Best Books of July: "The State of Jones"

I was drawn to The State of Jones by the story--a maverick Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight who led a surprisingly successful pro-Union insurrection against the Confederacy, and who, during the war and after, established two neighboring households, fathering and supporting children by two women, one white and one black. And the story, in many respects, did not disappoint, though there are parts of Knight's history that I'd still like to know more about (and I'm sure the authors would too). But what turned out to be of equal interest is the language those authors, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, used to tell their story. One reason, no doubt, that the Civil War has remained endlessly fascinating to readers has been its national importance and terrible human drama. But a perhaps less celebrated one is the quality of the writing of those who witnessed it in letters, diaries, and memoirs. Jenkins and Stauffer, as many other historians of the war have done before them, use those sources to full advantage, weaving pithy and evocative first-hand testimony in with their own stylish and spirited narrative. Here is their introduction to the battleground town of Corinth, which opens their first chapter:

As far as the foot solders were concerned, the other side could have the damned town. The generals might have gladly given it up too, if not for the railroad junction. Corinth was pestilential. Even the Union's pitiless William Tecumseh Sherman said the place made him feel "quite unwell." Sherman's superior, Henry Halleck, had such a low opinion of it that when he fell ill with a bowel ailment, he sourly named it "the evacuation of Corinth."
    It was wretched ground for a fight, with boggy fields, swarms of bugs clouding the fetid air, and a chronic shortage of decent drinking water. A Confederate colonel called it a "sickly, malarial spot, fit only for alligators and snakes." It left no better impression on a Yankee lieutenant from Minnesota, who found the locals "ignorant" and the women "she vipers" with the figures of "shad bellied bean poles."

The State of Jones has a somewhat unusual pedigree: Jenkins, a longtime sportswriter best known perhaps for her collaboration with Lance Armstrong on It's Not About the Bike, and Stauffer, the chair of the American Civilization department at Harvard, were matched by Gary Ross, the director and writer of Seabiscuit, who knew Jenkins and was working with Stauffer as a consultant on his upcoming film version of the story, The Free State of Jones, which is still in production. I had the chance to ask Stauffer a few questions about that collaboration, Newton Knight, and some of his favorite primary sources from the era, among other things. (One book I was glad to see on his list below: Albion Tourgee's A Fool's Errand, a novel of Reconstruction that deserves the comparisons it gets to Mark Twain.) Newton Knight is not quite a forgotten man in American history. How has he been remembered?

Tap Roots Stauffer: From the first history in 1886 until the twenty-first century, Newton Knight has been remembered primarily as an unprincipled deserter. There are a few exceptions to this characterization: In the Great Depression, Newton’s son Tom Knight privately published a biography of his father, characterizing him as a Robin Hood who stole from the rich to give to the poor, but he ignored Newton’s relationship with Rachel Knight and other blacks. During World War II, the Mississippi journalist and progressive James Street published Tap Roots, a novel inspired by Newton's story. Street did an impressive amount of research, and portrayed Newton (through Hoab Dabney) sympathetically--as an antislavery Unionist--but he cast Rachel as his adopted daughter rather than a lover. In 1948 Tap Roots was adapted into a film that sanitized the novel: it ignored slavery and purged Hoab (Newt) of his antislavery sympathies. The film departs dramatically from Newton’s story, casting Hoab as an educated newspaperman who organizes dirt farmers against the Confederates.

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Posted by: Mike | Wednesday July 22, 2009 at 5:04 AM

Being a fan of Dr. Victoria Bynum's well-documented and thoroughly entertaining book on Newt Knight and Jones County, "The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War", and also being a Jones County native, I was excited to learn what Stauffer and Jenkins had discovered to warrant yet another treatment of this oft told tale. (Besides Bynum's book, which is the strongest both in the research and in the telling, there have been at least three other book-length histories plus one fictionalized account which was the basis for the 1948 movie "Tap Roots")

