Reviews prepared by staff members of the Library of Virginia
Julie A. Campbell, Editor
The Heritage of Wise County and the City of Norton, 1856-2001, Volume 2. Wise: Wise County Historical Society (P.O. Box 368, Wise, VA 24293), 2001. x + 1133 pp.
Researchers interested in the history of southwestern Virginia will enjoy the newest publication of the Wise County Historical Society. The organization has assembled a wealth of information on the county's inhabitants, past and present, in this second volume of The Heritage of Wise County and the City of Norton. The first volume was published in 1993; the second weighs in at a hefty 1,133 pages.
Located on Virginia's western frontier, Wise County was formed in 1856 and named for Virginia's governor, Henry Alexander Wise. Settlers crossed the steep mountains and settled in narrow valleys, clashing with Native Americans and constructing forts. Members of the historical society have assembled materials from both primary and secondary sources on the county's beginnings and include descriptions of early homes, family histories, and old photographs. If you ever wondered who Norton's dentist was in 1900 (Laird McElrath), when the little league was integrated (1951), or how Donkey Town got its name (One-eyed Doc Mullins explains on p. 509), then this is the place to look.
The Heritage of Wise County is a handy reference book for local history. The interviews with residents who lived through the Great Depression and World War II make for especially interesting reading. The text-twelve chapters in all-is peppered with illustrations, and an index rounds out the volume. The Wise County Historical Society has assembled a useful and appealing source for researchers and browsers alike.
-reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid, Archives Research Coordinator
Giles Milton, Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America. New York: Picador USA, 2000. x + 358 pp. $14.00 (softcover reprint).
In a popular history of the English colonization of North America, author Giles Milton offers a readable account of the efforts to establish settlements in America between 1550 and 1610. For readers familiar with the published accounts by those involved in the adventures, Milton provides no new information and little analysis. The protagonists of the story are the adventurers, explorers, investors, and artisans who were determined to extend English power across the Atlantic in direct competition with the Spanish and the French.
Milton draws heavily from the scholarship of David Beers Quinn but ignores later publications by Karen O. Kupperman (Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony) and Ivor Noel Hume (The Virginia Adventure), which provide much the same story with more analysis. Perhaps more distressing is the glaring absence of Native Americans. By relying on European accounts of contact and settlement, Milton limits the view of American Indians to "savages" and "primitives," a view that reveals European prejudices toward non-Europeans. His narrative would have been strengthened had he consulted the research on early Virginia Indians by Helen Rountree.
Certainly Milton's uncritical inclusion of John Smith's account of Pocahontas' saving his life would have benefited if the author had stressed that the account did not appear until Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624 and that Smith decorated his account of the Jamestown episode to cast himself as the hero of the story.
The history of the Roanoke voyages and the founding of Jamestown are better told in Hume's The Virginia Adventure and several of Quinn's publications. The text is accompanied by uncredited, poor-quality images. Strangest of all is the title, since "Big Chief" Elizabeth makes only sporadic appearances. Given those caveats, Milton nonetheless writes a good story.
-reviewed by Barbara Batson, -Exhibitions Coordinator
John K. Nelson, A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776. University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 477 pp. $49.95 (hardcover).
The surviving colonial churches often stand in solitary splendor beside Virginia's highways, the sun warming the soft, old bricks and the shadows moving across tombstones, as they have for generations. For the visitor, it is hard to imagine that it was ever otherwise. Actually, the old redbrick churches are the most enduring component of a social system that has almost entirely vanished from the face of Virginia. A Blessed Company reveals not just a vista of these substantial edifices dotting the state, but also an entire social network that controlled many facets of colonial life.
Through this analysis, the long-vanished parishioners who once filled these churches speak to us across the years. John Nelson has retrieved their voices from the church records, court cases, tax rolls, and other original documents, and thereby fleshed out the surprisingly complex social world of the rural parish that sustained Virginians before the American Revolution.
The pervasiveness of the parish--based social system in colonial Virginia is today surprising, but it made perfect sense in a colony whose centers of societal authority were remote and undeveloped. In large Virginia localities, particularly counties like Augusta, whose western borders extended off into the wilderness toward the Mississippi and beyond, the courthouse might be many days' journey away.
In this rural and often remote world, a thin web of churches and connected chapels within parishes ran through the dark woods of Virginia and beside Tidewater rivers. Along these lines of communication moved circuit-riding ministers, committees appointed by vestries, appeals for relief, and officers collecting levies. Orphans were provided homes, the poor supported by substitute families paid by the parish, and the ill tended by appointed laypersons. The post of churchwarden was important to this rural society, and the people who served in this capacity were inventive in their capability to tend to the needs of the parish poor.
