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 whatthese 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.
The full interview can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.