Unfortunately, I have to say, not much new here, except the liberties the authors take with documented source material in an effort to put forth a story-line where none exists. They shouldn't have expended the energy. Even with all the fictional leaps, the unwarranted inferences, and the reshaping of historical figures to appeal to 21st Century sensibilities. the story falls flat. The book reads as if it has been cobbled together, moving bumpily from story to lecture and back again, as if someone accidently shuffled a novelist's manuscript with a history teacher's class notes. I'm also struck with how dependent the authors seem to be on Bynum's research to bolster their own historical suppositions. Why bother, if you are just going to rehash previous work? But then I listened to an interview with the authors in which they stated that their "history" was commissioned by film producer/director Gary Ross, AFTER he had already written his movie script. Now of course, it makes perfect sense why the authors took such liberties to create a sustainable story-line. I guess this is a case of history imitating art.

Posted by: Jonathan Odell | Wednesday July 22, 2009 at 6:59 AM

(The following are excepts from my full review of "State of Jones" as posted on Amazon on 19 July 2009)

...a crucial problem for those of us familiar with the known facts are the substantial liberties the authors have taken with these facts--and the instances where they have gotten these facts wrong. To cite just two (and my personal tally runs several pages):

1) The authors state that pioneer settler Stacy Collins "had spoken out vehemently against secession" (p 15) when, in fact, he died in Texas ca 1853 and the two sources they cite for this statement do not support it.

2) The authors state as fact that Jones County voted to elect an anti-secessionist delegate to the Mississippi Secession Convention by a margin of 374 to 24 (p 73). And this is, indeed, what myth laden secondhand sources have stated. But the actual document reporting the vote count is housed in the Mississippi Archives and shows the tally was 166 to 89. Still a substantial vote against secession, but not a mythic one. It can be noted that Bynum, using a more reputable secondary source, gave the correct election result in her more scholarly and, by my estimation, much more accurate account...

More troubling is the narrative style of the book. To make the narrative an easy, exciting read (and, in general, it is) the authors have dropped the usual qualifiers that should pepper an account for which so few original records exist. In this they are only following the regrettable trail blazed by other popular historical accounts such as "Isaac's Storm" where suppositions are paraded as facts and the caveats relegated to the fine print of the end notes. Still, with one of the authors being a prize winning Harvard professor, one would have hoped that so much dubious hypothesizing would not have been implied as fact simply for the sake of propelling the narrative.

The assertive narrative style allows the authors to mask gapping holes in our understanding of Newton Knight by depicting him as a, well, very cinematic John Brown of the Piney Woods. What we do know about Newton Knight is that neither he nor his father owned slaves (although his grandfather did) and that his relationship with his "outside" wife Rachel was conducted openly in defiance of social conventions. Accounts reveal that he encouraged some of his children into mixed race marriages. All this makes him a highly unusual character for the place and times, but that should be enough without forcing undocumented ennobling ideology onto the back of his actions.

Where the book does have a credible claim to staking some new ground is in its examination Newton Knight's postwar pursuit of a Union pension. Even here, however, the authors forsake historical analysis for the sake of narrative simplicity. Thus all Newton's claims of his pro-Unionist stance are taken at face value. But Knight had good reason to embellish his activities. Maybe not falsify, but embellish. A number of his band, in the wake of the Confederate actions against them, fled to New Orleans and enlisted in the federal army. These men, or their survivors--since a fair number died of disease following their enrollment--obtained pensions. It is reasonable that Newton Knight, accurately viewing himself as the guiding force in organization of the deserters into a fighting force, felt he was also due compensation. And perhaps by moral right he was. But the laws governing pensions were strict and Knight fell outside their scope--unless his story was refashioned. And during the 1870s Washington was filled with lawyers who earned their livelihood by helping persons obtain pensions legally due them--or possibly not. Knight was not represented by some backwoods Southern lawyer. His pension counsel was based in Washington and, I believe, encouraged him to enhance his descriptions of his activities in order to have the best chance to obtain compensation. In good history the examination of such possibilities would be expected. But in "State of Jones" the authors consistently favor plotline over analysis. And this, along with the other reasons cited above, makes it difficult for me to accept the designation of this book as a history. It seems more a novelization of a screenplay with reference notes...

