Another Angle on the State of Jones

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?

Even with all of this said, consider the following comment over at Edge of the American West on this issue:

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.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Sally Jenkins
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Joke of the Day

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.

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16 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 1, 2009

    “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.”

    No. Bad history is bad history. We can’t accept bad history because it flatters what we desire to be true, or because the bad history makes points with which we agree. For one thing, it cripples criticism of all bad history, since all we’ll hear is “well, that may be so, but the larger points still hold, because that’s how I’d like to recall the past.”

    Let’s put it this way. Back in 1997, a fairly positive biography of Ulysses S. Grant appeared. It was riddled with factual errors. Now, should people who disagreed with the portrait of Grant presented by William McFeely in his biography have applauded that book in spite of those errors? No. Moreover, much like Professor Bynum, I faced a challenge when I was asked to review the book. After all, I was also working on a Grant biography. Would any critical comments or highlighting these errors be seen as a form of dissin’ the competition? Or should I pass it to a reviewer less familiar with Grant, who might not realize the bizarre errors in said volume? That the author of this book had absolutely no problems in assailing his competition (and did so on C-SPAN’s Booknotes) made this even more interesting.

    So, since it presented a far more positive portrait of Grant, one that challenged certain misunderstandings, ought I just to let the scholarly missteps (some rather significant) fall to the wayside? And if so, what would anyone think of me? Wouldn’t I be more than complicit in a corrupt process?

    Open up this Pandora’s Box about “broader correctives”, and watch where it leads. I think you can make these points about a divided South in different ways.

    So, again, I say no, without a moment’s hesitation, and I say that we abandon our responsibilities as professional historians if we offer any other answer.

  • Larry Cebula Aug 1, 2009

    I think this is exactly right, Kevin. For the vast majority of people picking this book up at Costco the fact that there were Unionist southerners will be a revelation. It will be fun to see what the Lost Causers do with this book.

    The “other historians have ignored my topic” B.S. is objectionable, but all too common. And the interpretive overreach here seems pretty modest compared to some other popular histories. Thing of Stephen Ambrose on the significance of Lewis and Clark: “They invented America!” he said.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2009

    Brooks,

    Thanks for the comment. Of course, the last thing I want to do here is open up a Pandora’s Box. By looking at this from a purely consequentialist/utilitarian perspective I am hoping to steer clear of that, but perhaps it is impossible. If there is any value here to speak of it is not in the interpretation itself. I want to reiterate that there is nothing redeeming in this shoddy piece of history and the value that I speak of is minimalist at best and it is only to be found by momentarily minimizing (not ignoring) the more crucial concerns of truth and accuracy. One can assume that no historian is going to aspire to this – well, let’s hope that is true. Finally, nothing I’ve said should be interpreted in any way as a suggestion that as historians we should ignore our responsibilities to offer reasonable critiques of new scholarship.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 2, 2009

    Question, Kevin: Have you actually gotten around to reading the book in question?

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2009

      Yes, I finished most of it before I left for Amsterdam and knocked off the last chapter or so last week.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 2, 2009

    Larry: A “Lost Causer” will presumably read these posts and emphasize the the book making this argument is characterized as bad history. Doesn’t exactly advance whatever cause some people want to advance. If the major concern is dissent within the CSA by southern whites, then time is better spent highlighting those books that present a far more compelling argument sustained by sound scholarship.

    This whole argument promises to grease a slippery slope.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2009

      Brooks,

      I agree with you that this does run the risk of leading to a “slippery slope”. The point of the post was simply to report on the broader response to this book and offer an assessment. I have to assume that you understand that I am not suggesting that this is how we ought to evaluate new historical studies. By all means we should highlight more reputable books and I couldn’t be more pleased that this debate has exposed people to Prof. Bynum’s research and blog, but the fact is that the vast majority of people who consider The State of Jones will never read through these exchanges. I was just wondering what they might walk away with given the continued prevalence of the Lost Cause.

      I know you directed that comment at Larry, but I thought I might respond.

  • TF Smith Aug 2, 2009

    Given the generally poor record of Hollywood when it comes to American history, is the question really whether half a loaf is better than none?

    As in does the reality that the Stauffer/Jenkins book/movie novelization may reinforce the points that A) the Civil War was fought over slavery; B) slavery was unrefined cruelty, and C) the pro-slavery rebellion of the Confederacy against the United States was opposed by many southerners (white and black), outweigh the lack of academic rigor and intellectual honesty that has been explored in great detail in the past few weeks in this and other forums? (Fora?)

    I have great sympathy for Dr. Bynum, and agree with Dr. Simpson’s arguments; that being said, given the generally crappy record of popular entertainment regarding American history (the premis of Tarantino’s in-coming opus on WW II sets my teeth on edge), perhaps the pragmatic response is simply to be thankful for small favors?

    As in, this is about the best that can be expected from the likes of Ross and Jenkins; but Stauffer’s involvement leaves me wondering…

    YMMV, of course.

  • Jonathan Odell Aug 2, 2009

    After interviewing many of the “Black Knight” descendants, one thing I’ve learned that concerns them is how easily whites are convinced to idealize the “romantic” relationship between Knight and the ex-slave Rachel. I don’t think they would agree with the commentator you quote when he says, “it’s less problematic that they sexed up a romantic relationship for the sake of a film.”

    Black women in the days following the Civil War were at the bottom of the heap power-wise. Whether Knight’s assumed romantic feelings for Rachel were reciprocated is missing the point. We will never know, because in the context of that era, it was irrelevant. Good for her if she did, but for black mothers in those days, romantic love was not the driving motivation. Who they loved was immaterial to surviving. She had to find the least worst choice that would keep her and her children alive. Sexing up the relationship for a more satisfying (and modern) ending, further obscures the wrenching sacrifices made and amazing courage displayed by black women of that era.

