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Archive for the tag “history”

Q&A with Ann Hite, author of ROLL THE STONE AWAY: A FAMILY’S LEGACY OF RACISM AND ABUSE

By Elizabeth Tammi

Long-time fiction author Ann Hite’s memoir Roll the Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse releases May 2020 from Mercer University Press. Hite’s novels have won numerous awards, and won her a spot as a Townsend Prize finalist and the 2012 Georgia Author of the Year.

In addition, many of her short stories and personal essays have been published in national anthologies. Hite said her journey of writing her memoir was a process completely unlike how she approached tackling her previous writing projects. She looks back at the complex and sometimes gruesome aspects of her heritage and family, and tells us what it felt like to put that truth on the page.


After the publication of your novels, what inspired you to write a memoir? 

I thought if I told the “truth”, the dark themes that fill my fiction would become less prevalent. This was a naïve idea. I have just finished a short story collection last week, and you probably guessed the themes are still coming through. But this isn’t the only reason I set out to write a memoir. I never set out on this journey with a book in mind. But I did decide to find out exactly what happened to my family. In doing this, I hoped, at the very least, I would come to understand some of the reasoning. Many of the mysteries and legacies surrounding my extended family touched my life and not in a good way.

How did the process of writing a memoir differ from how you approach drafting a novel?

When I begin writing the first draft of a novel, much has taken place first in my head. Characters speak to me long before I get to the place of writing. I explore who he or she is. What story do they have to tell? So when I sit down with notebook and pen—I write most of the first draft by hand—I know so much about the character the flow kicks in, and I’m off and running.

With this memoir, I was at a loss on how to even attempt to tell these stories. That’s when I met Jessica Handler at SIBA—a conference for independent booksellers—and she introduced me to her book, Braving the Fire. I took her workshop soon after and this changed my whole way of writing about grief and trauma. One of the most helpful tools I learned was writing down the events I wanted to include in the book on index cards. Then placing them in an envelope for a short waiting period. When I did begin writing, I drew one card. This would be the only subject I would approach that day. One event a day. Out of order. Just thinking about this one memory. This is a much different process than writing fiction.

What factors did you consider when deciding the structure of the book?

Structuring a book, whether fiction or memoir, is an intricate process for me. How do I tell the story? Sometimes I write two drafts before I know what structure to use. With Roll the Stone Away, I finished the third draft and found the story held the reader far away, which I would imagine is the first instinct of a new memoir writer. You’re revealing the core of yourself, the stuff that made you who you are. But for the reader to come on my journey, I had to be brutally honest. I had to show them up front just what my history was and my role in the making. So I began the process of truth-sharing in the introduction and continued this into the first chapter before I regressed into the extended family history. The parts in the book about me were told in present tense. These chapters, or stones as I called them, were strategically placed throughout the memoir, so the memories were not told in chronological order. More than five complete drafts later, I finally released this body of work to Mercer University Press.

How did your life change when you began writing?

I began when I couldn’t write. I told stories, long intricate ones that were “too old for my age” according to my mother. My life has always been about reading and writing. I did not live in a house with big readers. Mother never read anything outside of an occasional magazine except Little Women, a book she read to me at a very young age. Those who know me well, know I have a very strong faith in God. I believe that writing was the gift bestowed on me before I was born. And using this gift has always been my peace and home. That’s not to say I don’t struggle with this art, but writing is a deep part of me.

Family ties can be complex and painful. What, if anything, do you believe people owe to their family members?

This is a question many ask and debate, and there are as many answers as there are writers writing memoirs. My answer is that our story is most important. I believe we all have a right to our truths, no matter who agrees or disagrees with us. Truth is fluid and changes shape from one person to the next. Two people can experience the same event and have much different takes on what happened. Does that make either person a liar? No. Each perception is the truth for the person who owns it. With that said, I began writing this book after all the parties involved had died with the exception of my brother, who lives within a hundred miles of me. I explained my project to him. In all truth, had he told me not to write the book, I would have anyway. I wasn’t asking for permission. He supported my decision with encouragement but explained he would not be able to read the work because it would cause pain. Fair enough. He understood I was not writing the book out of revenge or malice. He was well aware that I had forgiven all parties involved. Remember forgiveness is not forgetting or saying what happened was okay. My children know some of the stories, but shocking points do exist. I think a writer has to approach personal stories with compassion and empathy for those who play roles in your history. This does not mean the writer has to change their truth.

