Jonathan Yardley has one of the coolest jobs around. He gets paid to read good books and right about them. Here are his picks for best books of 2006 and I am pleased to see both Jonathan Skokol’s study of the Civil Rights Movement and Joan Cashin’s biography of Varina Davis, both of which I’ve read and highly recommend. From Yardley’s review:
Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year’s
best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention
because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally
and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make
no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever
since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside
Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside
unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who
were older than my mother.
That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the
threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of
segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a
Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites
called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and
uninterested in rising above it.
The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How
the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil
Rights, 1945-1975, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done
exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to
generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political
and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly,
noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some
whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal
with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity
of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught
on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.
The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their
midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this
is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. Her
title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis’s wife
encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the
point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external
struggles. She doesn’t seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally
and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war
unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was
expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and
apparently wasn’t afraid to tell him so.
I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from both book, but if you choose one read Skokol. I will be very surprised if this book does not win a few awards. One quick word about biographies. This past week two fellow Civil War bloggers addressed a question about the merits of Ed Longacre’s work. The concern was in regard to whether the frequency of his published work threatens its overall quality. Apart from a review I did of one of Longacres’s cavalry studies for the journal Civil War History I am not familiar with his more recent biographies so I can’t comment. I will say, however, that I tend to stay away from historians who pump out books at a high rate, especially in the area of biography. You can easily distinguish between those biographies that are the result of a careful reading of both the primary and relevant secondary sources. More importantly, you can easily pick out the studies whose authors spent the necessary time thinking about their subject and trying to generate the right questions to ask. When I pick up a biography I want to read a preface that reflects both a careful research and writing process and that involves interaction with fellow historians. In short, I want to read a story of how the historian came to know his/her subject and this takes time. A perfect example is the 2-volume biography of W.E.B. Dubois by David L. Lewis that I am trying to get through.
Perhaps I could have simply said that I am not a fan of production-line history.