I‘ve been thinking quite a bit about this little controversy as I make my way around the blogosphere and read the comments from various quarters. While there is no way of getting around the fact that this book has serious interpretive flaws, I have to wonder whether, in the end, the book has some redeeming qualities. It may be more accurate to suggest that given the state of our popular memory of the South, slavery, race, and the Civil War generally this book may still serve a positive function.
Let’s start off with the unfortunate fact that nothing about the recent controversy between Prof. Bynum and Ms. Jenkins and Prof. Stauffer that has surfaced on blogs and various news sites is going to make any difference. All of this will pass harmlessly under the radar screens of the vast majority of people who hear about The State of Jones. And even for those who come across it, many will assess it as something other than a difference over how the practice of history is carried out. Come to think of it, is it any wonder that Jenkins and Stauffer have resisted responding to their critics?
I find this conflict slightly odd, in that I’ve always considered “popular history” as not only a perfectly valid field of enterprise, but a rather important one in terms of shaping historical memory and understanding in the general public. Which means its important not to get things wrong in ways that have a negative impact, like the Shara oeuvre and its intersection with Reconciliationist/Lost Cause renderings of the Civil War.
Now, if the “State of Jones” folks got stuff really wrong, that’s problematic, but it’s less problematic that they sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film, if the film does the important work of A. reminding people that the South was not 100% pro-Confederate (and implicitly that folks in Jones County, or Winston County, or any of the other Unionist highlands, shouldn’t go around with Confederate flags), B. reminding people that the Confederacy was not some libertarian paradise with mint juleps and hoop skirts and in fact was a rather ugly and oppressive regime, which importantly reflects on the men and women who fought for or supported it., and C. presenting an interracial relationship in a good light, which is rarely done in any kind of cinema.
Let’s set aside the assumption that this book was written in anticipation of a movie deal. I don’t know whether that is true and it does not impact one way or the other on the quality of the research. The more interesting question to consider is whether the broader corrective to our popular Civil War memory that this book presents trumps the more specific flaws that are so readily apparent.
I watched Ms. Jenkins’s recent appearance on the Jon Stewart Show and while I was appalled by her statement that historians have ignored this subject as well as her assertion that Newt Knight went further than most Northern abolitionists, I did have to consider the consequences of other comments asserting the importance of slavery as a cause of the war, challenging the notion that the Confederacy was monolithic, and reminding viewers of the real tragedy of Reconstruction.
After I finished watching the interview I did a few Twitter searches to gauge how the general public is assessing the book. See for yourself, here. I didn’t make my way through all of the reviews, but the book seems to be doing well at Amazon. We could simply write off these people as incompetent in their inability to properly judge historical studies, but that wouldn’t get us very far given that most consumers of popular history assume that what they are reading is legitimate. Rather, I think that what is appropriate here is a consequentialist view of the value of The State of Jones.
I’ve spent too much time on this blog discussing and clarifying such topics as black Confederates, challenging various organizations for intentionally distorting the past, and exposing dangerous texts not to take this view. Even a cursory glance at the broad terrain that is our nation’s Civil War memory reveals a narrative that in many ways has not evolved beyond a Lost Cause view that has dominated the cultural landscape since the end of the nineteenth century. If The State of Jones can offer readers a perspective that challenges some of these deeply-engrained assumptions about the Civil War than perhaps we will have found some value in it.