What does it mean to “own” one’s history?

Owning my history means no longer hiding what happened to my family or the choices they made. I don’t feel the need to sugar-coat the story to fit into a group of people. I don’t have to have the best childhood or parents. Our pasts do not have to be squeaky clean. Owning my history is looking the bad and good dead in the eyes and understanding good and bad can be mixed on a paint palate and become the grayest of gray. But most of all owning my history is pure freedom from the expectation that I will forget and stay silent.

Do you think more memoirs or autobiographical materials are in your future?

Two weeks ago, I would have said no way. Then my brother threw me a real zinger. A package from UPS arrived on the doorstep containing all our dad’s military files, along with old photos of us when we were little. This was packed in the old briefcase he carried to work every day until he retired in 1974. The inside still smelled of cigarette smoke and peppermints. I did not know this stuff existed. My brother said, “This is a book for you to write.” As I went through the papers, I realized the story was much larger and deeper than I could ever imagine. Yes, I will write this story that spans from the CCC (Civil Conservation Corp) to NATO in the 70s. I don’t know how I will shape this narrative. Maybe fiction or maybe memoir. It is too early to tell.

This memoir deals with dark, toxic behaviors and incidents; was writing about these times more cathartic or painful? Or both?

This is a good question. I would say both, but I discovered a lot about who I was and who I am while writing this book. When I first began writing Roll the Stone Away, I jumped straight into it, ignoring what I learned from Jessica’s workshop. In one week, I wrote 13,000 words. I promptly became very ill. I’m not one to get sick at all. But a simple cold morphed into something larger, and I was down for the count. Later I spoke with other writers who have written memoirs and was told this often happens when taking on too much at once and ignoring the signs I was stuffing feelings. There is a reason why one has to take writing a hard story slow. Much of the first draft was spent with me in denial. How could any of the things that happened to me be that bad? To others, this was very clear, but I couldn’t see much of the abuse pointed at me was abuse, even though I could see the pain it inflicted when pointed at others.

I learned to cut myself a break and that I was worthy of telling this story.

How did the stone metaphor come about? What do you think it represents?

The stone metaphor came to me one Easter. I thought of how the women went to Jesus’s tomb and the giant stone that had blocked the opening had been rolled away. This was a miracle and a sign that nothing is too large for God. I saw the index cards in the envelope on my desk and how each one represented a story, an obstacle, I couldn’t get my head around. Of course the weight of carrying them around was paralyzing at times. They kept me from running and playing like a child when I was a kid and influenced each book I wrote. And maybe that was my strength, not my downfall. Maybe if I looked at every stone, I could find a part of me.

This is when I began to collect stones, placing them in a pottery bowl on my desk. I have one from the grave of my great grandmother, who was murdered by my great grandfather. There is a rough jagged stone I dug up from the land where my grandfather was stretched and tied between two trees and beaten to the brink of death. One each off the graves of my mother, grandmother, and grandfather. And one from the middle of the Nantahala River, normally deep and raging with water but because of a severe drought reduced to a light trickle. The rock is smooth and worn from thousands of years of water wearing away the rough edges. This rock represents me, standing in the middle of what should be raging water, finding my way through the drought of family history.

What projects are in the works now?

I just finished a short story collection entitled, Haints on Black Mountain: a haunted story collection, that will release in late 2021. And I’m hard at work on a nonfiction narrative about Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife. I came to know about Leo Frank through my grandmother’s stories when I was young. Then as an adult I was captured by his wife, Lucille. She has a story that should be heard.

In the future, I have my sights set on beginning a new novel series based on Jeff Clemmons’s book, Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery. This book is full of rich history and stories concerning generations of those buried in the four hundred acres plus grounds. There are so many stories Jeff couldn’t put in his book. These interest me to no end. What ghost story reader doesn’t love a series of novels set with a cemetery as the narrator?


Click to download Mercer University’s Press Release of Roll the Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse:

Click here to purchase from the Press: https://www.mupress.org/Roll-the-Stone-Away-A-Familys-Legacy-of-Racism-and-Abuse-P1036.aspx

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Q&A with Dr. Carolyn Curry, author of SUFFER AND GROW STRONG: THE LIFE OF ELLA GERTRUDE CLANTON THOMAS, 1834-1907

By Elizabeth Tammi


In 2015, Dr. Carolyn Curry’s book Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas released from Mercer University Press. Curry first got interested in the extensive diaries and life of this Georgia woman when she wrote her dissertation for her PhD.

