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Friday, August 15, 2014

Southern Honor by Bertram Wyatt-Brown~★★★★★

Author: Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Title: Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South
Release Date: August 31, 2007 (originally released in 1982)
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 25th anniversary edition
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Cover: "Hailed in The Washington Post as 'a work of enormous imagination and enterprise' and in The New York Times as 'an important, original book,' Southern Honor revolutionized our understanding the antebellum South, revealing how Southern men adopted an ancient honor code that shaped their society from top to bottom. Using legal documents, court cases, letters, diaries, memoirs, and newspaper columns, Wyatt-Brown offers fascinating examples to illuminate the dynamics of Southern life throughout the antebellum period. He describes how Southern whites, living chiefly in small, rural, agrarian surroundings, in which everyone knew everyone else, established the local hierarchy of kinfolk and neighbors according to their individual and familial reputation. By claiming honor and dreading shame, they controlled their slaves, ruled their households, established the social rankings of themselves, kinfolk, and neighbors, and responded ferociously against perceived threats. Honor required men to demonstrate their prowess and engage in fierce defense of individual, family, community, and regional reputation by duel, physical encounter, or war. Any threat, whether from the slaves themselves or from outside agitation, had to be met forcefully. Featuring a new introduction by the author, this anniversary edition of a classic work offers readers a compelling view of Southern culture before the Civil War." 

Taryn's Review: Now that I live in the South, my move and work have brought up a lot of historical questions for me. As I learn more about the region's history, the nagging questions of "Why?" entered my mind often. Why were men so violent? Why did the communities partake in violence against people? Why were some people ostracized and not others? Even reading about a man like Jackson, who participated in duels and executed his own men, raised questions for me as to how he was accepted by the community and even the nation after such misdeeds. Under what circumstances could bad behavior become negated when overruled by the community-at-large?

Bertram Wyatt-Brown answered my questions and he answered them well. When I first began the book, it was a bit theoretical and technical. However, once Wyatt-Brown delved into the sources, his thesis became much clearer. While this book was written by an academic for academics, I think it is one that a history lover could appreciate as well. The rich variety of primary sources that Wyatt-Brown included make this book incredibly readable and memorable.

I definitely have a better understanding of the social mores and culture that pervaded antebellum Southern mindset. The book also demonstrated how incredibly violent and menacing life in the antebellum years could be. I chuckled to myself when I think of the people who long for "the good old days" of yesteryear; after reading this book, one should be grateful that we've evolved in social and justice matters. Definitely a fantastic read for anyone interested in Southern history. The book comes in big at 500 pages, but trust me, once you start getting into the meat of the book, it will quickly become an entertaining read.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Waking Giant by David S. Reynolds~★★★★★

Author: David S. Reynolds
Title: Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson
Release Date: September 30, 2008
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Non-fiction

Book Jacket: "America experienced unprecedented expansion and turmoil in the years between 1815 and 1848. In Waking Giant, Bancroft Prize-winning historian and literary critic David S. Reynolds illuminates the period's exciting political story as well as the fascinating social and cultural movements that influenced it. He casts fresh light on Andrew Jackson, who redefined the presidency, along with John Quincy Adams and James K. Polk, who expanded the nation's territory and strengthened its position internationally.
Waking Giant captures the turbulence of a democracy caught in the throes of the controversy over slavery, the rise of capitalism, and the birth of urbanization. Reynolds reveals unknown dimensions of the Second Great Awakening with it sects, cults, and self-styled prophets. He brings to life the reformers, abolitionists, and temperance advocates who struggled to correct America's worst social ills. He uncovers the political roots of some of America's greatest authors and artists, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe to Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, and he reveals the shocking phenomena that marked the age: bloody duels and violent mobs, P.T. Barnum's freaks and all-seeing mesmerists, polygamous prophets and wealthy prostitutes, table-lifting spiritualists and rabble-rousing feminists. All were crucial to the political and social ferment that led to the Civil War.
Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Waking Giant is a brilliant chronicle of America's vibrant and tumultuous rise."

Taryn's Review: I was looking on a bookshelf at work for a particular book (that I never found) when this book caught my attention. It was partially hidden between two big books and since I hadn't heard of it, I took it back to my desk to look it over. A quick Google search showed me that it was a well-rated book. One reviewer spoke about how much he had enjoyed the sociological view the book presented and that comment intrigued me. I figured I would give the book a chance.

I am really glad I read this book. While most of the political chapters were refreshers for me, I must say that Reynolds did a fantastic job overall. While understanding the Second Great Awakening can be difficult for academics, Reynolds broke the information down in his chapter, "God's Many Kingdoms," so that it was accessible and fluid for both academics and general readers alike. He seamlessly transitioned from each subtopic while keeping my attention focused and alert.

The other chapters included great topics like literature, art, fads, inventions, reforms, rebellions, and more. When many of us are taught about these varying subjects, they are often taught alone and without the understanding that the topic was layered among many other happenings in the world at that time. I love that Reynolds combined them to help the reader understand how multifaceted the early nineteenth century truly was.

Reynolds is a great writer and that only added to the smoothness of the reading. I really appreciated how detailed this book was and it is obvious that Reynolds extensively researched the material before putting this book together. I loved the random facts that he included, especially when it pertained to the origins of certain expressions or words. I was also delighted to learn facts that I hadn't previous known about like the USS Princeton explosion during Tyler's presidency, the political preferences of many well-known authors and painters, and how politics played into writers' works of literature and poetry.

This was a great read and a book that I plan to add to my personal bookshelf. I think it is a great overview of Jacksonian America that anyone can enjoy. It is well-researched, engaging, and thought-provoking. Reynolds made great connections between then and now, and his ability to take very difficult material and translate it into easy reading is admirable. This book covers so many topics that it would be a great read for anyone who enjoys American history, sociology, culture, or politics.