Author Interview: Timothy Williams

Author Interview: Timothy Williams

Our December 2018 issue featured top-notch work on the Civil War era, including a fascinating piece by Timothy Williams, titled “The Readers’ South: Literature, Region, and Identity in the Civil War Era.” We share below a recent interview with Dr. Williams, who is an assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon. Professor Williams works in the fields of intellectual and cultural history, focusing particularly on the nineteenth-century United States and the American South. He is currently researching and writing a new book, tentatively titled Civil War Prisons and the Intellectual Life of the Confederacy.

Thanks for speaking with us, Tim. Many of our readers have read your article in our December 2018 issue, but it would be useful if you could briefly summarize the focus and argument of your article.

Thanks for talking with me about the article! In short, this article considers the Civil War Era South from the perspective of its intellectual culture. I focus specifically on generally well-off young white men and women who made books and reading a regular part of their lives. I interrogated the archive not just for learning what these young people read, but how they read, why the read, when they read, where they read, and how they processed what they read. Muster readers will be interested in knowing that these readers were not nearly as concerned with their southern-ness as historians have been! Instead, these young men and women thought and acted very much like northern middle-class readers. They read for entertainment, of course, but also for their own moral and intellectual development. As a result of the latter, they were keenly aware of the morality of what and how they read. For example, they believed that reading history and biography taught useful moral lessons, but reading novels was a dangerous practice (one they denounced but also pursued eagerly). Surprisingly, I found that sectionalism did not have as strong of an effect on reading lives as some might presume. In the late antebellum period, some readers, of course, entirely eschewed northern authors, and others read them and critiqued them. But region was not the primary lens through which young southerners approached intellectual life on a daily basis. Even amid secession and war, the ingrained practice of reading for self-improvement that they cultivated in the prewar years continued to shape their experiences in a variety of settings, which I highlight at the end of the article. In all, I hope that the essay serves as an example of how cultural and intellectual history helps to uncovers how individuals lived through the era and how books and reading habits followed them across the “eras” historians have created around them.

Your article is a great example of the intersection of cultural and intellectual history, for sure. Early in the article you point out the common stereotype of white Southerners as illiterate. You write that “this trend persists in spite of a robust and growing literature examining authors and editors, publishers and booksellers, class and society, education and students, and both national and international contexts.” (565) Why do you think this is still the case?

That’s a great question! Maybe we’re not reading outside of our own subfields as we should. I thought about this a few years ago when I was on a conference panel with Sarah Gardner (@BookHistorian) and a very well-respected historian in the audience explicitly dismissed our work saying, “but we all know most southerners couldn’t even read.”  This statement really stuck; it simply isn’t true, we explained to the audience. But even if we are reading outside our sub-, sub-, subfields, then perhaps we haven’t done a good enough job within the field of showing how intellectual history—the history of ideas and their contexts—fits into the narratives we’ve established in social and political history. If all roads lead to secession and war in the way we teach the U.S. survey, for example, only certain elements of intellectual history get taught—the big texts and the big authors who wrote them. But who read these works? Who talked about them? Where? When? Why? This is where I think the study of “intellectual life” can be most beneficial because it moves the field away from canon into the social and political life of books and ideas.

Those are all fruitful questions! One topic you address is how these young people thought carefully about genre. It made me wonder: to what extent were these anxieties about reading the “right kind” of literature tied to class identities?

Yes, these anxieties were deeply tied to class identities. Elite and middle-class southerners set the discourse around reading, which they offered in academies and colleges. These institutions were mostly, but not always, the provenance of social elites and intended for preparing young men for public life and young women for domestic life. Propriety figured prominently in how young men and women discerned appropriate reading material. But it is important to note that gender, of course, inflected these class identities. I use the example of Elizabeth Ruffin in the article because she explicitly acknowledged that a young woman of her standing ought not to read novels, but she nevertheless “devoured” them. Similarly, an elite southern man, imprisoned during the Civil War, acknowledged that it was inappropriate to read fiction in any other situation than captivity. In both cases, public propriety mattered both in terms of class and gender.

The role of gender is so critical, and your discussion of how gender shaped reading habits was particularly interesting. How did the literary lives of young men and young women differ? And, as a corollary, what differences did you find between Northern and Southern readers?

The literary lives of young men and women differed very little. They all read periodicals and newspapers, novels, and histories. They were all taught to read the Bible. Young men may have read more ancient Latin and Greek texts, however. The greatest difference, however, was in how they wrote about what they read. In the diaries and letters I examined for this article, for example, young men clearly wrote about sex and intimacy with greater candidness then young women. While the article does not explicitly compare northern and southern readers, the evidence I have studied from southerners does not look very different from artifacts of northern intellectual culture for young men and women. Here, I find common ground in the moral capital of reading that Thomas Augst outlines in The Clerk’s Tale  and the gendered world of young school girls in Mary Kelly’s Learning to Stand and Speak. Similarly, the concerns about morality of reading among the “gentlemen” versus the “roughs” in Lorien Foote’s book of the same title appear throughout the materials I’ve read of young southerners.[1]

We have a question from one of our Twitter followers, @loyaltyofdogs, who asks: “newspapers, especially for their coverage of the war and politics, were important to soldiers on both sides and to the civilian population. Did many young people read newspapers during the Civil War?”

Newspapers were staples of wartime reading for teenagers, to be sure. And not surprisingly, in writing about reading the news we also get a fair amount of sectionalism. Young southern prisoners of war, for instance, were not allowed to read southern papers and frequently commented on the mistrust of what we might call “fake news” in today’s political landscape.

Before we conclude, is there anything else you will like to say to readers about this project?

Yes! I want to say one thing about the evolution of this article. While writing about nineteenth-century southern college students in Intellectual Manhood (UNC Press, 2015)—how they read, wrote, and imagined their way to adulthood—I realized that there was plenty of literature out there about northern readers but very little about their southern counterparts, especially outside of studies of education. And those studies tended to focus on everything but reading. Yet as I read published and unpublished diaries of young southerner men and women, I began noting all the occasions they mentioned reading and thought that this was an important way to understand intellectual culture that hadn’t been explored very thoroughly. Around the same time, Beth Barton Schweiger’s important article, “The Literate South,” appeared in the third volume of the JCWE, which framed the need for a study not only on literacy but also the uses of literacy. So I am very much indebted to both Schweiger and the journal for facilitating this important conversation!

You are very welcome! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts with our Muster readers.

If anyone has further questions for Dr. Williams, he is active on Twitter (@tjwwfu). The article he discusses here is available through subscription to the print journal and also thanks to our partnership with Project Muse.


[1] Thomas Augst, The Clerk’s Tale: Young Men and Moral Life in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 2006); Lorien Foote, The Gentlemen and the Roughs: Manhood, Honor, and Violence in the Union Army (New York: New York University Press, 2010).

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