Now, as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, Curry returns with an expanded edition of her celebrated biography. She spoke with me over the phone about the writing and research process, and what this book and historical figure mean to her on this pivotal anniversary.


Could you tell me about the process of creating this expanded edition to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage? How did the idea to make an expanded edition come about?

Well, I’ve got to give credit to Marc Jolley, director of Mercer University Press. I was very fortunate that my original book sold through several editions. I made about 100 speaking engagements, trying to tell people about this woman that they had never heard of, but I thought she was important for them to know about, and also what women were doing in the nineteenth century.

The book really resonated with people, and women especially, but even some men. Marc and I talked about this being the hundredth anniversary of the vote for women so he just contacted me and said, “Carolyn, would you like to expand your book and take it up to 1920, when women finally were successful and got to vote?” After Gertrude died in 1907—along with all those women who fought so hard in the nineteenth century who also died around the turn of the century—the fight had to be turned over to a younger group of women. I loved the topic and told Marc “I’d be glad to do it,” so I jumped in and started doing research. I’ve been so pleased that this expanded edition has come out now and I’m going to be speaking on it some right away—it’s timely and so important to talk about, especially this year.

On this anniversary, what do you hope your readers can take away from Gertrude’s efforts in the suffrage movement as we look ahead?

When I first started doing this book, it was my dissertation topic for my PhD back in 1987. I wanted to find a Georgia woman who I could write a biography about. When I came through graduate school, that was the beginning of the writing about women. In the 70s and the 80s, when we were in school, there was no such thing as women’s studies or women’s history or anything like that. We were always asking in our classes, “Where are the women? Why aren’t the women included? What are the women doing?”

I really was passionate about finding the women and talking about the women who had been forgotten, because our stories have not always been told. I want young women to know how hard it was for women to get the vote. I want them to understand their history so that they will appreciate it. Women had to fight to get the right to vote and we’re still having to work to get women to go out and vote. Today, voter turnout in this country is very low, so we’ve got to all take the vote. It’s a real responsibility.

Delving more into the crafting of this book when you were first writing it, how did you go about making the decisions of how to divide different subjects and different time periods in this book?

This book took years of research. I had these volumes of her diary that I got the transcripts from. I had an advantage in that I was writing a biography, and if you’re writing a biography, you’re writing somebody’s life story. You have a natural chronology, and of course I had to start when she was fourteen years old because that’s when she started writing her diary.

I started there, and then I wanted to organize it around the changes in her life. I had to study the diaries, study the scrapbooks and her writings from later in life to just glean as much information as I could from various periods in her life. When I was talking about her going to Wesleyan, I went to Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, and looked in their archives for any related material I could find. I interviewed her relatives, and did secondary research when I had to. I had a natural chronology, but I did have voluminous material to work through and select what I was going to talk about.

I very often ended a chapter with, “What will this lead to? Where will I end up?” I tried to keep my reader interested by making it read like a novel. People’s lives are interesting and if you can tell it in a way that draws people in, that’s important.

While you were doing all this research, did you ever come across a fact or bit of trivia that didn’t necessarily fit in the book but that stuck with you?

I did such voluminous research writing it for my dissertation. There were some things that I couldn’t put in just because when she was a young girl, she just loved to talk about what she was wearing every day. I did try to put every possible interesting tidbit I could in the book. I’ve been told that historians just have to stop and write the book, because you could do research forever. Research can be fun and frustrating at the same time, but I tried to put it all in.

What three words would you use to describe Gertrude?

Well, you’ve got to say she was intelligent. She was compelled to ask questions. She lived an examined life. She was looking at her life intelligently and trying to make sense of it. I would definitely say inquisitive. She wanted to read newspapers, she wanted to read what people were thinking, she wanted to know what was going on. Then, I think hard-working. She was always trying to find a way to help the family after the war.

If you could only tell someone just one anecdote from Gertrude’s life that you think sums her up, what do you think that story would be?

