Reviews prepared by staff members of the Library of Virginia
Sara B. Bearss, Editor
Margaret Holmes Williamson. Powhatan Lords of Life and Death: Command and Consent in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. Lincoln, Nebr., and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. xii + 323 pp. $55.00 (hardcover).
What was life like for those aboriginal Americans living in Virginia's Tidewater region during the English "invasion" of 1607? Margaret Holmes Williamson's study of the Powhatan Confederation attempts to answer this question by examining the culture's political and social structure. Because little of its legacy is left behind in written form, the author bases her analysis on letters and histories written by the first English settlers, John Smith and his contemporaries, and other published sources.
Powhatan Lords of Life and Death begins with a brief recap of the events preceding and surrounding the colonization of Jamestown. Once the historical setting is established, Williamson's analysis of Powhatan culture begins. The story weaves around the author's premise that an alternative interpretation is needed to describe Powhatan political, religious, and social culture, that a dual sovereignty permeated several areas of Powhatan life. The leader Powhatan led a loose tribal confederacy extending throughout much of coastal eastern Virginia. Each tribal leader descended from the tribe's highest-ranking tribal family. Within the tribe were smaller settlements led by subordinate chiefs. Their power appears to have been shared with other councilmen, who acquired their positions by virtue of their prowess as warriors and natural leadership ability. This situation indicates that the Powhatan culture practiced dual sovereignty in its political structure. The best example of this dual sovereignty existed in the chief's relationship with the priest. Priests were almost always consulted for advice before any major decisions were made. The practice of dual sovereignty can also be found within the family structure. Contrary to English interpretation, both sexes contributed to the daily function of the Powhatan household. The most interesting and compelling sections of this monograph are Williamson's description of Powhatan religious and social practices. The reader finishes the book with a deeper and clearer understanding of the Powhatan interpretation of the cosmos and of their social customs. One weakness is the use of seventeenth-century English texts to analyze Powhatan culture. The author clearly recognizes this, yet argues that a scholar can correctly interpret early Virginia Native American life using current anthropological methods. Even then, scholars are limited in their interpretation. The text in several places is convoluted, making it difficult for the reader to determine the message the author is trying to convey. Powhatan Lords of Life and Death is another attempt to provide a scholarly, fresh approach to the study of the Powhatan people; it adds to previous works by offering a unique twist to the study of Virginia's original settlers.
—reviewed by Cassandra Farrell, Research Archivist
Stephen Conrad Ausband. Byrd's Line: A Natural History. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002. ix + 187 pp. $22.95 (hardcover).
Stephen Conrad Ausband states in his preface to Byrd's Line: A Natural History that he is writing for "the common reader"—a layman, perhaps, who has never read any writings of the eighteenth-century planter William Byrd (1674-1744). He succeeds with an enjoyable account of how the life and the land have changed along the boundary between Virginia and North Carolina.
Not a historian, but an English professor and avid outdoorsman, Ausband builds a dialogue between the colonial explorer and himself by excerpting parts of Byrd's History of the Dividing Line. He chooses entries from Byrd's carefully crafted narrative based on his diary account that describe natural details and encounters with life (plant, animal, and human) while Byrd surveyed the boundary line separating the two colonies in 1728. After each passage the author comments on several of Byrd's observations based on his own knowledge of the nature of the place as it is today. Some things have changed: Watercourses have altered, wolves have disappeared (and are being reintroduced), chestnut trees have died. Some things have stayed almost the same: The Dismal Swamp may be smaller, but parts of it are no less inhospitable and difficult to navigate than they were in the eighteenth century. Ausband also sometimes quotes from Byrd's Secret History of the Dividing Line if the Secret History has more information about a certain day, a contradiction of the events described, or an amusing story not published in the History.
The book is divided into four main parts based on stages of the original journey. Because it follows passages derived from a diary, it is a book very easy to pick up, read a little in, and come back to later without losing the thread of the writing. The main criticism of Byrd's Line is that Ausband repeats himself and rambles a bit in the introduction. For example, he continually reiterates how remote an area Byrd explored.
Serious scholars of history will not find anything new in Byrd's Line. But it is a good introduction to the eighteenth-century Virginian's writings and an enjoyable read for lovers of the outdoors or those interested in how the world here has changed in 275 years.
—reviewed by Catherine Bond, Federal Documents Program Librarian
Joshua D. Rothman. Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xiii + 341 pp. $49.95 (hardcover); $19.95 (softcover).
