokes the homefront, the hazards of travel, the want of medical supplies and food, the deserted streets and shut-up houses of small towns. As a traveler, he attracted pleas for news from the front, and at every juncture, it seems, he observed the constant shuffling of troops of men, in large groups and small, ferrying by rattling train from one station to another in a vast effort to deploy defenses in a theater of war too great to manage. One can sense just how disrupted ordinary life had become, replaced by an abnormal present riven by the fearful expectations of the future. Many of Corsan's predictions proved wrong, but, at a time when the Civil War is so overanalyzed, it is refreshing to be reminded how difficult it was to foresee an end that today sometimes seems inevitable.

-Reviewed by Donald W. Gunter 


Keppel Hagerman, Dearest of Captains: A Biography of Sally Louisa Tompkins. White Stone, Virginia: Brandylane Publishers, 1996. ix, 85 pp. $10.95 (softcover).

The life of Sally Tompkins (1833-1916), stalwart nurse to the Confederacy and holder of a captaincy in the army, has inspired Keppel Hagerman to pen an unusual and heartfelt work. Hagerman, a poet and writer of fiction who lives in Charlottesville and Virginia Beach, has crafted a narrative poem of Tompkins's childhood, religious and medical callings, wartime career running Robertson's Hospital in Richmond, and long post-war life. Many voices tell the story-relatives, slaves, patients, Tompkins herself, and, at the very end of the book, a surprising contemporary note. Writers express the history of Virginia in many ways; Hagerman's poetry is one worth examining.

-Reviewed by Julie A. Campbell 


Nancy J. Martin-Perdue and Charles L. Perdue Jr., eds. Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. xix, 493 pp. $45.00 (hardcover), $19.95 (softcover).

Between 1938 and 1941, the federally funded Virginia Writers' Project collected more than 1,300 life histories from individuals across the state. The project's director, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, hoped to gather these histories "in a book devoted to the lives of typical Virginians"; with the onset of World War II and the end of the Writer's Project, however, the project was abandoned and the life histories deposited in various archives, including the Library of Virginia. With the publication of Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression, editors Nancy J. Martin-Perdue and Charles L. Perdue Jr. have brought these contemporary word-portraits back into the limelight, where they deservedly belong. This handsome, hefty book contains 61 life histories and 160 photographs. The two images on the cover are particularly striking: in one, a young man perched on the stoop of a store in Nelson County takes a moment from his cigarette to stare at the camera; in the other, a migrant farm worker traveling on the ferry from Norfolk to the Eastern Shore pencils a message onto a postcard.

These never-before-published narratives dramatically document the vast socioeconomic and cultural changes resulting from the Great Depression and the New Deal. Each history begins with a headnote introducing its subject to the reader, effectively mining census and vital statistics records, city directories, and newspapers. In Talk About Trouble, a wide variety of Virginians tell their stories: men and women, both black and white, from a cross-section of ages, occupations, and cultures offer us a glimpse of their lives in a time when both present and future seemed terribly uncertain. Fishermen and factory workers, farmers and barbers, grocers and seamstresses are all here, although most were puzzled as to why they were being interviewed. Daniel F. Arritt, a potter and farmer living in Alleghany County, was typical in his initial skepticism. "Child, I'm old," he told interviewer Leila Blanche Bess in 1939. "What would you want with my life history?" Although he had "never thought of havin' a history," Arritt admitted that he had seen a lot of change in the course of eighty years, observing that "things ain't now like they was then."

Talk About Trouble is rich with the stories of ordinary Virginians. Coal miner John B. Davidson vowed he was through with working underground after he survived a 1934 gas explosion that killed seventeen men. Once he saw workers headed back to the mine "with their dinner buckets," however, he told his wife to fix his supper, too. Davidson eventually traded his job in the mine for a lower-paying one in the company's timber yard, where he worked "on the outside," in the sunshine. Nancy Carter packed cigarettes in a Richmond factory, rising at 5:30 in the morning, donning a starched white uniform and riding two streetcars to be at her place on the production line at five minutes to seven. "I feel like a machine," she admitted, "but it's a good-paying job." She made fifty cents an hour. These voices from the past tell us stories that we would otherwise be unable to hear.

Richmond barber John Powell, who knew the trade "inside out," reminded interviewer Susie R.C. Byrd that "education ain't all book learning anyway." The kind of knowledge and experiences that Powell had after fifty-nine years as a barber-and John Davidson had as a miner and Nancy Carter as a factory worker-are all too often lost in the study of history. By preserving these stories and others, the Virginia Writers' Project made a significant contribution to our understanding not only of Virginia but of the entire South. Talk About Trouble makes these life histories accessible and by doing so opens a revealing window to the not-so-distant past.

-Reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid 


Andy McCutcheon and Michael P. Gleason, Sarge Reynolds: In the Time of His Life. Richmond: Gleason Publishing, Inc., 1996. vi, 180 pp. $9.95 (softcover).