Posted by: Ed Payne | Wednesday July 22, 2009 at 1:14 PM

As a historian who has long explored interracial relations in the nineteenth century South, I assure you that if there were evidence that Newton Knight was the antislavery activist that Professor Stauffer and his co-author Sally Jenkins claim him to be, I would have sang it from the rooftops. They offer no evidence whatsoever for their claim that Knight was likely raised a Primitive Baptist, nor do they offer any evidence that an antislavery Primitive Baptist church existed in Jones County, Mississippi, in 1860--that in itself would have been surprising news to historians of southern religion. The authors' efforts to paint Newt Knight as a southern version of John Brown is the stuff of novels, not a book described by its publishers as "Civil War history at its finest."

to read my three-part review of STATE OF JONES, see:

Posted by: Victoria Bynum | Thursday July 23, 2009 at 7:18 AM

I am a descendant of the Newton and Rachel through their son, John Floyd Knight who married my great grandmother. I am a librarian by profession and have researched my family history for more than ten years interviewing family members. I posted a review of Stauffer's book on the Amazon site, however it was deleted. My review read as follows:
"I waited with much anticipation for this book to be released because I believed it would enhance the research that Dr. Bynum had done with her historically accurate account of events in Jones County that countered the garbage left by Ethel Knight's Echo of the Black Horn which many people assume is fact. Unfortunately, I have to place this book in the same catagory, historical fiction. I am a mixed-race descendant and librarian by profession who has researched my family for more than ten years and quite frankly I am surprised that a Harvard Professor would publish a book that is filled with words and phrases to describe historical incidents as factual like "Newton apparently" or "Newton probably" or Newton may have". It took me two weeks to read this book when ordinarily it should have taken a day or day and a half at the most. Victoria Bynum's book comes closest to actually telling the true story of Rachel and Newton."

Posted by: Sondra Y. Bivins | Thursday July 23, 2009 at 8:42 AM

The documentary record is as follows. FACT: in the Official Records of the war, Knight and his allies were reported to have collaborated with and liberated slaves. FACT: in 1865 Knight liberated black children held by recalcitrant slaveowners, at the request of Union officers occupying Jones county. FACT: Knight's grandaughter testified in a memoir that he "did not believe in slavery." FACT: the antislavery Union medal of honor winner Adelbert Ames championed Knight's case for a Union pension. FACT: in 1875 Knight received a commission from Ames, the Radical Republican Governor of Mississippi, as a captain of a black militia unit charged with protecting citizens from a campaign of racial violence. FACT: Knight made out a remarkable deed to the slave Rachel, with whom he lived and raised children, of 160 acres. FACT: Knight was buried in a cemetary among former slaves, and the epitaph on his stone read, "He Lived For Others."
If Ms. Bynum didn't sing the case for Knight as an antislavery activist from the rooftops, presumably it's because she lacked all the documents. Thanks to the efforts of wonderful scholars and archivists in Jones like Ken Welch, and Jim Kelly, vice president of Jones County Junior College, currently at work on a doctoral dissertation that promises to be authoritative, there is a wealth of evidence about Knight. Among the documents we were able to view that don't seem to have been available to Bynum were Ames's commission to Knight of 1875, a cache of Knight material in Ames's personal papers, and deeds of land from Knight to Rachel and her children, as well as photographs, such as Knight with one of his black grandsons. We trust that readers will appreciate these additions to the record on Newton Knight and Jones Co.

Posted by: Sally Jenkins | Thursday July 23, 2009 at 9:12 PM

Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer do not cite a single document in their book that identifies Newton Knight as an abolitionist before or during the Civil War. The memoir by Anna Knight, quoted in my own book (The Free State of Jones, University of North Carolina Press, 2001), refers to Newt as "one of the younger Knights who did not believe in slavery." From this one single sentence, written in 1952 by a woman born in 1874, the authors turn Newt Knight into a southern version of John Brown! I repeat, their portrayal of Newt Knight as a devout antislavery Primitive Baptist before and during the Civil War is wholly unsupported by documentation.

