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January/February/March, 2012
Volume 58, Number 1

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Virginia Reviews

quill bulletYoung, Virginia E. Randolph-Macon College. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2011. 127 pp. ISBN-13: 9780738587121.

The story of Randolph-Macon College is told through the lens of a camera. Dr. Virginia E. Young has tapped the rich resources of the college’s archives to tell the story of Randolph-Macon from its founding in 1830 to the present. The book’s introduction describes the founding of the college in Boydton, Virginia, by Rev. Hezekiah Leigh and Bishop John Early, its early history, and its eventual relocation to Ashland, Virginia. During its early years, Randolph-Macon was a male residential college, although “many Ashland girls were able to attend classes.” The college became coeducational in 1971, “five years after African-Americans were admitted.” Randolph-Macon has the distinction of being “the oldest Methodist-related college, founded by Methodists, in continual operation by date of charter (February 3, 1830) in the United States.”

The format of the book — photographs with extensive captions — provides a richness that is often lacking in college histories. The scanned images of the student pledge (entering students still sign this pledge during a matriculation ceremony each fall), the 1839 catalog, and a freshman plan of study illustrate the educational philosophy of the founders. With relocation to Ashland, the college expanded its campus to accommodate an increasing number of students, academic offerings, and extracurricular activities (literary societies and sports). The college became an integral part of the Ashland community as the campus “footprint” expanded. An aerial view (1922) and a campus map (1965) illustrate this growth as the college and community became one. Numerous campus photographs with detailed captions illustrate the connection between the college and the town.

The story of Randolph-Macon is also told through the lives of the faculty, students, staff, and members of the community. Photographs of students engaged in numerous activities tell the stories of both campus life outside the classroom and college traditions. The wealth of photographic material as well as scrapbooks and other memorabilia donated to the college’s archives and special collections reflects the devotion of members of the Randolph-Macon College family.

Although this book has a limited audience (faculty, staff, students, and alumni of Randolph-Macon College), individuals interested in higher education, and the development of small liberal arts colleges, as well as residents of Ashland, will enjoy reading the text and studying the pictures.
     — Caryl Gray, college librarian (retired), University Libraries, Virginia Tech

quill bulletGraham, Allison, and Sharon Monteith, eds. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.Vol. 18. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 624 pp. ISBN-13: 9780807871430. $26.95 (softcover).

This recent volume in the UNC Press series focuses on media in the South, both what this media influences and how it has been influenced in turn. The first half of the encyclopedia features a series of scholarly articles covering everything from Hollywood cinema and television to photography to news and print journalism. Southern product is examined as well as work created outside and about the South.

The interrelations of these two facets are discussed repeatedly, making several claims: the South has created a stereotyped image of itself; several media outlets within the South defy and move past stereotypes; images created outside the South have shaped ideas about the South (sometimes unfairly); etc. Additionally, certain themes keep popping up again and again in the articles, most notably themes of race.

The bulk of the articles in the first half examine film and cinema in and of the South. Deliverance, Nashville, and Roots are mentioned over and over again. Certainly, their importance should not be diminished. What is most fascinating is that several authors make mention of these films’ influences outside the South. Roots was filmed mostly on Hollywood sound stages, and Deliverance was directed by John Boorman of the United Kingdom. Robert Altman was from Missouri, but has been criticized both for his sometimes too acute observations and for his unfair characterizations. (It is also interesting that A Prairie Home Companion, Altman’s final work focusing on both mortality and Southern tradition, receives no mention in the book.) Perhaps the most oft-mentioned film in the book is D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. How often Hollywood forgets that it owes the explosion of its own industry to the complex and too frequently oversimplified racial tension of the South.

Roots was filmed mostly on Hollywood sound stages ….

The articles cover a myriad of other topics as well. One article relates the brief rise and fall of Jacksonville, Florida, as a major competitor to Hollywood during the silent film era. Another discusses Frank Capra’s work in North Carolina and numerous film studios in Wilmington.

The other large group of articles in the first half of the book covers news media in the South. These articles focus primarily on how television news and photojournalism brought attention to civil rights in the 1960s. Martyr Emmett Till receives reference after reference, perhaps more so than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The articles also focus on segregationists’ use of media (mostly unsuccessful with the advent of transcontinental film) to blunt the efforts of civil rights activists. (Indeed, as in other volumes, race relations and their violent history in the South might well be the predominant theme here.)

The second half of the book features a series of short articles on a huge variety of topics, breaking away from the focus on cinema and news. One article covers the Dixie Chicks controversy. Another discusses James Agee, renowned more for his prose, but mentioned here for his film work. Several actors and related personalities are covered: Burt Reynolds, Jim Bakker, Ted Turner, Horton Foote, even William Faulkner (though he may not have ever actually written a single word of a screenplay).1 Several films and television shows receive short articles: A Streetcar Named Desire, Mandingo, The Andy Griffith Show, The Dukes of Hazard, Gone with the Wind, et al.

