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A Literate South: Reading before Emancipation

Beth Barton Schweiger
Published by Yale University Press in 2019

Reviewed by David Brodnax Sr., History, Trinity Christian College

Alex Gorman of Raleigh, North Carolina, owned both the Spirit of the Age newspaper and the enslaved persons who produced it, and any of them caught reading the text that they helped create were beaten. Among his subscribers may have been Amanda and Betsy Cooley, two sisters in the Blue Ridge region of rural Virginia who allowed their slave girl Jincy to read but also beat her for disobedience. They described this in their daily journals, along with their own reading habits, religious practices, and other activities that were possible because they had more freedom than Jincy. Only a few miles away in North Carolina, another set of sisters named Jennie and Ann Speer shared the Cooleys’ love of reading and writing but were strongly opposed to slavery. These and other apparent contradictions, both in the lives of rural antebellum Southerners and in how people have often viewed those lives, are the subject of Beth Barton Schweiger’s remarkable new book. The author, a former history professor and now independent scholar on religion below the Mason-Dixon Line, argues in A Literate South that “print permeated the rural South, co-existing with oral tradition in a rich give-and-take in which printed texts reflected speech and speech incorporated texts” (x-xi).

Using the toolsets of history, anthropology, bibliography, literary studies, and musicology, Schweiger challenges the common conception that the antebellum South was a largely illiterate society and that literacy naturally goes hand in hand with progress, antislavery, and modernity. This is explored through four themes. First, print was available to Southern readers even when they lived far from the sites of production, although they largely read pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, and other inexpensive, non-extant ephemera. Second, how and why Southerners read is directly connected to how they were taught in schools and at home. Third, rural people used print to “create and circulate ordinary culture,” both by reading and by passing on what they had learned, especially with regard to the Bible (xvii). Finally, the book challenges “the nineteenth-century perspective that literacy and slavery were incompatible” (xvii).

Schweiger begins by showing how in the early 1800s lowered postal rates, geographic expansion, local publishers, and traveling salesmen greatly increased rural southern access to print. She then turns to the connection among education, reading, and writing. Not surprisingly, this was highly influenced by attitudes about race, class, and gender. Some slaveholders allowed slave literacy because they thought that enslaved persons were only capable of passively receiving information; meanwhile, the enslaved persons themselves sought literacy as a means of uplift and of writing to relatives who had been sold away. As the upper class came to believe that in a democratic society even the poor could and should master the ability to write, the teaching of grammar moved to primary education, an “important, if overlooked, step in democratizing knowledge in the early United States” (71). At the same time, American culture both mocked and celebrated common people with limited grammatical skills. The third and highest level of education, rhetoric, was considered essential to lower middle-class women like the Speers, who wanted to write expressively rather than just descriptively and to “think and feel in refined ways” by reading poetry (95, 105). Despite the class and intellectual differences between the pairs of siblings, all of them died young, and as their lives faded, their writing became part of the “rhetoric of death” that was common for women in a time and place when they and their children often died young.

A Literate South next shifts its attention to the ways that print inspired the creation of new songs, poems, and stories and to embrace new religious doctrines. Schweiger gives particular attention to the sacred music that was created and spread in part through the camp revival movement that swept through the South in the early 1800s, although this movement itself was also made possible because people created “an oral tradition that was codified in print,” with the most popular songs put on paper (137). This became another source of division, with some churches rejecting the new songs as uncouth and many denominations “policing doctrinal boundaries” through their hymnals (143). Outside the explicitly religious realm, magazines, almanacs, and other texts “reshaped readers’ sensibilities of past, present, and future” through reports on new inventions, far-away places, historical figures, and other aspects of life (124, 152). Tales of the frontier era were popular in the Blue Ridge in part because the region was changing through western migration, but in addition to this, “American heroes and English paupers, medieval queens and imaginary Indians combined to become their canon, inspiring a sense of possibility that was nurtured by knowledge of things beyond their experience (176).” Finally, Schweiger shows how print impacted Christianity by encouraging conversion, new doctrines, and new practices such as the temperance movement.

The Speers and Cooleys are the most important individuals in this book, in part because their journals were unusually detailed, but A Literate South is not simply a biographical study. Information about their contemporaries is used to show how reading impacted other Americans who were similar and dissimilar to them; for instance, Frederick Douglass’s remembrances about learning to read, the writings of Jennie Speer’s fellow Mount Holyoke alumna Emily Dickinson about their college exams, and both Mark Twain’s and his character Tom Sawyer’s admiration for proper grammar. In other cases, information about broader cultural patterns is applied to the four women and to Southerners in general. For example, nostalgia for the War of Independence generation is described through stories that were printed in almanacs and through the Speers’ journaling about their aunt who had often shared her own accounts during their childhood, while Amanda Cooley’s remembrance of hearing slave rebels sing “When I Hear That Trumpet Sound” as they were about to be executed is analyzed by looking at how that song and other sacred music spread through black communities. This helps to illustrate Schweiger’s argument that “Print did not destroy tradition in the rural places it came to. On the contrary, it offered readers perspective, ideas, and language that built on tradition” (17-18). Schweiger also carefully describes the process of how influential texts like hymnals, Daniel Webster’s dictionary, and Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, were originally created and disseminated, including information on how many copies they sold, who brought them to the South, and the reflections of more prominent Americans on their content. The connection between economic forces and reading is evident in all of this. For instance, many works that today would be published as books were then disseminated in serial format through periodicals because the U.S. postal service charged much higher rates for books.

A Literate South does an exceptional job of showing what Southerners read, that they read, why they read what they read, and how this both shaped and was shaped by broader societal forces. That being said, there are some minor concerns, several of these stemming from the focus on the Speers and Cooleys as typical rural Southern women. Things that they did not read or write about, such as the Bible, patriotic songs, folk music, and political campaign songs and writings, are excluded. Schweiger convincingly shows that Biblical knowledge was often disseminated by reading or hearing references to it rather than by reading the Bible itself, but it remains true that the actual scriptures were widely read. It would have been fascinating to read Schweiger’s thoughtful analysis applied to texts like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” or the New Testament. Additionally, her discussion of slave literacy greatly contributes to our understanding of white attitudes about the intellectual activities of their bondpersons, but more could be said about white Southerners who opposed it. On a related note, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s hymnal is carefully researched and analyzed like every other publication mentioned in the book, but because this publication was created by African Americans, one wonders if slave-holders regarded it with more suspicion than other texts that were created by Northerners, especially as antislavery writing came under increased attack in the South. Finally, there is a certain timelessness to the discussions of slavery and sectional tension that does not fully account for how the growing conflict may have impacted what people read or how they felt about it. The description of how a Southerner edited Webster’s dictionary in the 1860s by including scriptures that he saw as proslavery, for instance, raises questions about the prevalence of other such activity. These issues aside though, A Literate South is an essential read for a variety of audiences. Its short length and lucid writing style make it accessible even to advanced high school students but without sacrificing intellectual rigor. Its subject matter will be of interest to anyone at that level or beyond who studies the history of religion, education, and the publishing industry in America, as well as women’s history and, to a lesser extent, scholars of African American history. Just as the texts of the early 1800s shaped Americans’ understanding of their past, this text will shape our understanding of those Americans.

Cite this article
David Brodnax, Sr., “A Literate South: Reading before Emancipation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:4 , 429-432

David Brodnax, Sr.

Trinity Christian College
David Brodnax, Sr. is Professor of History at Trinity Christian College.