There’s one that I have told over and over when I have gone to speak. I talk about when she was elected president of the Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association in 1899. This was a woman who grew up in a culture that said women should not speak in public. She stood up in the House of Representatives when she was elected president, and she said, “Woman was not taken from the head of man. She is not his superior. Woman was not taken from the foot of man. She is not his inferior. Woman was taken from the side of man, and there she should stand as equal in the work of the world.”

This was in 1899. This was 21 years before women got the right to vote, and how many women were saying in 1899 that women should be equal to men? Not many. She was in that handful who had the courage to stand up and I think that was really astounding and so progressive for that period in history. That summed up all her work. She was really devoted to the betterment of women.

As a historian, what do you feel that Gertrude’s diaries show about the Civil War era that might not be found through secondary sources?

I think the great thing about Gertrude’s diary is that she didn’t think anybody was going to read it except her children. She was very honest, and she ended up pouring her emotions into the diary. A historian can tell you the facts, but you read her diary and you know what it was like for people when troops were approaching their house or their city.

Gertrude might have given us the best picture of what women suffered in childbirth in the nineteenth century. If the baby was sick, they didn’t know what was wrong. The baby would get a fever and just die. It was emotionally wrenching for these women, and I think that comes through. It’s the emotion, the feeling, the anguish, and the fear. I mean, I teared up. When one of her babies died, she tried to reconcile it to her Christian belief. She said, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But then she said, “But oh, it is so hard!”

How do you think that suffering makes people stronger?

Getting through something does make you stronger. Gertrude went through so much grief. She did learn how to turn outward. That’s one reason she became so concerned about the wellbeing of other women. She had suffered during the war, and she realized how important it was for women to have an education. She became more sensitive to other women than she would have been had she not suffered. She might not have been the person she was, if she had never lost her fortune or gone through the war.

It’s what we learn from the suffering, and hopefully we learn that we can survive, and that’s a good thing to know.

What do you think are some of the largest issues facing American women today?

Well, what I really believe, and this comes through Gertrude’s life too, Gertrude asked a lot of questions and she just didn’t accept what people told her. I think that’s very important for young women and young people to learn. We have to decide what we want our contribution to be. What do we want to do with our lives? That is a part of the educational process and maturation. I always encourage young people to find that thing that you love to do. When you do find it, do it with all of your heart and that’s going to make you happy. I’ve been passionate about learning about women. I have a nonprofit foundation that I’ve been running for 18 years called “Women Alone Together”. I try to help women who are coming off of grief—loss of a spouse, loss of a child. It’s helping women. We do seminars, groups, we’re doing something all the time.

Don’t be gullible. Make sound decisions based on what you know. That’s what education is all about—teaching us how to think for ourselves.


Click to download Mercer University’s Press Release for Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas!

Click here to purchase from the Press: https://www.mupress.org/Suffer-and-Grow-Strong-The-Life-of-Ella-Gertrude-Clanton-Thomas-1834-1907-P867.aspx

Receive 20% off + free shipping from the Press with this coupon code: MUPNEWS

Happy Mother’s Day

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The official Mother’s Day holiday arose in the early 1900s as a result of the efforts of Anna Jarvis, daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis. Following her mother’s death in 1905, Anna Jarvis conceived of Mother’s Day as a way of honoring the sacrifices mothers made for their children. After gaining financial backing from a Philadelphia department store owner named John Wanamaker, in May 1908 she organized the first official Mother’s Day celebration at a Methodist church in Grafton, West Virginia. That same day also saw thousands of people attend a Mother’s Day event at one of Wanamaker’s stores in Philadelphia.

Arguing that American holidays were biased toward male achievements, Jarvis started a massive letter writing campaign to newspapers and prominent politicians urging the adoption of a special day honoring motherhood. By 1912 many states, towns, and churches had adopted Mother’s Day as an annual holiday, and Jarvis had established the Mother’s Day International Association to help promote her cause. Her persistence paid off in 1914 when President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

Sources : http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/05/140508-mothers-day-nation-gifts-facts-culture-moms/
http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/mothers-day

The Birth of English Poet, Playwright, and Actor William Shakespeare

Historians believe William Shakespeare was born on this day, April 23, in 1564—the same day he died in 1616.