As I have pointed out in my review of their book, the authors were indeed treated to additional documents by the folks who aided them in their research. None of those documents, however, changes in any substantial degree what we already knew about Newt Knight and the Free State of Jones. At the same time, the authors' heavy and uncritical reliance on the error-ridden narratives of Tom Knight and Ethel Knight distort and exaggerate an important Civil War insurrection as well as the life of Newton Knight.

It should be noted, as Yvonne Bivins has elsewhere, that the authors' purported photograph of Newt Knight and his "grandson" John Howard Knight is misidentified. John Howard, the son of George Ann Knight, born ca 1875, would have been far too old to appear as a child in a photo with an aged Newt Knight. Besides, he wasn't Newt's grandson, but may have been his son.

I again refer readers to my review of State of Jones on my blog, Renegade South,

Victoria Bynum
Professor of History
Texas State University

Posted by: Victoria Bynum | Friday July 24, 2009 at 4:50 AM

As John Stauffer's interview above reflects, his scholarship of interracial alliances is formidable. It was John's instinct that there was more evidence to be found of Knight's relationship to Adelbert Ames, the Union hero and champion of black suffrage, and he was exactly right: he discovered the existence of Knight material in Ames's collection of personal papers at Smith College with a phone call. Other records, such as Knight's commission to the militia signed by Ames, are available in the Mississippi Department of History and Archives. More personal material such as deeds and photographs, as we cite in the book, came from a local genealogist and collector of Knight material named Martha Doris Welborn, who received it for safekeeping from a Knight descendant named Barbara Blackledge. Barbara's mother was Newton and Rachel's granddaughter and had living memories of Newton. Barbara and Martha were kind enough to let us view their material and help with identifications. Barbara, who had never spoken publicly about her family before, also agreed to sit for an interview with us. No doubt other scholars who tackle this subject will make additional discoveries, and we look forward to reading their work, especially that of Jim Kelly, whose wife Caroline is a Knight great-great granddaughter. There are hundreds of Knight descendants out there who may have family material, an exciting prospect.

Posted by: Sally Jenkins | Friday July 24, 2009 at 9:47 AM

The census records show that Newton Knight did not own slaves before the war, nor did his parents, despite the fact that his grandfather and his uncles were among the wealthiest slaveowners in the county. His grandfather Jackie Knight's will left slaves to every immediate branch of the family except Newton's, and though we can't know why, it is suggestive. Confederate reports in the Official Records of the war reflect that Newton Knight aided slaves, and received aid in return. There is multiple testimony from Knight descendants, sources cited by Bynum herself, that Rachel Knight first helped Knight during the war in exchange for his promise that he would work for emancipation, and thus became his "Civil War ally." Anna Knight's testimony that he "did not believe in slavery" plainly refers to Newton Knight and no one else, its corroborated by an oral history taken from a Knight-owned slave named Martha Wheeler, and by census records showing that Anna lived with Newton, and no other Knight. A memoir written by Knight's own son, as well as communications from Union officers, show that Knight freed black children from local slaveowners and was viewed as ally by local slaves. This documentary record is to say nothing of Knight's violent Unionism, which grew even stronger later in the war when the conflict became explicitly a war of emancipation. Or of his enduring relationship with Rachel, with whom he fathered a child during the war, and who he acknowledged without embarassment, forever wrecking his standing in the white community. Newton Knight didn't just suddenly develop antislavery pro-black-suffrage sentiments in the spring of 1865 at the close of the war, as a lightning bolt epiphany, out of nowhere. It was a steady evolution, the development of which can be plainly read in the documentary record and oral histories of Jones County.

