“Reviewed Work(s): The South Old and New by Francis B. Simkins” (April 1948)

Folk painting of a plantation mansion atop a hillside with various outbuildings leading to the water below

In this review of Francis B. Simkins’ The South Old and New, William M. Brewer, supervising director of the department of history in Washington, D.C., public schools, points out how the author’s identity as a southerner influences how he tells the history of the region from 1820 to 1947. Simkins taught history of Longwood College and was president of the Southern Historical Association. He was one of the authors of seventh-grade textbooks produced by the Virginia History and Textbook Commission in the 1950s. Brewer was a longtime editor of the Journal of Negro History after its founder, Carter G. Woodson, died.


The South Old and New. By Francis B. Simkins. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1948. Pp. xx, 527. Price, $4.50)

This is a history of the South from 1820 to 1947 in which a Southerner describes through critical inquiry his region. He en

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deavors to present the meaning of its geography, social composition, and peculiar mind of which his thinking is a product. Economics, education, religion, politics, and mores naturally constitute the themes of paramount emphasis. All of these pose the issues which the author considers fundamental in the history of the period. This begins with the controversial interests of slavery and sectionalism and continues with the crisis of secession and Civil War on which Simkins is obviously pro-Southern. He paradoxically does not mention the Mexican War and the Ostend Manifesto! In spite of liberal professions his detachment wilts as he interprets the Abolitionist crusade, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the rise of Lincoln. The great emancipator appears with “subtlety approaching the diabolical” and the Abolitionists are “slanderers, agitators, and fanatics.” Reconstruction receives similar evaluation to the discredit of colored people from whose admitted degradation and ignorance in slavery Simkins naively demands essentially the same conduct as he does of whites in freedom.

The reporting on the New South is comprehensive and at times brilliant in the accounts of aristocrats, poor whites, and Northern adventurers. Coverage of the bourbon regime and the agrarian revolts show discernment and understanding as well as some flashes of liberalism. In no respect does the author more forthrightly diagnose southern history than he does in stating the fallaciousness of education. His arraignment of the separate school is probably without Southern precedent when he says, “The intellectual and mechanical practices of the racially segregated school, however excellent they may have been in themselves, were not adequate substitutes for free and democratic association with those who con- trolled cultural, industrial, and social opportunity.” Politicians pass in review reflecting the author’s thorough knowledge of their techniques, but he does not explain why statesmen of the stature of those in the ante-bellum South cannot now rise there. Neither does he fully envisage the role of Northern capital which has reduced the section to a colonial province by fomenting inter-racial strife and creating cleavages to perpetuate low wages.

In orthodox fashion Simkins approaches the actualities of Southern history and attempts to interpret the span of life and economy which he surveys. His labored views of slavery are in strict accord with those of Craven and Phillips with whom he

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agrees in discrediting slave breeding. On this he begs the question of evading the evidence which is nearly universal and available in Frederic Bancroft’s Slave Trading in the Old South with documentation in Catterall’s Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro, Volumes I and II. Why Simkins and other Southern historians deny such irrefutable facts as this and the “fancy-girl traffic” is doubtless due to their ardent desires to portray slavery as a benevolent institution. Negro crime and poverty appear in contrast to those of southern whites without consideration of the degraded slave background

of enforced degeneracy and the peonage-servitude substitutes since nominal freedom. Simkins’ pronounced predilections against the colored press and militant leadership prevent him from viewing their activities dispassionately. His lack of acquaintance and presumptions on these issues are evident in such a reference as that (p. 418) to W.E.B. DuBois as a Massachusetts octoroon. Disparagement of Northern white solders’ training in the South during World War II nearly equals the scorn of colored soldiers at home and abroad. Consignment of the latter largely to labor battalions seems to afford some satisfaction.

Discussion of economics and politics makes the closest approach of the author to historical standards, but colored peoples’ relation to the problems, however, are exceptions. Open-mindedness prevails wherever natural resources and expanding commerce enter the analysis of Southern industrial potentialities. Even here, sectional bias and chauvinism are not entirely absent because the author is afraid to peer very far from behind the curtain of unreconstructed Southernism. Simkins’ ventures beyond this sacred barrier throughout the work are more than balanced by indictments of Negroes and yankees which appear necessary for him to atone for limited indulgence of liberalism. This is understandable because no scholar can remain in the South in 1948 who does not subscribe fully to regional doctrine and accepted mores. Industrial leaders like those in every line of thought face conformity and loss of caste as the prices demanded for remaining in the South.

Southern culture receives extended treatment in the nostalgic review of literature and fine arts. A quotation from Count Hermann Keyserling (p. 11) belies regrettable wishful thinking about the predominance of southern culture. It says, “The hegemony

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will inevitably pass over to the South. There alone can be a question of enduring culture. The region below the Potomac possesses the type which was truly responsible for America’s greatness in the past.” On the contrary, the white supremacy cancerous affliction alone precludes the imaginative climate in which great literature and the other fine art can possibly ever thrive. The work shows with crystal clearness that the South is still unreconciled to the abolition of slavery as may be observed in the current tirades against elementary civil rights. Religion is also a vital current in the streams of thought which the author traces. Here he faces no restrictions in describing the Bible Belt’s Protestantism from the excesses of the fundamentalists to the elegance of high churchmen. Slavery found sanction in religion and white supremacy has endorsement of the same dictum.

The South Old and New marks a point of departure in that the author has ventured farther than previous southern historians into many areas showing at times a degree of liberalism. In a freer environment, Simkins’ training, mastery of craftsmanship in writing, and partial emancipation would, no doubt, flower in a finer interpretation of Southern history which remains to be written. Yet the work is a substantial contribution to the subject and it will be indispensable for scholars and laymen who are interested in understanding the history of the South.

W. M. Brewer

Washington, D. C.

APA Citation:
Brewer, William M.. “Reviewed Work(s): The South Old and New by Francis B. Simkins” (April 1948). (2022, April 26). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Brewer, William M.. "“Reviewed Work(s): The South Old and New by Francis B. Simkins” (April 1948)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (26 Apr. 2022). Web. 23 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2023, September 11
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