In 1998 DNA testing was undertaken to determine whether Thomas Jefferson may have fathered children by his slave Sally Hemings. Although results could not 100 percent prove that the master of Monticello fathered any of Hemings's children, it eliminated other oft-mentioned suspects and narrowed the possible fathers into a much smaller group that included Jefferson, his brother, and his uncle. Those who contended that Jefferson had a long-term affair with his slave argued that the DNA testing combined with other evidence proved Jefferson's paternity of at least some of Hemings's children. Opponents replied that at least one of the now-dwindling group of potential fathers, Randolph Jefferson, was a far more likely candidate.
Joshua D. Rothman is one of those historians who maintain that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Hemings from late in the 1780s until his death in 1826 and fathered some, if not all, of her children. Rothman, however, is not interested in debating all the evidence for Jefferson's paternity, but rather taking it as the starting point for his Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861. For him, Jefferson and Hemings's consensual sexual relationship is not a unique incident but is representative of a type of interpersonal relationships—those across the racial divide.
Rothman finds a variety of sexual relations in Virginia spanning a wide range from rape to love to business arrangements. Masters often used female slaves to release their sexual energy, at times coercing them into a physical relationship. Some female slaves or their husbands struck back with physical violence, killing or trying to kill the master who forced himself on slave women. Slaves, usually female, at times used their sexuality to gain other concessions from masters. Encounters between male slaves and their white mistresses seem to have been more rare. White men and women often cohabitated with black members of the opposite sex. These relationships at times were the sources of embarrassing requests to the legislature for divorce. Some of these relationships were sincere expressions of love. White and black prostitutes sold their services to men of both races to make a living, finding that the color of money trumped the color of skin.
Rothman also details how a certain blind tolerance in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries hardened into social and legal opposition to such relationships by the start of the Civil War. Whether Virginia society endeavored to ignore or to eliminate such relationships, they existed. Rothman has brought them out of the shadows of rumor and innuendo into the light of fact.
—reviewed by Trenton E. Hizer, Private Papers Archivist
William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton. Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Ideal. Charlottesville: Howell Press, 2003. vii + 252 pp. $60.00 (hardcover); $40.00 (softcover).
In two previous collaborations, William M.S. Rasmussen and Robert S. Tilton have examined Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend (1994) and George Washington: The Man behind the Myths (1999). In this third effort, the authors turn their attention to the concept of "Old Virginia" and all the images and emotions that arise. The advertising synopsis reads: "The authors delve beneath the competing mythologies of Old Virginia as either a bucolic world of moonlight and magnolias or an infernal region of suffering to examine the attempts by the Virginia gentry to create and then defend a pastoral sphere in which the pursuit of virtue and honor was one's greatest ambition." In their introduction, Rasmussen and Tilton write that "the European ideal of the pastoral, and its associated ideas of simplicity and rural virtue, became linked to what is a largely imaginative entity" (p. 11). The authors clearly state that their focus is on the gentry's viewpoint, well aware that this focus ignores the vast middling farms and urban areas.
In the chapters, the authors explore the roots of the pastoral ideal, the rise of the gentry in the eighteenth century, the decline of Virginia's political and economic power before the Civil War, the intense nostalgia of the postwar period, and the institutionalization of the pastoral myth in the 1920s and 1930s. The pastoral ideal is rooted in the works of the Roman poet Virgil, and Rasmussen and Tilton offer a useful review of the Virgilian-related literature that was prevalent in English writings of the early colonial period. Sons of wealthy Virginians studied in British schools and forged such close ties with British culture that Virginians transplanted British ideas about society to Virginia. The acceptance and presence of slavery, however, prevented Virginians from achieving an ideal pastoral culture. Agricultural failure in Tidewater Virginia and expansion of the United States territory beyond the Appalachian Mountains shifted population and political influence from Virginia. Industries developed in Virginia and threatened the perceived benign pastoral landscape. Novelists, such as John Pendleton Kennedy, Mary H. Eastman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who set their books in Virginia, added to the tension between the pastoral ideal of harmony and the reality of discontent and dissent.
The numerous illustrations, most of which are from the impressive collection of the Virginia Historical Society, are the strength of Old Virginia. The visual representations of Virginia throughout the nineteenth century informed the mind of the broader audience and reinforced the literary depiction of Virginia as a harmonious society. With few exceptions, the makers of the paintings, sketches, and many prints studiously ignored the uglier reality of Virginia or cast it in a positive light.
—reviewed by Barbara C. Batson, Exhibitions Coordinator
William A. Link. Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia. Civil War America Series. Gary W. Gallagher, Series Editor. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xvii + 387 pp. $45.00 (hardcover).
