Last Friday my dissertation reading group gave feedback on my chapter 3 article proposal. Thanks, group. So now I’m going to distract myself from chapter 2 (when I should be working on chapter 1) with some chapter 3 offshoot revisions. The reading group suggestions are forcing me to pin down some definitions I have been avoiding for two years now, clarify some new things, and re/consider the general format of this proposal. For instance…
I have been using the terms “modern” and “middle-class” interchangeably and in regard to culture in general and religious styles in particular. That’s got to end. Those are two different things. “Modern,” is, of course, a much larger topic and has a wider variety of definitions—from the self-conscious recognition of temporal difference in the sixteenth (or whichever) century, to the rise of individualism in the nineteenth century, or the technological shift in the twentieth. (And that’s just looking at western places—European definitions of modern get utterly stymied when considering the rest of the world.) I don’t know where my thinking on “modernisms” fits in here, but it doesn’t really matter because modernism isn’t the best definition for me. Hell, everyone in 1840s America is in the modern world, even enslaved people and Antimission Baptists.
(I have also been throwing around “modern religion” rather carelessly, too. I think a strict definition in the context of the western world is that modern religion derives its power from the experience of individual salvation while “pre-modern” religion focused on the actions of people in a community. Evangelicalism, thus, is a marker of modernity. But as Bob Elder points out, southern evangelicals can’t be easily placed into a pre-modern or modern camp—that they actually bridge those worlds. The religious practices I’m tracking are, indeed, those that will be adopted by more and more Americans in the near future—it has momentum—but they’re not really modern in a strict sense—any more than George Whitfield was modern one hundred years before Strong Thomasson was even born. So I need to make sure I switch those references to something like “middle class religion.”)
“Middle class” is really the thing I’m after. And middle class is a marker of modernity, which is the confusing thing. Historians who have studied such things look at the development of middle class values as a phenoneom of liberal capitalism—that certain family forms and expectations arise from a peculiar economic organization of society (which was lacking in the south). That formulation is key to my confusion because I always looked to Mary Ryan and Paul Johnson to define how middle class values fit into the scheme of economic and social change. I say confusion because plenty of historians have described a social world where liberal capitalism and its ideals (Hatch, Martin)—or at least the market in goods and ideas—preceded wholesale changes in economic organization. (Even folks like Oakes and Censer describe their subjects as practitioners of the newest form of economic life.) That means that people in the antebellum south didn’t have to experience the tumult of industrialization and the growth of professional classes to develop ideas about how husbands and wives should interact and raise their children. Again, I think my original contribution is to demonstrate (I hope) how these ideas actually insinuated themselves into the non-planter south.
Speaking of non-planters, I have been strategically avoiding defining a social class in my study and used the term “ordinary” to stand in for my imprecision. To me, the characteristics I am describing cross class boundaries (but admittedly flow toward the top rather than the bottom). Anyhow, the question of how I am framing this in relation to standard definitions always comes up and I need to get that out of the way. I’ve talked about it quite enough here, so won’t do so at this time.
Still, one of my diarists in this particular essay is a non-slaveholder; the other from twelve to nineteen slaves. I don’t think these facts are all that significant for my analysis and conclusion, but I need to definitively explain why, which is another thing I have been avoiding. Well, not avoiding because the explanations for my opinion on these two are in the introduction, which I simply have not yet written. But some articulation needs to be in this article proposal.
Another weakness I have is that because I’m describing a very small period of time, I’m not good at illustrating—or proving—conscientious change over time. One group member pressed me to demonstrate resistance to, or rejection of, old forms of family styles. Right now I am doing a lazy-historian thing and using a historiographic convention as a foil—that of the patriarchical planter/honor culture style. (That’s not hard to do—just look at how full my James Henry Hammond and Mary Chesnutt Bingo cards are!) Finding examples of actual resistance or rejection is difficult. Real difficult. I’ve talked before about how hard it is to find positive evidence of a determination to change when that determination meant inaction or politically invisible action. Nonetheless, I need to create a more historically specific foil.
The problem of literacy is also something I need to address. It doesn’t help that I can’t recall the literacy rates among antebellum white North Carolinians, but I’m thinking that the circulation of ideas, religious or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily depend on the ability to read. In fact, I have tried to include evidence that some of these ideas about family prayer was transmitted orally to people who couldn’t read. Nonetheless, my individual diarists are obviously well read and I need to address this fact better than I have.
In terms of organization, here’s the problem: for this proposal I lopped off eight pages of historiographical positioning and replaced it with a more readable set of anecdotes I hoped would suffice to introduce the problem. Everyone says my conclusion is strong, but without the historiography, no one knows where I am going with this. The sad fact of academic writing is that it has to plainly signal the author’s position and intent throughout. The one paragraph near the opening that retains a historiographical argument isn’t cutting it. I need to move it up and make it more explicit and efficient.
So I’ll be working on that this week. Or, at least trying.