Nelson's study relies on a careful combination of statistical data culled from these original sources and narrative history. To present statistical data in an accessible and readable format requires skill. For example, in an exploration of prosecutions for nonattendance in Northumberland churches, the author notes, "between 1700 and 1775 grand juries presented at least 642 persons (an annual average of between eight and nine) for failing to meet the minimum attendance requirements." At no time in A Blessed Company does the presentation of statistics become oppressive, and much supportive data intended for the serious scholar has been moved to the 160 pages of appendices, tables, and notes.
Recitations of these carefully gleaned statistics are also leavened by accounts such as that of the Reverend Patrick Lunan, who cut a wide swath through Brunswick and Nansemond Counties in the 1760s. The court record cited Lunan for being too drunk to conduct services, for fighting, for swearing, for fornication, for exposing himself to assemblies of the faithful, for declaring he did not believe in the religion he was paid to promote, and for saying he "cared not of what religion he was so he got the tobacco, nor what became of the flock so that he could get the fleece."
Lunan was an appalling exception to what in some cases were entire dynasties of capable and devoted colonial churchmen. The story of the civilian bureaucracy that supported these men and the remarkable institution they all served is ably explored in A Blessed Company. Nelson's examination of this vanished Virginia is an important step in understanding our pre-Revolutionary past and imaginatively filling the grand old colonial churches with names and faces.
-reviewed by Selden Richardson, Senior Archivist for Architectural -Records
John Michael Vlach, The Planter's Prospect: Privilege & Slavery in Plantation Paintings. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 216 pp. $49.95 (hardcover), $24.95 (softcover).
The genesis of this book can be traced to the author's previous publication, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (1993), a cultural study of plantation settings featuring over 200 photographs and drawings depicting what he called the "physical landscape of slavery." Interest in Back of the Big House inspired questions from readers about plantation life in the earlier period, when little outdoor photography was done and when any reproduction of plantation life necessarily emerged from artists' drawings and paintings. His curiosity aroused, Vlach, a professor of American studies and anthropology at George Washington University, began a search for images that predated the scope of his first book. This second venture-out the back door and around the grounds of the Big House-resulted in The Planter's Prospect.
A splendid addition to the Richard Hampton Jenrette Series in Architecture and the Decorative Arts, the book contains 122 images collected from more than thirty public and private collections. Although the works of some forty-one artists are represented, among them such well-known painters as Charles Willson Peale and Winslow Homer, Vlach focuses in particular on artists Francis Guy, Charles Fraser, Marie Adrien Persac, William Aiken Walker, and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, as well as the artists of Currier & Ives. Although most of them were relatively unknown outside the South, they made important contributions to the popular perception and interpretation of plantation life. Taken together, their plantation scenes span the years 1800 to 1935 and geographically cover the entire South during a period of great social -transformation.
As might be expected from this survey of Southern artists, their treatment of plantation life differs little from the treatment given it by Southern men of letters. The influence of Sir Walter Scott's novels on the Southern temperament was pervasive and is well documented in the popular books of antebellum novelist William Gilmore Simms of South Carolina and in the stories of the postbellum Virginia writer, Thomas Nelson Page. Their sentimental works depict an aristocracy of the Old South populated by noble ladies and knightly gentlemen, with societal arrangements not unlike those of medieval England. Their romantic vision is perpetuated on canvas in this collection of dreamy pastorals and lush -landscapes.
Although appealing, this artistic view of tranquil plantation life became, in the words of the author, a "pleasant propaganda" behind which lay the ugly fact of slavery. Vlach explores in telling fashion the disparity between the ideal and the reality, and readers will benefit from his incisive analysis. Librarians will want to add The Planter's Prospect to their bookshelves, both for its provocative artwork and for its compelling narrative.
-reviewed by Don Gunter, Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Ladies and Gentlemen on Display: Planter Society at the Virginia Springs, 1790-1860. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. x + 293 pp. $55.00 (hardcover), $19.50 (softcover).
The springs located in the mountains and valleys of Virginia served as the summertime getaway for elite Southern society. Well-to-do planters, lawyers, and merchants and their families traveled there to restore their health and renew the bonds tying Virginians to South Carolinians to Kentuckians. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display offers an informative view of this society at rest and at play.
