Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend by Catherine Clinton *****

 tararevisited First of all, if you are planning to visit Georgia with your family, don’t ask the tourist bureau to help you find Tara! It isn’t there. Neither is Scarlett or Mammy. They’re all fictional.

Thank you; I feel much better having cleared the air. But nobody can make it clearer than author Catherine Clinton, who bursts the myth of the antebellum belle and her loyal house-slaves better with greater heat and light than I have ever seen done by any one historian before. In a time of increasing apology and revisionism that makes the American Civil War seem to have been merely a dreadful misunderstanding, and that decreases the social and material weight of the slaves it freed, Clinton’s historical smack back to reality makes me want to stand up and cheer! And also to thank Net Galley and Abbeville Press for the ARC.

Clinton focuses primarily on Southern women, but she takes just about all of the myths of the “Lost Cause” and puts them through the shredder, introducing them and their origins, and in a manner meticulous but never, ever dull, demonstrates why each of them is incorrect. She doesn’t pussyfoot or hesitate to call bigotry by its name, but the tone is of the compelling storyteller rather than that of the lecturer. In a day when Caucasian Americans sometimes carelessly discard the complaints of people of color as “playing the race card” without first examining to see whether it has in fact been called out righteously, this succinct yet thorough narrative is refreshing, as if someone has opened the windows and let some of the cobwebs sweep away.

Clinton uses the voices of Southern women, both Caucasian and Black, and recognizes that there is a dearth of the latter, but she has turned over every possible rock and ferreted out every last resource in the back stacks of government libraries dating clear back to the WPA to access what is available. She also quotes Mary Chesnut, a Caucasian Southerner whose diary is a mainstay of Civil War historians, enough and in enough interesting ways to make me want to go dig up my own copy, which bored me to tears the first two times I tried to slog through it. Filtered through Clinton’s prose, it is a lively and interesting vantage point. And she quotes WEB DuBois, one of my greatest heroes.

There is one area where most US historians dislike to tread (or are perhaps unaware), and I read on with interest (this being the field in which I taught for many years) to see whether she would go there. She did. Not many American historians can bring themselves to discuss the deepest Southern shame (and by extension, America’s for having accommodated it so long) of slave breeding, a practice done in no other part of the world. In a time in which slavery was dying out across Europe, US border states, which had difficulty growing crops year ‘round to sustain the (minimal but still existent) expenses incurred by slaves, had turned to trafficking in human flesh, going so far as to select who should sleep with whom out in the quarters so that they would have the best possible product to sell once the progeny was born and weaned. Clinton does not use the word “breeding”, but she does describe it accurately.

She also points out that actually, most white Southern women did not lead the lives of idle privilege that the cinema would have us believe; though their lives were many times better than that of slaves, they had a large household to manage without the labor saving devices technology would bring. And of course, most white households were not those of planters. She discusses the various social crumbs that were dropped for less affluent whites by the aristocracy in order to keep them from crossing the color line in solidarity with other toilers.

I usually must abbreviate my reviews for fear I will give away all the meaty parts of a book and leave the reader no real purpose in checking it out personally. There is no danger of that here. This narrative is so deftly and expertly crafted that I found myself bookmarking more than half of its pages, because so many had a salient fact, interesting quote, or well-turned interpretation. I constantly found myself thinking, “Yes!”

When Clinton mentioned the Southern fear of “miscegenation”, or racial intermarriage, this reviewer could not help a small intake of breath, given that in other times, I would be deemed guilty and my husband would likely be dead.

If you have any interest whatsoever in the American Civil War, you need this book. If women’s history is of interest to you, get this book.

If you care about issues of race in the United States, there are two recently published books that should adorn your shelves and be next-read if you have not done so: this book is one, and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. In a sense, Wilkerson picks up where (chronologically) Clinton leaves off. And if you have already read Wilkerson, you still need to read Clinton.

What are you waiting for? Get out your credit card and order the book. You won’t be sorry.

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