Posted by: Sally Jenkins | Friday July 24, 2009 at 11:29 AM

Perhaps, me lady (Jenkins) doth protest too much. As I said in a previous comment, I am a descendant of Rachel Knight and quite familiar with Ken Welch's research. As a professional librarian who is a stickler for "accurate" documentation, it is my opinion that references to Newt and the Knights are too superficial in your novel. True Stauffer did a very nice job of painting a full picture of life during that turbulent time; however my folks always said that Newt took advantage of the opportunity after the CW to join forces with the Union. I also heard the old folk say that he robbed both Union and Confederate supply wagons. It just goes to show that there are many different opinions about what Newt Knight's motives were even among his own descendants! According to our family history of which I am quite familiar, he was scandalous. Find me a record that shows he ever attended any church in the area. Newt came from a family of heavy drinkers who after getting drunk would fight each other like cats and dogs. Yes he liberated black children, but only because he was working for the Union liberators. Yes, Anna did say that he was an abolitionist; perhaps it was an attempt to justify her father’s actions and the past shameful existence of life with her family. Anna’s mother, George Ann had a relationship with Newton while he was also having a relationship with her grandmother Rachel and his wife. By the way, where is documentation that shows Serena left the home? My Aunt Ollie Knight Smith, never once said that Serena ever left home only that she came to live with them when she was old and needed the help of her daughter. Yes, he gave Rachel land, but so did a lot of white fathers of their mixed race children in the area. I don't know what his thinking was but I know that according to family history, Newt tried to erase that one drop of "Negro blood" from his children by Rachel. He wanted them to be accepted as white, not black. My Aunt Octavia Knight, daughter of John Floyd Knight said that she did not know she was considered black until she was a grown woman. She said that when just a child she would sit on Newt’s lap and comb his beard. Barbara Blackledge’s grandmother and my grandfather were siblings, but unlike Barbara I embraced my “One Drop” and never tried to pass for white. In my opinion, Jenkins should stick to sports writing. And, where, oh where is John Stauffer? Perhaps if he had spent more than a couple of days in Jones County, he would have run across my research.

Posted by: Sondra Y. Bivins | Friday July 24, 2009 at 1:29 PM

Hi Sondra, I don't think anyone would disagree that Knight was a scandal in his personal affairs. And your comment is fascinating. However, we feel the evidence is that he was a believer: his son Tom, whose memoir we consider a solid source, identified him as a Primitive Baptist. Also, his white wife Serena Knight is buried in a Primitive Baptist graveyard. For the evidence that Serena left Newton's house, we relied on oral histories, and census records that show she moved out to her daughter's... The Knights certainly were renowned drinkers and fighters, our account in the book describes what you do. However, when Newton Knight was interviewed at the end of his life by the newspaperman Meigs Frost, he mentioned that he didn't drink.

Posted by: sally jenkins | Friday July 24, 2009 at 4:54 PM

The FACT is that any historical opportunist with a preset agenda can come to Jones County, Mississippi, and cherry pick enough FACTS to paint Newt Knight as a Unionist, a racist, a derelict, a rapist, a dutiful lover of a black woman, an abolitionist or Jesus Christ himself. It's not difficult. Any journalist with a tape recorder and a library card can piece together almost any profile they desire, all based on FACTS. But that shows no respect for history. And this is what I find most upsetting. The utter disdain the authors show in their book, in their posts, and l interviews, for the only historian who has produced anything credible on Jones County history.

It's a great trick. Take the only true, rigorous study ever done on the subject, "The Legend of the Free State of Jones," gut it, pull out what supports your biases, and then denigrate both book and author as a way of concealing your utter dependence. And I know it must gall you, MS. Jenkins and you MR. Stauffer, but her title is DOCTOR, not Ms. as you repeatedly misstate. And by the way, the doctorate is in HISTORY. And Dr. Bynum's book is more than a "scholarly monograph". I understand how this term is used to distance Dr. Bynum's work from the average reader, and gives the impression that you brought this obscure piece of work to light, but Doctor Bynum's book happens also to be a damn good read, and I would say much more mainstream than yours.

And finally you and Stauffer have the gall to accuse DOCTOR Bynum of being too reticent or timid to come to certain conclusions. Well, this is actually the way HISTORIANS operate. They lay out ALL the facts (yes, even the ones that contradict a favored or prepaid conclusion) and suggest hypotheses. I don't expect this FACT to be palatable to a journalist, who by trade wants to get to THE ONE TRUE story. They have little use for FACTS that blur the moral they are peddling.