William A. Link's Roots of Secession is an important addition to the large and growing body of literature showing the intimate connection between the slave society of the Old South and the causes of the Civil War. In Virginia, there were two stories of sectional disharmony playing out during the 1850s. One was between the slave states and the free states over the future of slavery, with Virginia occupying a special place as the state with the largest number of slaves, the largest number of free blacks, and the largest overall population among the slave states. Virginia was also a border state, sharing many characteristics with other mid-Atlantic states, both slave and free, and differing in some important respects from the slave states of the cotton South. The other sectional crisis was between the regions of Virginia where slavery was a major component of the social and economic order and the regions where it was not. The creation of West Virginia during the Civil War was the culmination of a long sectional controversy in Virginia that grew wider rather than narrower following the constitutional convention of 1850-1851 in which serious political and economic issues dividing the two regions were papered over but not resolved. The national crisis of secession not only ruptured the Union, but it also ruptured Virginia.
Many factors were at work in Virginia to give the story of the coming of the Civil War its own peculiar twists in that state. Such was the case in each state that had to decide whether to remain in the Union or to leave. Not all made the same choice, and not all made their choices for the same reasons. In Virginia, the actions of slaves and free blacks helped shape the fears and hopes of the white male political leaders, just as the actions of abolitionists, national political leaders, and Southern radicals contributed to the mix of considerations that each politician faced when making critical decisions about slavery, about public policies relating to slavery (which turned out to be nearly all of them), about shifting political party alignments, and ultimately about which side to take in the Civil War.
Link's Roots of Secession is especially valuable in shattering the durable myth that vague concepts of states' rights or political philosophy were the prime motivating factors for political leaders. It was slavery. During the Convention of 1850-1851 and again during the winter of 1860-1861, the issues that they all discussed openly and intensely all derived from slavery—whether the state or the Union could endure half the one thing and half the other, whether slavery could best be preserved inside the Union or outside. That is why Virginia was among the last states to secede; many leaders believed that it would be protected in the future under the United States Constitution just as it had been in the past. When the war began and they had to make a choice, it was no coincidence that in the regions of Virginia where slavery was the fundamentally important economic and social fact, disunion was the overwhelming choice; where it was not, secession was vehemently rejected.
—reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Dianne Swann-Wright. A Way Out of No Way: Claiming Family and Freedom in the New South. The American South Series. Edward L. Ayers, Series Editor. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002. xii + 195 pp. $49.50 (hardcover); $14.95 (softcover).
Anyone who is interested in researching, writing, and reading Virginia history should pick up Dianne Swann-Wright's volume, the latest in the American South Series. A Way Out of No Way skillfully evokes a place (central Virginia) and a time (starting after the Civil War and stretching to the twentieth century), drawing on a wide variety of primary sources. Swann-Wright cobbles together information from census records, tax lists, business records, and private papers, first to recreate the lives of plantation owners and their slaves, and then to examine the succeeding generations of both in the New South.
A Way Out of No Way traces the wrenching changes from slavery to freedom in the Page-Cary plantation community, near Dillwyn in Buckingham County. The task is a daunting one—searching for the stories of African Americans in a burned-record county—but Swann-Wright handles it with aplomb. Here are vivid descriptions of the lives of masters and slaves, employers and workers. The lively and thoughtful text also describes the sources from which these stories are drawn, including the rich family archives of account books, ledgers, and journals at Caryswood Farm in Dillwyn. One of these volumes, an economics notebook from the University of Virginia, belonged to Edward Page. In 1854 he turned to the back of the book, rotated it upside down, and wrote his name in the center of the sheet, along with the name of his plantation (then called Half-Way Branch) and the year. Page was frugal (in keeping with the family motto, "waste not, want not"), and used his old college notebook to record plantation business before the Civil War; afterward, he abandoned the large book for a pocket-sized one. This small change reflected a significant shift: Page no longer had an overseer who reported plantation activities and instead went into the fields himself.
In A Way Out of No Way, Dianne Swann-Wright has crafted a book that will interest and intrigue a variety of readers. Part family history, part social history, and part oral history (chapter 6, "The Spoken Word," collects generations of family stories), this book is a must-read for those interested in Virginia and the South. Photographs and family trees supplement the story; notes and a bibliography round out the volume.
—reviewed by Jennifer Davis McDaid, Archives Research Coordinator
Suzanne Lebsock. A Murder in Virginia: Southern Justice on Trial. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2003. 442 pp. $26.95 (hardcover).