  • Jonathan Odell Aug 2, 2009

    Just another thought. I was raised in Jones County and have been fascinated to find that the Knights was not the only family line that diverged down two paths after the Civil War. Several former slave owners sired black offspring, and in this part of the country, the norm was that even your black children were to be cared for. Many acres of land are still owned by descendants of slaves who were bequeathed the parcel by a white father. But in none of these incidents do the direct black descendant assume that anything like romantic love played a part. According to them black women after the War were as much sexual slaves to white men as they were before the war. And interestingly enough, neither do they call it rape. “Taking somebody to the barn,” as they commonly refer to the occurrence, was just the nature of things. I guess that’s why context is everything. And the notion of 21st Century romantic love is not relevant contextually.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 2, 2009

    Jonathan,

    Thanks for the comment. I should have noted that I am less concerned with the content of the quote than the overall question of whether the perspective I outlined in the post is warranted at all.

  • Peter Aug 2, 2009

    Kevin,
    It seems to me that as Brooks points out, most people seek out what they want to believe and are quite comfortable on the whole to dismiss all else (think here of a relativist “flavor of ice-cream” line of argument). The very nature of our democratic society today reinforces this privatization of the past and perhaps demands it. To turn to an adjunct point; I suspect that most people who are willing to weigh competing interpretations (whether against whatever “popular Civil War memory” might be or a different historical interpretation) will do so. Chances are, they have already walked away from some other book with a challenge to the Lost Cause already. So I think the “utilitarian approach” really just covers the segment of the population who (a)reads books (b)accepts challenges to their interpretations, and (c)has not yet picked up anything on the Civil War in the past 25 years (d)will buyJenkins and Stauffer’s book because they saw publicity for it somewhere.

  • Sarah Wilkerson Freeman Aug 3, 2009

    While this commentary is good stuff (excellent points about gender/race and power), there is an important part of the controversy that goes far beyond issues of valid history and valid interpretations–a screenwriter for Universal was so taken by Bynum’s book that he bought the film rights from UNC Press, and then turned around and shopped it to Doubleday to “inspire” a book. Isn’t there something very wrong with this picture? Especially since we hear Sally Jenkins snidely asserting on camera, before millions of Daily Show viewers, that southern historians did not like the Newt Knight story so they deliberately ignored it and wrote it out of history.

    She is clearly making false claims about the originality of “State of Jones,” and seems to think that burying Bynum’s work in order to claim more for her and Stauffer than they deserve is just okay. Her efforts to give the book a scholarly pedigree by saying that her co-author is a “history professor” is especially troubling since Stauffer is an English prof., not a trained historian.

    If Bynum had been told that this was what the screenwriter intended to do with the rights, and if Jenkins did not keep telling millions of people that this was a big new discovery that historians deliberately buried, then we could simply debate the quality of the scholarship and interpretations–but that is not the case. There is an ethical issue here. A great injustice has been done to a bonafide southern historian. Furthermore, if this movie gets made and it is another glossy, sexy, based-on-bad-history commercial product that claims to be historically accurate, it does a huge disservice and complicates our already difficult job of teaching our students the difference between history, mythology, folklore, Hollywood—and deliberate deception.

    • Kevin Levin Aug 3, 2009

      Sarah,

      You make some excellent points here. First, I believe Stauffer is an American Studies Professor at Harvard, which I assume involves training different from an English Professor. There is something very wrong with this picture and you put your finger on it. Actually, you’ve raised two important issues. The first one is nothing new when it comes to the publicity tours for new books. In this case, I suspect that Jenkins is woefully ignorant of the broader historiographic terrain, though she is clearly aware of Bynum’s work on the subject. As for the screenplay, I have no idea what transpired behind the scenes. You are right that it will a sad day indeed if the movie is made and reflects the shoddy scholarship in the Jenkins-Stauffer book.

  • Brooks Simpson Aug 3, 2009

    It’s worth making clear that my response to Kevin’s post was directed to the broad question he raised. As I’ve not read the book by Jenkins and Stauffer, I don’t have anything to say about it, and I won’t until I’ve read it.

  • Allen Aug 7, 2009

    I have been reading about Newt Knight on the internet for the past week and happen across this site. Though I am not educated as many that post here I have lived in Jones County for the past 63 years. Jonathan post was a very insiteful bit of information that I had never considered. And the consequences of overlooking his points are obivious. As far as the legend of Newt Knight goes he would be considered a terrotist in todays terms. As legend goes around here he would take food or whatever he needed to survive in his flight from the Confederacy, praying on the weak and helpless. He was never considered a hero of anything except his own survival by anyone that I have talked to.

    As far a the Free State of Jones goes and its orgin, not the book, one would best be served by reading the writing of Goode Montgomery. Even so one must remember that his writing were in the early 1900 when the KKK was very real and very powerful and that even Mr. Montgomery may not have been as candid as he would be today.

    For those of you that are interested in the civil rights history I would recommend the reading of, Clear Burning, by W. A. Chet Dillard. Dillard was a District Attorney for Jones County in the turbelent 60s and provided me with an insight to that time that I was unaware of, even though I was a resident of Jones County. The book is out of print but one may be able to find it on Ebay or similiar site. It starts off slow but is a very insightful book as far as the civil right go to Jones County. I apologize for getting off subject here but just wanted to share this information.

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