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The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (1992)

by Edward L. Ayers

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295163,174 (4)9
At a public picnic in the South in the 1890s, a young man paid five cents for his first chance to hear the revolutionary Edison talking machine. He eagerly listened as the soundman placed the needle down, only to find that through the tubes he held to his ears came the chilling sounds of alynching. In this story, with its blend of new technology and old hatreds, genteel picnic and mob violence, Edward Ayers captures the history of the South in the years between Reconstruction and the turn of the century--a combination of progress and reaction that defined the contradictory promiseof the New South.Ranging from the Georgia coast to the Tennessee mountains, from the power brokers to tenant farmers, Ayers depicts a land of startling contrasts--a time of progress and repression, of new industries and old ways. Ayers takes us from remote Southern towns, revolutionized by the spread of therailroads, to the statehouses where Democratic "Redeemers" swept away the legacy of Reconstruction; from the small farmers, trapped into growing nothing but cotton, to the new industries of Birmingham; from abuse and intimacy in the family to tumultuous public meetings of the prohibitionists. Heexplores every aspect of society, politics, and the economy, detailing the importance of each in the emerging New South. Here is the local Baptist congregation, the country store, the tobacco-stained second-class railroad car, the rise of Populism: the teeming, nineteenth-century South comes tolife in these pages. And central to the entire story is the role of race relations, from alliances and friendships between blacks and whites to the spread of Jim Crow laws and disenfranchisement. Ayers weaves all these details into the contradictory story of the New South, showing how the regiondeveloped the patterns it was to follow for the next fifty years.When Edward Ayers published Vengeance and Justice, a landmark study of crime and punishment in the nineteenth-century South, he received wide acclaim. Now he provides an unforgettable account of the New South--a land with one foot in the future and the other in the past.… (more)

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This is a good book. It was a 1993 finalist for the Pulitzer (History) and a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. While it is not one of those light and fluffy anecdotal histories, Ayers does keep it from falling into the dry-as-dust category. You know the kind. Inside of ten minutes, half of your mind is making a grocery list. This book is just right.

He covers the period from about 1877 – the end of Reconstruction – and ends his book with the Atlanta race riot of 1906. There is, of course, coverage of the birth and growth of segregation, disfranchisement, how the newly freed managed to live - and prosper in some cases - and the anger they faced from the white quarter, but there is also what I thought was a balanced view of how things were for the white southerners of the time as well.

Naturally, there is a heavy concentration upon politics. I learned about the Farmer’s Alliance (white) and the Colored Farmers Alliance, the Populists and how the Democratic Party, finally realizing the threat of these organizations - made up of the politically ambitious as well as the angry, plain people of the South - roused itself enough to crush them flat, stomping out any and all opposition. It’s the usual story. The poor suffer and are ignored – the rich prosper and run everything to suit and benefit themselves.

One particular outfit I’d not known about before was the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor– an organization that came into being in the 1880’s and had both black and women members. They agitated for an eight-hour workday, child labor laws, the abolition of convict labor and equal pay for women doing the same work as men. Sadly, but predictably, this group did not have much success with their agenda

A chapter I really enjoyed was about Southern writers – Ellen Glasgow, Charles W. Chesnutt, John Fox, Jr., Kate Chopin, George W. Cable and many others – most of whom I’ve never heard of. Ayers also devoted another chapter to music – the beginnings of jazz and the blues in particular. I have to admit I did not care for that one as well, for I am mostly ignorant about music and have never found reading about it very compelling. Also, while I do like certain kinds of music, neither jazz nor the blues are among them. In addition to these subjects, there is thorough chapter-long coverage of religion, race relations, the growth of cities and towns, the growth of the mining, timber and textile industries and the consequent rape of the southern landscape and farmers. Women did not get their own chapter, but I thought that there was still a good deal of interesting material about them. (Loved the part where a lot of southern men suspected that the sudden popularity of Book Clubs was just a cover for woman suffrage organizations.)

I would recommend this book for anyone interested in Southern history; it covers much more than I am able to write about here. ( )
7 vote Fourpawz2 | Aug 23, 2008 |
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The Southern landscape of 1880 bore the signs of the preceding twenty years.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Full title (1992): The promise of the New South : life after Reconstruction.
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