The book is a wonderful cornucopia of exposition and analysis of film and journalistic images of and about the South. Each of the authors lists example after example. Every article is detailed, documented, and professional (not an easy thing under such word-length constraints). This book would be a wonderful tool for any film student focusing on the region.

What is perhaps most fascinating is that, although these articles come from an array of authors across the South, the Deep South, and even the fringes of the Midwest, they all find common ground and common themes. Real or imagined, these authors all see the same patterns in the history and popular culture of the films, celebrities, and topics they discuss. The commonality only proves, once again, that the South is a distinct culture worthy of continued study.

1. Marc Norman, What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting (New York: Harmony Books, 2007), 241–246.
     — Joseph Yamine, English professor and writer from Roanoke

quill bulletNeofotis, Peter. Concord, Virginia: A Southern Town in Eleven Stories. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-53737-1. $19.99 (hardcover).

In Concord, Virginia, Peter Neofotis chronicles the lives of Virginians in a small Southern town set in the beautiful hills of central Virginia. Though the town itself is fictitious, the people who populate it represent well the varied history, experiences, attitudes, outlook, family backgrounds, education, and philosophy of life that illustrate the many changes Virginia has undergone and the rich variety of citizens who make it their home. Backed by an explanatory timeline that stretches from 1951 through 1979 (provided by Rachel Stetson, who is herself a figure in the book), the nonlinear arrangement of the stories allows readers to follow the life and characters of this small town as if they were fellow inhabitants whose memories carried them forward and back. Further adding to the sense of familiarity with the town and its people is the way that the main subject of one story becomes an anecdote in another one further down the line — or, conversely, is mentioned in passing in an earlier story, providing foreshadowing and piquing the reader’s interest. From time to time, the town as a whole even addresses the reader in familiar or welcoming tones: “It is we, the voices of Concord, Virginia — replenished by a mountain river — inviting you, friend, to swim in our abiding story” (2).

Readers take part in the characters’ tragedies, triumphs, secrets, and odd successes with an intimacy that feels entirely natural. Strange, unlooked-for redemption finds these characters in surprising ways that lift the spirit past the grim outlook one might have expected of people such as an exsoldier whose experience in Korea included the Tiger Death March and ostracism after he returned home for being a POW; a champion horse-rider whose father murders her mother, then her horse, before she finally shoots him; a gay man on trial for a false accusation of rape brought by his closeted lover; and a white descendent of Thomas Jefferson who finds her former black lover chained by the Ku Klux Klan to the Natural Bridge above the Fork River in the Concord Pass.

Strange, unlooked-for redemption finds these characters in surprising ways ….

Yet balancing these tragic events, the surprising goodness of life carries an elation that soars like the last swinging dive by the town’s two oldest citizens from the branches of Methuselah, the oldest tree in town. Through trickery and the naïveté of the younger generation, Virginia Energy has finally built a hydroelectric dam at the end of the Concord Pass, which will flood the tree. The whole town had rallied to defend the tree for years, using their own wily tricks; yet even as we face the approaching death of the tree and two beloved characters, the last sight is a joyous moment. The “river started to claim Methuselah, the black walnut tree. [Elise] helped [Alistair] as they scaled the nailed-on ladder planks … [to the] highest branches… . [H]igh above Indian Pool, they rested, prayed to God, then pulled up the rope swing with their feeble hands. They jumped, sailing through the air like a pendulum, releasing themselves at the most distant and highest point. Arms opening like the wings of a dove while holding each other’s hands, the Ancients then, for old times’ sake, gave that wild river one last dive” (170).

Life’s ironies may be painful at times, but for the most part are prized for the opportunity they present for redemption or the chance to see life with new eyes. In particular, the characters’ ability to carry on, find goodness in life, and help one another despite — or perhaps because of — these vicissitudes endear them to the reader. These moments of personal uplift, and the ability of the town itself to grow in wisdom and community spirit, can be seen throughout the book. George MacJenkins, who perpetually mourns the wife he accidentally shot while hunting, and has given up guns — and has an aversion for birds — as a result, finds his yard invaded by vultures that fill the yard and his daughters’ playhouse with vomit and droppings. Fireworks don’t scare off the birds, but while he’s debating whether to break his own ban against violence to kill them, the vultures save his daughters from a rabid dog, tearing it to shreds before their eyes. After this, the vultures are welcome visitors. Violet Graves, whose early life and adulthood were spent in slavery, was educated by her Northern-born master’s wife and entrusted with management of the estate. Violet’s husband, inspired by her readings of Frederick Douglass, particularly the quote, “those who would be free, themselves must strike the first blow” (65), enlisted and was killed in World War II. Their son James, the bright spot in his mother’s life, is “part of the first integrated class at Stonewall Jackson High School … [and] made even Simon Donald run at full pace in the race for class rank” (68). Following his father’s example, James refuses to botch his physical for Vietnam even at Simon’s urging, but returns from Vietnam just in time to save this friend from the lies of Simon’s former lover on the stand. Though not gay himself, James pretends to be so in order to expose the treachery of Jackson McCormick, who would accuse Simon of rape rather than have the community and his prominent father believe him gay after he and Simon are discovered together. Following this, despite the previous fervor of the trial, James’s heroism causes the town to acknowledge and accept Simon as one of their own. After James dies of brain cancer caused by Agent Orange, a fact the government refuses to acknowledge, Violet takes to burning the flag every Fourth of July, and the town gathers to salute her: “We remember standards, expectations, mistakes, and dreams. As the flames engulf the flag, the people of Concord, Virginia, hope to do better” (73).

