C. Vann Woodward is one of my favorite historians, especially his work on Southern history. My daughter, Sara, a history doctoral student and law student at Stanford, gives a penetrating look at issues raised by Woodward in a book review she wrote for one of her classes. The book reviewed is Peter Kolchin's "A Sphinx on the American Land."
Peter Kolchin’s A Sphinx on the
The various myths of American exceptionalism loom over every American historian in one way or another. But they loom especially large for historians of the American South, because they threaten to write the South out of
Yet for much of the 20th century, historians struggling to make sense of that experience did not seek inspiration or insight in the histories of
Over the past few decades, the study of Southern history has become both “Americanized” and (especially in recent years) “globalized.” Historians outside the South, and even outside the
By juxtaposing the South’s “peculiar institution” with Russian serfdom, Kolchin provocatively suggests that American slavery was not, perhaps, so thoroughly peculiar after all, even if its racial dimension was distinctive among systems of unfree labor. Kolchin’s primary thesis is that although the processes of emancipation were quite different in the
Kolchin also highlights, by contrast, the relative placidity of the postbellum South—an observation that will surely surprise American historians used to thinking of the late 19th century South as a uniquely violent and deeply divided society. After emancipation, Kolchin observes,
Kolchin’s own research takes up much of the book’s third chapter. The first two chapters are historiographical, evaluating other historians’ efforts at what might be called “internal comparisons,” whether comparing the South with the North, or the “many Souths” within the region. Here, two of Kolchin’s insights warrant particular emphasis. First, he interrogates the ideological implications attached to the traditional Southern historiographical categories—particularly the frequent implicit equation of “Southerner” with “white male adult Southerner.” For instance, the question of how much popular support the Confederacy enjoyed will have a different answer depending on which states are included in the sample, and whether or not blacks are included. Second, he insists upon attention to the dynamism of Southern institutions over time. Antebellum slavery was in many ways atypical of the institution throughout its history.
Yet though he devotes two of the three essays to internal comparisons, Kolchin’s real agenda here is to encourage more attention to international comparisons, the type of comparative history that has been least utilized by Southern historians. One of his more interesting proposals is for a study of Confederate nationalism through the lens of the historiography on 19th century European nationalisms. Kolchin also suggests that by placing the postwar South into global perspective, historians can not so much answer that enduring historiographical riddle—why did the South fail to grow?—as reframe it: The “‘tragic era’ paradigm of the postwar South” is “based on a tacit assumption that things usually go ‘right,’ that poverty, exploitation, and oppression are aberrations to be explained rather than normal features of human experience,” an assumption that may not hold up under an internationally comparative lens. Both through his explicit arguments and the implicit force of his example, Kolchin makes a strong case for the value of comparative history both generally and to Southern history in particular, and along the way, provides a useful brief introduction to the historiography of the American South.
 Of course, the South has had its own myths of exceptionalism, expressed in pop-culture stereotypes, academic histories, and everywhere in between.
 C. Vann Woodward, “The Irony of Southern History,” Journal of Southern History 19, no. 1 (Feb. 1953), 4-5. Woodward’s exact words are as follows: “from a broader point of view it is not the South but
 Woodward, 5.
Quite literally, Southern history was a discipline apart from not just world history but even American history: in C. Vann Woodward’s heyday, there was little need to distinguish between “Southern historians,” i.e., historians from the South, and “Southern historians,” i.e., historians of the South, since the two groups overlapped almost entirely. See Peter Kolchin, A Sphinx on the American Land: The South in Comparative Perspective (
 For example, Kolchin discusses how in the postwar “consensus” years the Civil War was re-defined “as a ‘needless war’ brought on by a ‘blundering generation,’” with the implication “that had it not been for extremist agitators, southerners and northerners would have been able to work out whatever minor differences they had.” Kolchin, 19. On the postwar emphasis on “consensus” history generally, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), especially 333-35. To be sure, the South hardly holds a monopoly on problematic episodes and themes. One historian has recently suggested that popular and historiographical notions of an “‘exceptional’ South [have] served as a useful scapegoat in the past and the present.” Laura F. Edwards, The People and Their Peace: Legal Culture and the Transformation of Inequality in the Post-Revolutionary South (
 Woodward, 4.
 Kolchin, 2.
 Thus, for instance, one set of historians has examined the American South alongside the Italian Mezzogiorno. Enrico Dal Lago and Rick Halpern, eds., The American South and the Italian Mezzogiorno: Essays in Comparative History (
 Kolchin previously published a comparative study of slavery and serfdom prior to emancipation, entitled Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1987). Kolchin apparently plans to publish the post-emancipation research as a sequel to that book. See Kolchin’s CV, available at http://www.udel.edu/History/bio/kolchin_peter.html (last visited
 Kolchin, 105.
 Kolchin, 106 (italics omitted).
 Kolchin, 106-7.
 Kolchin, 110.
 Kolchin, 57.
 Kolchin, 44-45.
 Kolchin, 88-89.
 Kolchin, 28-29.