Saturday, August 26, 2023

Drew A. Swanson's "A Man of Bad Reputation"

Drew A. Swanson is Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Distinguished Professor of Southern History at Georgia Southern University. He is an award-winning author of four books on the agricultural, environmental, and rural history of the American South.

Swanson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Man of Bad Reputation: The Murder of John Stephens and the Contested Landscape of North Carolina Reconstruction, and reported the following:
My book’s fifth chapter opens on page 99, with the result that the page teases some important book themes but doesn’t give the reader a clear understanding of the larger book on its own. You learn the chapter title—“Pretext”—which is followed by an epigraph hinting at the revisions of the southern and national ideas about what Reconstruction meant. In that quote, a North Carolina historian named Mary Woodson Jarvis instructed her readers in 1902 that, as she imagined it, “The scallawags, carpet-baggers and negroes who composed the large majority were wholly irresponsible, and launched upon a course of wild extravagance in order to feather their nests at the public expense. The work of this mongrel body could not be checked by the few brave spirits, who fought day and night with desperate persistence, to stem the tide of reckless extravagance and corruption.”

The “brave spirits” who Jarvis so admired as courageous reformers were members of the Ku Klux Klan, and, as shocking as it may seem to us today, her take became the mainstream understanding of what had happened in the state during the tumultuous 1860s and 1870s. The paragraph and a half that follows begins an argument that North Carolina’s political landscape was fractured in ways more complicated than most histories of the late nineteenth century suggest.

Although page 99 by itself doesn’t provide readers a clear understanding of my book—which is a history of a Reconstruction-era political assassination, the search for the killers, and the memory of the event—it does mark a crucial transition in the work. The preceding chapters narrate the political rise and subsequent murder of North Carolina Senator John Stephens and the failed attempt to identify and try his killers. The pages that follow turn to the public memory of the assassination and broader Reconstruction, culminating in a dramatic confession fifty years after the event. It is a story that starts in the violent aftermath of the Civil War on the ground in one North Carolina community, extends to the state capital and the federal government’s response to the Ku Klux Klan, and then resonates in histories, memorials, and popular culture in the decades that follow.

It is the intersection of these threads—the tangled skein of the murder and its memory—that lies at the heart of my book, and in that respect page 99 is vital. For it is in the transformation of events into memory that history is made, and few American historical visions have been more malleable and contested than those of Reconstruction.
Learn more about A Man of Bad Reputation at the The University of North Carolina Press.

--Marshal Zeringue