When Virginians today think of J. Sargeant Reynolds, a large portion of them think of the large and useful community college in Richmond and Henrico County. The school's name honors Reynolds's work as a legislator in the 1960s to create the state's system of community colleges, but there was a lot more to him than that. The authors modestly call this book "a collection of stories," but they want Virginians to remember a special man whose "potential was equal to his ambition."

First elected to the legislature in 1965 when he was not yet thirty years old, then to the state senate, and in 1969 to the post of lieutenant governor, Reynolds was, everyone knew, going to be elected Virginia's next governor. Then, dizziness and tremors revealed an inoperable brain tumor, and he died on 13 June 1971, not yet thirty-five years old. What might have been? On to the U.S. Senate and perhaps to the presidency of the United States?

The authors knew Reynolds well, for they served, respectively, as campaign manager and staff aide during his campaign for lieutenant governor. Their admiration for Reynolds is great, and their sense of loss is palpable. For that reason the book is not a traditional biography. Instead, they concentrate upon his six short years of public life and make their case for the man's greatness by letting him speak for himself. Extensive quotations from Reynolds's speeches reveal him to have been an eloquent, courageous, and thoughtful leader. Regardless of one's political loyalties, it would be difficult to finish the book without agreeing with L. Douglas Wilder that with Reynolds's death, Virginia lost more than we may realize.

To appreciate Reynolds fully, the authors explain, one must see him in his own times, the turbulent last years of the 1960s. Forget the silly stereotypes of blissful hippies or drugged-out revolutionaries-Virginians then faced hard public issues, as the civil-rights movement transformed politics and government despite the old guard's massive resistance to change. Reynolds navigated carefully through controversy but he never feared to say what he believed. The authors show, through the example of J. Sargeant Reynolds, that politics and governance can and should be honorable callings. The book can be ordered from the publisher at P.O. Box 25579, Richmond, VA 23260-5579.

-Reviewed by John T. Kneebone 


Steven Carroll and Mark Miller, Wilderness Virginia: A Guide to Hiking Virginia's National Forest Wilderness Areas. Lexington, Virginia: Old Forge Productions, 1995. 248 pp. $12.95 (softcover).

This handbook contains detailed descriptions 97 hiking routes and simple, easy-to-decipher maps of the public trails in the fifteen federally designated wilderness areas in Virginia. Several of the routes comprise discrete sections of the Appalachian Trail.

All of the wilderness areas are in the mountains of Virginia, and as a consequence many of the trails involve fairly strenuous hiking. Accordingly, authors Carroll and Miller characterize each trail by degree of difficulty, length, and the features that make it and the land through which it passes special. Each area is also represented on a small reproduction of the appropriate section of the United States Geological Survey topographical maps. Coordinates and U.S.G.S. map quadrangles are identified in the book, but the maps are too small for detailed guidance on the trails.

For the serious backcountry backpacker, and for the adventurous day hiker as well, this handy guide may provide a useful introduction to the wilderness trails of Virginia and enable newcomers to a particular area to decide where to go and when.

-Reviewed by Brent Tarter J.


J. Kent Minichiello and Anthony W. White, eds., From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands: An Audubon Naturalist Reader. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xiii, 436 pp. $29.95.

This is a delightful and varied collection of essays, book chapters, and excerpts from larger works having as their unifying theme the natural world of the Middle Atlantic states. Almost fifty writers are represented. The earliest excerpt is from the narrative that accompanied a map of Virginia that Captain John Smith published in 1612. The latest is from a 1993 collection of articles by John P. Wiley, editor of Smithsonian magazine. Among the writers excerpted are Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Walt Whitman, and such renowned naturalists as John Burroughs, Rachel Carson, Mark Catesby, Elliott Coues, John Muir, Wallace Nutting, and Roger Tory Peterson.

It is a very good sampler. As might be expected from the subtitle, the book features birds and conservation. The selections introduce a variety of subjects and authors, and they are arranged so as to present a natural history of the region. Early accounts of the area show it as relatively unspoiled, boasting a vast natural abundance of timber and wildlife. Later observers note changes in the environment as commercial fishing and waterfowl hunting became profitable businesses, and as large-scale agriculture and railroads, highways, and cities altered the look of the land. Still later accounts record the efforts of scientists to document and preserve the rarities, and of conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts to convey to the public the joys of watching birds, the beauty of marsh grasses, the richness of life in the great bay, and the colorful sublimity of the mountains.

The genre of nature writing, which became popular during the latter years of the nineteenth century, attracted some fine prose stylists. All of the principal writers who have had something to say about the coastal plains and the Blue Ridge Mountains are represented here, so this volume may also serve as a sampler of a flourishing and distinctive literary form. One of the gems of the genre, excerpted here, is William W. Warner's Beautiful Swimmers (1976), a gracefully written and fascinating book on the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. At first glance, the crab seems neither a beautiful swimmer nor a likely subject for a marvelous essay, but it is both. If readers new to nature writing gain personal introductions to such authors as Warner, then From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands serves a good and noble purpose.

-Reviewed by Brent Tarter


DLA Ejournal Home | VALib Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search VALib and other ejournals