Rethinking Southern History

Volume 7, Number 1, Spring 2001

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Rethinking Southern History

by David L. Carlton
Southern Cultures, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring 2001

"Reed burst on the southern scene in 1972 as a contrarian, and, as we know, he has remained very much a contrarian to this day."

Any understanding of John Shelton Reed’s legacy to the study of southern history should begin with an appreciation of his pivotal position within modern southern intellectual history itself. Reed burst on the southern scene in 1972 as a contrarian, and he has remained very much a contrarian to this day, both his scholarly interests and his temperament steering him far away from the academic mainstream. Yet his heterodoxies have not prevented him from gaining enormous influence both inside and outside of the academy. This is attributable in part to a personal style that is both witty and accessible; in my experience, few assignments are more effective than a Reed essay in getting students to learn how to think about their world. But Reed’s influence is also due to one great service: at a time when traditional ways of thinking about region–especially the South–had reached a dead end, Reed introduced us to a new way–an approach that understands region as a historical and cultural product, but one with a life of its own, and a stubborn persistence born of the basic needs of those who identify with it.