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.)

Amazon.com: 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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