Review: Alejandra Dubcovsky, Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South

61VAwsW64fL._SL500_Alejandra Dubcovsky’s Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016) is an ambitious book. She analyzes how information was communicated throughout the early South, a region that was without a regular mail system or print culture prior to 1730. The “early South,” as Dubcovsky acknowledges, is an “ambiguous” term (3). Her “early South” includes much of the lands from the Jamestown settlement south, and from the Mississippi River east. The result is a vibrant blend of Native American peoples, Africans, and European interactions that both complicate and enrich her analysis. Her sources include not only English, French, and Spanish, but also a number of Native American sources, including Timucua. She draws not only on written sources, but linguistic and archaeological evidence as well. This interdisciplinary approach allowed for broader inclusion of non-European networks than appears in many studies. Networks, as Dubcovsky defines them, are a “pattern of ties connecting discrete places or peoples”(4) She discusses a number of different types of networks—economic, political, religious, diplomatic, subaltern—but depicts all nodes as uniform in size. While some might take issue with this approach, the uniformness of the nodes makes sense, given the book’s goal of decentralizing European power structures, and does not detract. Continue reading

A Toast to John Adams

ja wineHappy 280th birthday to President John Adams: lawyer, statesman, and…wine connoisseur? He began a crisp New England morning like today with a tankard of hard cider, but Adams’ years in Europe primed his palate for fine French wine. Continue reading

At River’s End

On the Riverwalk, New Orleans (Jan. 2013)

Last week, the Mississippi River surged against the levees, finally shattering restraints near St. Louis. Up and down the waterway, authorities hurried to secure hometowns, farmlands, and highways against the potential breach. “It could be anytime,” the Rivers Pointe fire chief told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The hope is to keep Highway 94 open.” Even now, watching the water flow higher and faster still, it is worth thinking about how or why Americans have chosen to embrace life along the river: the shifting networks of politics and profit, the deep imprint of slavery on the region’s past, and the legacy of a South that may or may not have grown closer to the world, in the many ways that the Confederates or others have intended over time. This conscious construction of a river culture—as it was made and understood by the region’s black and white nineteenth-century predecessors, men and women who were also sensitive to sudden danger, but eager to maintain the dense traffic of the cotton trade—permeates Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and guides his expert analysis through their winding stories. Continue reading

Forgotten Giant: Restoring Simms

"Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside." Simms stands, leaning against the chair, center left.

“Washington Irving and His Literary Friends at Sunnyside.” Simms is seated at the left end of the table, shown in full profile.
(Christian Schussele, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1864)

Meet a Southern man of letters, William Gilmore Simms, through his life’s work of literature—much of it now available in the form of free, digital editions thanks to the Simms Intitiatives at the University of South Carolina. A well-known editor, critic, poet and historian of Southern life and culture in his day, Simms (1806-1870) occupies a unique position in early American literature, and (re)introducing him to modern readers has presented new challenges for scholars. The Junto asked the Initiatives’ Todd Hagstette, Simms Curator, to talk about creating a digital portrait of  the author, and why Simms’s work belongs on the syllabus. Continue reading