Posted by: Jonathan Odell | Saturday July 25, 2009 at 10:02 AM

In my professional opinion, "The State of Jones" should be re-classified as historical fiction. Tom Knight's book, like Ethel Knight's novel Echo of the Black Horn, according to my grandfather was "a pack of lies." He would always say that "that set of Knights were notorious liars and the sad part of it is that they believed their own lies".

Posted by: So | Saturday July 25, 2009 at 1:49 PM

Jonathan: obviously you're a friend of Dr. Bynum's, and so is Ed Payne, which I appreciate. Somehow her friends have the impression that our book comes at her expense or is an attack on her work. It's really not. Additional evidence was available to us that caused us to be bolder in our conclusions about Knight and the insurrection in Jones, that's all.
The evidence shows that Knight was a Unionist, and it also shows he evolved into an antislavery Unionist. We don't say categorically he was antislavery before the war, we can't know for sure if he was, we simply lay out the forces that worked on him, and suggest some plausible causes for his development. They range from the fact that his father didn't own slaves (strange given that most of his family did), to the fractures that occurred in the southern Baptist church to which he belonged, to his personal liason with Rachel, to his experiences as a fugitive.
It's clear from what we now know that Newton had alliances with blacks both during his Unionist campaign and after the War. The idea that he was cynical or opportunistic or even neutral we feel simply doesn't jibe with the evidence, given the danger of these alliances and how he sustained them. Men who supported Adelbert Ames's campaign for black civil rights and education were beaten, horsewhipped, and assasinated.
Finally, there is more than one approach to writing history, and just because our book is a linear narrative that attempts to reconstruct Knight's life, doesn't make it fiction. It's firmly based on the evidence. Your suggestion it was based in any way on a screenplay is false. Where we were necessarily forced to speculate or use parallel lives to suggest possibilities, we say so. We certainly accept that others disagree with our conclusions. Finally, my calling Dr. Bynum "Ms." was not an insult, merely an oversight. Most professors I know don't insist on being called Doctor. We credit Dr. Bynum's work, particularly the fact that she was the first scholar to establish that Newton Knight was more than an unprincipled deserter. We suggest interested readers buy both books.

Posted by: Sally Jenkins | Sunday July 26, 2009 at 8:38 AM

Dear Miss Sally, I know Victoria Bynum about as well as I know you--through her work. And you can tell a lot about a person by how they write. And how they respond to the feedback their writing generates. I find your arrogance insufferable, your defensiveness indicative of your lack of depth, and your mean spiritedness proof of your blind ambition. None of these are good traits in an historian or a friend. So yes, if I ever have the occasion to meet Dr. Bynum (of whose title you have been repeatedly reminded of by others, and you choose to ignore) I would deem it an honor to call her a friend. She's already got my respect.

And by the way, other things I wanted to say, actually appeared on the blog of a well respected Civil War historian and he has pretty well summed up yours and John's cute game of playing "peek-a-boo" with facts, other people's work and your flimsy but stubbornly defended conclusions. Here's the link.

Posted by: Jonathan Odell | Wednesday July 29, 2009 at 12:36 PM

And another thought, now that we're getting to know each other, Sally. I would suggest you give up the job of playing sole defense against historical charges that are mounting against the book and pull John in for backup. Actually, he has the most to lose. Journalists could hardly fall any further in the eyes of the public. Leading with personal biases and sensationalizing for mass consumption are tricks of the trade. And Gary Ross will make sure this book is a financial success. So your job is done.

But it's John who should be worried. Civil War historians are lining up calling the book pseudo-history(see the reviews from the WSJ et al). Historians reputations are measured by different standards than journalists. Thoroughness, integrity, respect for the existing body of knowledge, dedication to the subject studied rather than self-promotion, an openness to critical feedback. Perhaps there's a deal for him as cinema consultant, but I can't image his peers at Harvard will be impressed. Good luck with that Ph.D.

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