… Violet takes to burning the flag every Fourth of July, and the town gathers to salute her ….

As in any life, the characters experience highs, lows, and plenty of in-betweens; interesting and eccentric, they each have their own quirks and failings, and at times their hatred may even overwhelm their love. Yet the human complexities that make them challenging only bring these characters more fully to life. Upon finding Tom Dorian chained on the Natural Bridge, Mary Anne Randolph has to fight her own bitterness before she can decide to save him. Forbidden by her father to have a black man’s child, Mary Anne had fled home, only to lose the baby; though she later returned, Tom married another white woman instead. But the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, ancestor to both her and Tom, inhabits Tom’s unconscious body to argue with Mary Anne. She blames him: “All you had to do was lift your famed pen to make it okay for me to love Tom Dorian.” Faced with proof in the form of his descendent Tom, Jefferson admits to his affair with Sally Hemings, saying she “made me feel healthy and alive” (105). But even now he won’t admit that he loved her, reserving that sentiment for his wife. Though she can never be satisfied with Jefferson’s answers — or the cruel irony of Tom’s marriage — Mary Anne breaks Tom’s chains and carries him to the hospital.

This book is a tour de force, a work of amazing beauty and depth that holds together from beginning to end. It grabs the heart and doesn’t let go. Due to the book’s literary quality, its complex thematic unity and poetic language, as well as the compelling narratives and accessible characters in these joined stories, I highly recommend this for both public and academic libraries — and especially for anyone with an interest in Virginia culture.
      — Lyn C. A. Gardner, Hampton Public Library

quill bulletWood, Amy Louise, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 19. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 368 pp. ISBN-13: 9780807872161. $45.00 (hardcover).

If violence truly sells as much as sex, then the latest volume of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture has best seller written all over it. This volume, Violence, is aptly named. It covers a wide array of topics dealing directly and indirectly with the South’s reputation for hostility. Much of the book is devoted to topics related to slavery and the civil rights era, but it also covers juxtaposed topics like the definition of honor and the concept of Southern hospitality. It also covers a variety of indirect topics like cockfighting, nonviolent protest, and the dichotomy of religion and its relationship to Southern violence. It even covers a few seldom-mentioned topics like slave-on-slave violence and Native American violence, including actions before the arrival of Europeans as well as their retaliation against Europeans.

Several themes and reiterated concepts pop up repeatedly: the traditions of violence inherited from Scotch-Irish herding cultures, the bitterness instilled by Reconstruction, and how the South has a mysterious predisposition for bloodshed and homicide. Some of the more expected articles in relation to these themes include entries on the Second Amendment, the Ku Klux Klan, feuding, dueling, military traditions, prison life, and vigilantism and the popularization of the outlaw hero. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway steal the cover of the book, but barely receive a mention inside, while their real-life counterparts get hefty coverage. (It’s fascinating to flip back and forth between the real-life and Hollywood pictures of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.)

… the South has a mysterious predisposition for bloodshed and homicide.

Perhaps the most absorbing part of the book is a chapter on the early years of the Italian Mafiosi in Louisiana — contemporary with the early mob in New York and New Jersey — complete with references to Huey Long, Meyer Lansky, and even Jack Ruby. (Who doesn’t love a good conspiracy theory?)

As usual, the second half of the book contains several short and more specific articles. These short pieces relate specific events encompassing everything from Bacon’s Rebellion to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Many of them relate specific events of rioting and lynching throughout the history of the South. Several of them provide short histories of famous places like the Alamo and Angola Prison, as well as biographies of famous people like the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde and Huey Long.

The latest volume of The New Encyclopedia is distinctly shorter than previous volumes, but this fact does not diminish the importance and appeal of the work. Like its predecessors, it will provide a fine starting point for academic research for generations to come (if those generations don’t kill each other first).
     — Joseph Yamine, English professor and writer from Roanoke VL

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