Many Southerners traveled to the Virginia springs to renew their health. The springs often advertised their waters' power to cure a variety of ailments. Bathing in or drinking the waters were often preferred medicinal alternatives to the medical practices of the time-practices that often consisted of bleeding, cupping, leeching, and inducing vomiting. Lewis writes that the popularity of the springs was one reason why doctors reconsidered early nineteenth-century medical practices.
Wealthy Southerners also visited the springs to renew old acquaintances and make new ones, thereby strengthening their social and political ties with each other. Unlike Northern resorts, they rarely worried that someone outside their elite circle would visit the springs. Conversely, a trip to the springs also allowed Southerners to step outside their traditional roles. Women especially enjoyed the freedom that the springs gave them to frolic and gossip and step outside their proper place. For example, Lewis portrays Southern ladies uncharacteristically diving and splashing about the bathing pools. She also describes how the springs were organized and run and how relations between blacks and whites were altered, if only temporarily. For instance, slaves found they had a bit more room to maneuver to their advantage in earning wages.
The detailed work of Lewis, an assistant professor of history at Widener University, covers much more ground than a brief review can cover. Ladies and Gentlemen on Display offers valuable insight into an important Southern social institution.
-reviewed by Trenton Hizer, Senior Finding Aids Archivist
Mary W. Schaller, Papa Was a Boy in Gray: Memories of Confederate Veterans Related by Their Living Daughters. Thomas Publications (P.O. Box 3031, Gettysburg, PA 17325), 2001. x + 161 pp. $14.95 (softcover).
In 1994, the United Daughters of the Confederacy conducted oral histories with 130 descendants of Confederate soldiers. "To these elderly women," writes Mary W. Schaller, "the War Between the States was not an event buried in the pages of a thick American history book." For this slender volume, Schaller, who lives in Burke, Virginia, chose the accounts of twenty-one women whose fathers fought in the Civil War, then rounded their words out with additional research.
As might be expected of old women alive in the 1990s, most of the interviewees were the offspring of marriages between Civil War veterans in their golden years and much younger women. The fathers of five of the subjects hailed from Virginia, and they and the other men passed down to their daughters accounts of life during the war. The women related their personal memories of their fathers together with their fathers' own recollections.
An intriguing Virginia connection emerged as two women told the story of their Kentucky-born father, Peter Vertrees. His white mother, Mary Elizabeth Skaggs, was a great-niece of Patrick Henry. His mulatto father was the Rev. Booker Harding. Skaggs indentured Vertrees as a child to his white grandfather-Harding's father, Jacob Vertrees. Grandfather Jacob raised his grandson Peter as a freeman. Then young Peter accompanied his white step-uncle, Dr. John Vertrees, to the battlefields as cook and assistant. In later years, he received a Confederate pension from Kentucky.
Photographs of the women and their fathers add to the historical record and make this a nice second-generation memoir to include in a Civil War collection.
-reviewed by Julie A. Campbell, Editor, Virginia Cavalcade
Haynes McMullen. American Libraries Before 1876. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 2000. xiv + 179 pp. $67.00 (hardcover).
This book is the capstone of a distinguished career in librarianship. Haynes McMullen was head librarian at what is now James Madison University more than a half century ago and taught for many years at the Indiana University Library School and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is Emeritus Professor of Library Science. In 1985 he returned to Virginia, and in his preface to this book thanks the reference department of the Hampton Public Library for research assistance.
The year 1876 is important to the history of libraries in the United States. It marks the professionalization of librarianship since the American Library Association was founded that year. It is also associated with the emergence of the modern public library movement since the U.S. Bureau of Education's two-volume report, Public Libraries in the United States of America, was published the same year.
That report included a thirty-page table listing 3,647 public libraries in the country, owning more than 300 volumes. McMullen admits in his preface that long ago he "fell in love" with that table, which he thought could tell him about the libraries that existed before 1876. Since then, he has gradually accumulated information about libraries not listed in the table, and in this book identifies 10,032 American public libraries that existed prior to that date. McMullen devotes his first two chapters to the history of pre-1876 libraries and the remaining nine chapters to an analysis of the various types of libraries he identified. A separate glossary helps explain the differences between, for example, religious college society libraries, religious historical society libraries, religious social libraries, and religious society libraries.
Rather than the final word on American libraries before 1876, this book provides raw material for future studies that will help us better understand library history in the United States. Haynes McMullen's half century of dedicated information gathering will prove valuable in that endeavor.
-reviewed by John T. Kneebone, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography