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:
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.)
Amazon.com: Newton Knight is not quite a forgotten man in American history. How has he been remembered?
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.
In 2001 the historian Victoria Bynum wrote an academic monograph in which she tentatively characterized Newton as principled Unionist but missed the evidence that reveals his opposition to slavery.
Amazon.com: How did you and Sally Jenkins--the chair of the American Civilization department at Harvard and a journalist known for writing about sports--come together to write his story? Did you know each other beforehand? How did you work together?
Stauffer: Gary Ross, a filmmaker and extraordinary scholar and Civil War historian, brought us together. I was consulting for him while he worked on the screenplay for The State of Jones. He knew Sally and Phyllis Grann, Sally’s editor, and brought us together. At the time, I was finishing a book on Douglass and Lincoln (Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln); I gave Sally my research notes and a 100-page narrative, and we spent a number of weeks in Mississippi together, filling in holes in the research and borrowing groundbreaking material from Jim Kelly, who is writing his dissertation on the subject. Sally then turned the material into a dazzling first draft, and we edited and revised it. The collaboration has been a extraordinary experience: I’ve learned an immense amount and have had a lot of fun in the process.
Amazon.com: There's quite a bit of historical evidence on parts of Knight's life, but there's a fair amount that remains speculation. What do we know about Newton Knight, and how did you approach telling the parts of the story that have been less accessible from the historical record?
Stauffer: Here’s what we know for certain about Newton Knight:
He and his fellow Jones Countians voted overwhelmingly against secession, and they led an attack against the Confederacy so effective that by the end of the war Rebels had lost control of the region. Over 100 men fought with Newton, and another 53 men enlisted in the Union army. Confederate officers called Newton “a Union man from conviction,” referred to his men as “Southern Yankees,” “Tories,” and “Loyalists,” and testified that Jones Countians raised a federal flag over the county courthouse. Newton met with Union General William McMillen, a favorite of William T. Sherman, and received rations from the federal army. He wrote a poem lauding Ulysses S. Grant, and his close comrade Jasper Collins named a son Ulysses S. Collins.
During Reconstruction, the besieged Mississippi governor and radical Republican Adelbert Ames appointed Newton captain of a black militia and championed his application for a Union pension. At the end of Reconstruction, Newton deeded 160 acres of land to the former slave Rachel Knight, with whom he lived and fathered children in a black community. He treated Rachel as his wife, raised their children as his own without embarrassment, and helped build an integrated schoolhouse, a symbol of racial equality, which was then burned down. Newton became known as a “white negro” and was buried with his black family in a black cemetery, at a time when cemeteries were segregated. His epitaph reads: “He lived for others.”
These are all documented facts, and most of them have been missed or ignored by previous scholars.
What we were unsure of is whether or not Newton was at Vicksburg, how exactly he made it back to Jones County after deserting the Confederacy after Corinth, his experiences in the swamps of the Piney Woods, the character of his two wives, Rachel and Serena, and the specific nature of Newton’s Primitive Baptist faith. In these parts of the book, we relied on parallel stories from people who had similar or identical experiences: John Aughey’s narrative describing how he fled from the Confederates; details of Primitive Baptism, which was the dominant religion in Jones County before the war; the slave narrative of Solomon Northup, who lived in the Piney Woods swamp a few years before Newt did; the slave narratives and histories of slaves and former slaves who forged relationships with white men, such as Harriet Jacobs and Sally Hemings; and diaries and histories of the wives of yeoman farmers.
Amazon.com: Your language throughout is stylish and evocative, much of which comes from your source material. As any Ken Burns fan knows, the letters and memoirs from the era are an incredibly rich trove. Who are some of your favorite eyewitness sources for the war?
Stauffer: My favorite eyewitness sources for the war are Grant’s and Sherman’s memoirs (I like Grant’s better); John Aughey’s two narratives as a Unionist in Mississippi; Albert Morgan’s brilliant, powerful, moving (and underappreciated) memoir of Reconstruction in Yazoo; Kate Cumming’s elegant, beautiful journal; Richard Dennett’s and John Trowbridge’s travel narratives of the South at the end of the war (The South as It Is and The South); Joshua Chamberlain’s reminiscences and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s war diary (though neither were that helpful for our book); the war letters of the black soldier George Stephens; the various collections of slave reminiscences about the war; Higginson’s Army Life in a Black Regiment; Ambrose Bierce’s stories, which were based closely on his war experience; Mary Chesnut’s diary; Albion Tourgee’s novels, A Fool’s Errand and Bricks Without Straw, based closely on his experience in the South during Reconstruction; and Whitman’s Memoranda and Drum Taps [included here].
Since slavery constituted a state of war (as most slaves acknowledged), I’d add to this list three of my favorite slave narratives: Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom; Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (especially helpful); and Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl [see links to both of these in the previous answer].
Amazon.com: One of the great ironies of your story is that Knight and his pro-Union allies operated in some ways with more freedom under the Confederacy than they did after the Union had won. What happened in Mississippi after the war?
Stauffer: As a Unionist, Newton thought he had won the war, but over the course of Reconstruction, he realized that the Rebels had surrendered but didn’t lay down their arms. They kept fighting, killing blacks and Unionists, and Newton came to realize that the South actually won the war, effectively preserving the old order of black unfreedom. During and after Reconstruction, he felt as though he were living in enemy territory. He felt constantly under siege.
Amazon.com: You've made a specialty of studying interracial friendships and alliances in the period, particularly among abolitionists. Do you think those connections between blacks and whites have been neglected by history and are more common than we've imagined, or do you think we look for the hopeful potential in the relatively few alliances that did exist?
Stauffer: Both. The history of interracial alliances and friendships remains one of the least appreciated and understood aspects of nineteenth-century culture. This is because for over one hundred years those whites like Newton Knight in the South or John Brown and Garrison in the North were characterized as fanatics and villains. After the Civil Rights Movement, writers began recovering the rich history of African American culture. But the intersection--the interracial alliances and friendships--was largely ignored. For example, scholars had been writing about abolitionists for over one hundred years, and yet my first book, The Black Hearts of Men (2002), was the first account to engage directly the nature of the interracial alliances within the movement--how blacks and whites shaped each other, how and why they were able to come together as they did. Previous books on abolitionists focused either on blacks or on whites but not both. And to this day, there’s no book that focuses on the rich interracial friendships and alliances that exist in fiction and film--in the American imagination, in other words.
Interracial friendships are rich symbols of democracy. They offer a blueprint for how democracy in a multi-racial society might work, and since as a nation we’ve yet to achieve integration, it’s a subject I think is important.
I would also say that it’s less about looking for the hopeful potential in the relatively few alliances that did exist, but rather exploring the few alliances that existed to see what was possible in America amid the horrible racism. Interracial alliances and friendships offer a way to understand the boundaries of permissible and impermissible dissent and to appreciate the extraordinary power of race.