Lucy Pollard, the wife of a wealthy farmer, is brutally murdered in Lunenburg County, Virginia, in 1895. The murder and subsequently the trial generate great interest and become the topic of feuding Richmond newspapers. Four local blacks—Solomon Marable, a sawmill hand, and three women, Mary Abernathy, Mary Barnes, and her daughter Pokey Barnes—are arrested. Even though no direct incriminating evidence links them to the murder, they become the only suspects, primarily because of the color of their skin. Can justice be served in a rural Virginia county forty years after emancipation? Suzanne Lebsock narrates the events with intricate details based on in-depth research in newspaper accounts, court documents, and letters.
With a detached and objective eye she recounts the fear and agony of the accused; the narrow politics, petty interests, and personal resentments of a sleepy segregated county; the inconsistencies of the investigation that went unnoticed; the enigmatic and stingy husband; the chicanery and machinations of public officials; the ambition of Governor Charles T. O'Ferrall to eradicate lynching; the courageous efforts of the Richmond Times to stand by the facts; the efforts of John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, to provide attorneys and moral support for the defendants. Lebsock weaves the facts in an elegant and flowing prose. She fleshes out the individual personalities and settings to provide a poignant social commentary on the state of mind of a southern community less than half a century after slavery and before the total gripping of the Jim Crow laws that marginalized the black community. In the two final chapters, she summarizes the findings, reveals motives others may have had, and offers possible scenarios and suspects that were never investigated. Writing about this forgotten story and its outcome gave Lebsock the opportunity to bring to life a significant legal case and along with it a year of Virginia social history as it happened in 1895 and 1896.
—reviewed by Mary Dessypris, Government Reference Services and Outreach Coordinator
Ann Field Alexander. Race Man: The Rise and Fall of the "Fighting Editor," John Mitchell Jr. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002. xiv + 258 pp. $32.95 (hardcover).
In this captivating biography, Ann Field Alexander examines the life of John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, businessman, politician, and advocate of African American rights during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in 1863 to slave parents, John Mitchell Jr. grew up as a house servant in the home of a prominent Richmond attorney. Following graduation from Richmond Normal and High School in 1881, Mitchell taught school first in Fredericksburg and then in Richmond. Soon after his return to Richmond, he began writing the "Old Dominion" column in the New York Globe. In 1883 a group of black Richmonders decided to publish a weekly paper, the Richmond Planet. The next year the Planet Publishing Company was formed and Mitchell became editor and manager of the Planet—a position he held for forty-five years. Through the editorial columns of the Planet, Mitchell voiced his opinions on controversial issues that resonated through Richmond, the South, and the country. Mitchell first gained recognition as a journalist through his attacks on the practice of lynching. As a member of the Richmond city council from 1888 to 1896, he actively lobbied for the citizens of Jackson Ward and for continued advances in education, employment, and civic projects. Mitchell lost his bid for reelection in 1896, a direct result of the disenfranchisement of black voters, achieved through the passage of the 1894 Walton Act. Mitchell, however, continued promoting the interests of blacks in Richmond and Virginia and ran for governor in 1921. Following his loss in the election, he focused his attention on his businesses. Unfortunately, Mitchell suffered staggering financial losses and was convicted on fraud charges in 1927. He died in 1929 at the age of sixty-six.
Mitchell was a vital figure in Richmond and the nation, speaking out against injustice and lobbying for the African American population. Race Man provides an excellent portrait of John Mitchell Jr. and his role in the efforts of African Americans to gain equal rights. Drawing on a variety of sources, Alexander crafts an engaging view of not only Mitchell's life, but also life in black Richmond during this time. Extensive endnotes also add to the richness of this book. Race Man illustrates the challenges faced by Mitchell and other African Americans in the South as their lives were altered by the Jim Crow laws. It is a must-have for all libraries.
—reviewed by Laura E. Drake, State Records Archivist
George Garrett. Southern Excursions: Views on Southern Letters in My Time. Edited by James Conrad McKinley. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xiv + 305 pp. $34.95 (hardcover).
Named by Governor Mark R. Warner in 2002 as Poet Laureate of Virginia, George Garrett has enjoyed a distinguished and influential career as novelist, playwright, poet, biographer, and critic. A dedicated teacher, he was for a time on the faculty at Hollins University and is currently professor emeritus of creative writing at the University of Virginia. In all these guises he has written about the South and about writers who write about it. This collection of essays, reviews, and interviews is his latest expedition into what has been a lifelong inquiry into the nature of southern literature.
Southern letters has a peculiar history. In 1917 H.L. Mencken famously dismissed the region's cultural achievements, including its literature, in his essay "The Sahara of the Bozart." Indeed, with few exceptions, the literature labored within a tradition that did not allow it to attain the mature sensibility displayed by the great New England writers. Much of the fiction centered on the plantation novel, a provincial literary genre the origins of which can be traced to John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832). Deeply influenced by the romances of Sir Walter Scott, the literature soon displayed an almost medieval sensibility. During the antebellum period South Carolinian William Gilmore Simms used elements of warfare and nobility to produce popular novels that celebrated the role of southern heroism in the Revolutionary War. In the 1880s and 1890s the sentimental and nostalgic stories of Thomas Nelson Page similarly recalled the glory of southern arms during the Civil War and lamented the destruction of the Virginia aristocracy. The chivalric code that gripped the region led Mark Twain to exclaim that Scott had in large measure brought on the war. Stung by criticism, leading men of letters compiled the seventeen-volume Library of Southern Literature between 1909 and 1923 in an effort to demonstrate that the South did possess a consequential literature. About the turn of the century Local Color writers produced a superficial brand of realistic southern fiction, but it was not until the novels of William Faulkner that the region freed itself from outdated literary forms and, using a stunning mix of romance and realism that sometimes approached the grotesque, created a modern literature that was regional in focus but universal in meaning.
Garrett invokes the first great generation of modern southern writers, among them Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Robert Penn Warren, when examining, as he does here, the credentials of the succeeding generation. Although he praises the high art of such writers as William Hoffman and Peter Taylor and singles out deserving authors who have been overlooked or underappreciated by the reading public, he is not afraid to express unpopular opinions. Reviewing the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989), he is critical of what he believes is the undue emphasis on white guilt and white fear in citing the improvement in race relations in the South, stating that there is little proof of either in the larger population but evidence of both in "certain intellectual communities" (p. 58). He maintains that the worst war in modern times, the Civil War, continues to be the central drama in southern history and believes that the generation that fought in and survived that war has yet to be fully understood. Included in the book is Garrett's keynote address delivered at the Fellowship of Southern Writers conference in 2001. He praises both the new diversity that characterizes the literature and the appearance of gifted young writers, but expresses concern over what he sees as an unsettling absence of critical opinion that is willing to challenge the conventions and clichés of the prevailing wisdom. Declaring that some writers are inhibited by a fear of being "misperceived," he cautions that too frequently the result is writing that is aesthetically pleasing but noncontroversial (pp. 296-297).
Such honesty and insight await the reader of this volume, which deserves a place alongside Garrett's other works on the Virginia bookshelf.
—reviewed by Donald W. Gunter, Assistant Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Henri Garidel, of New Orleans, spent half of the Civil War in Richmond, exiled from his native city because he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the United States after the city fell to the Union army. French was his first language, and while in Richmond he kept a journal that has finally been translated and edited by Michael Bedout Chesson and Leslie Jean Roberts in Exile in Richmond: The Confederate Journal of Henri Garidel (A Nation Divided: New Studies in Civil War History Series. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. xvi + 465 pp. $35.00 [hardcover]). Garidel was in Richmond from the summer of 1863 until the summer of 1865 and was present for the demise of the Confederacy and for the evacuation and destructive fire that punctuated the end of the Civil War. Not a combatant and not a politician, he was an exile in search of a good place to sleep, decent food to eat, a Catholic church to attend, and intelligent conversation to enjoy. He was almost always disappointed. Finally landing a clerical job in the War Department, he watched in dismay as the Confederacy collapsed around him. As an outsider in the capital of the Confederacy, he viewed the city differently than any other person, male or female, whose memoirs or diaries have been published. Garidel's journal is a bracing alternative view of life in the capital of the Confederacy.
—reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
J. Franklin Dyer, of Massachusetts, spent most of the Civil War in Virginia as an army surgeon. He knew or met all the Union army generals of consequence who served in Virginia during the war, but as a surgeon he spent most of his time behind the lines. He was an astute judge of commanders and a sympathetic caregiver to the men. He also paid close attention to his surroundings, recording the sights and sounds of Civil War Virginia and marking how, during the course of the war, the countryside was devastated and the poor people driven to severe want. Dyer's journal (The Journal of a Civil War Surgeon, ed. Michael B. Chesson. Lincoln, Nebr., and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. xxxv + 317 pp. $25.00 [softcover]) presents a well-informed view of the war's effects on Virginia's society and its people. Dyer grew to like the state and to feel sympathy for its people, but as the war progressed his criticism of its slave society and the fell consequences of that society's choice for war intensified.
—reviewed by Brent Tarter, Editor, Dictionary of Virginia Biography
Sara B. Bearss is Senior Editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, published by the Library of Virginia.