Shakespeare was baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, on April 26, 1564. At age 18, he married Anne Hathaway, and the couple had a daughter in 1583 and twins in 1585. Sometime later, Shakespeare set off to become an actor and by 1592 was well established in London’s theatrical world as both a performer and a playwright. His earliest plays, including The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, were written in the early 1590s. Later in the decade, he wrote tragedies such as Romeo and Juliet (1594–1595) and comedies including The Merchant of Venice (1596–1597). His greatest tragedies were written after 1600, including Hamlet (1600–01), Othello (1604–05), King Lear (1605–06), and Macbeth (1605–1606).

Shakespeare became a member of the popular theater company named “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” who later became the “King’s Men.” The group was responsible for building and operating the famous Globe Theater in 1599. Though widely known for his literature, Shakespeare was also a sound businessman, ultimately becoming a major shareholder in the troupe. His investments earned him enough to buy a large house in Stratford in 1597, where he retired in 1610 and wrote his last plays including The Tempest (1611) and The Winter’s Tale (1610–11). Despite his prolific work ethic, no formal collections of his works were published until after his death. In 1623, two members of Shakespeare’s troupe collected the plays and printed what is now called the First Folio.

Yet he was more original than his originals. He breathed upon dead bodies and brought them into life. —Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), Letters and Social Aims

 

Shakespeare titles in stock

Shakespeare’s Philosopher King

Shakespeare’s Philosopher King: Reading the Tragedy of King Lear
By author: Guy Story Brown

9780881462807

Shakespeare’s History:Introduction to the Interpretation of THE FIRST PART OF KING HENRY THE SIXTH and the English Histories
By author: Guy Story Brown

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Shakespeare’s Prince: The Interpretation of the Famous History of the Life of King Henry the Eighth
By author: Guy Story Brown

Women’s History

Mercer University Press Celebrates Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month first gained a national stage in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28, both authorizing and requesting that the President proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as Women’s History Week. Throughout the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as Women’s History Week. The National Women’s History Project petitioned for the month of March to be dedicated to Women’s History. Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to dedicate March of each year as Women’s History Month. Since 1995, Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month.

adapted from the government website: http://womenshistorymonth.gov/about.html

Check out the fascinating women highlighted in the books listed below. Click links for more information on each book and author. All titles in stock.

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Suffer and Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1834-1907
By Carolyn Newton Curry

97808814652

Fresh Water from Old Wells: A Memoir
By Cindy Henry McMahon

97808814645
The Second Bud: Deserting the City for a Farm Winery
By Martha M. Ezzard

97808814627

A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus
By author: June Hall McCash

97808814623

A Light on Peachtree: A History of the Atlanta Woman’s Club
By author: Anne B. Jones

97808655474

Life in Dixie during the War
By Mary A. H. Gay; edited by J. H. Segars

97808655487

The Power of Woman: The Life and Writings of Sarah Moore Grimke (1792-1873)
By Pamela Durso
97808814641

The Life and Letters of Emily Chubbuck Judson: Volume 1; Biographies and Timelines
(7 volumes in all)
Edited by George H. Tooze

Happy Birthday Abe!

Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday February 12

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hodgenville, Kentucky.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of America’s most admired presidents, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was born into a poor family in Kentucky.
Lincoln was the tallest president at 6′ 4 with record physical strength. He was a formidable wrestler in Illinois. Lincoln went on to become infamous for his dry humor and wit. After frustrating defeat after another Lincoln reportedly wrote to a general “if you are not using the army I should like to borrow it for awhile.” Lincoln was also an avid animal lover throughout his lifetime once saying “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not the better for it.”

He attended school for only one year, but even as a child Abraham was a voracious reader constantly striving to improve is mind. As an adult, he lived in Illinois bouncing from job to job before entering politics. Many people are unaware of the fact that Lincoln didn’t begin his journey in politics. Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was also a postmaster, surveyor and shopkeeper. After this small chapter in his life Lincoln went on to pursue politics.

Before the presidency Lincoln served in the Illinois legislature from 1834 to 1836, and then became an attorney. In 1842, Lincoln married Mary Todd; and had four sons. Lincoln returned to politics during the 1850s, when disagreements over slavery began to escalate. Lincoln proposed a restriction of slavery to the states where it existed. As president on January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.

 

For Civil War Enthusiasts….

Upcoming Civil War titles:

A Just and Holy Cause?

Cracking the Solid South:The Life of John Fletcher Hanson, Father of Georgia Tech

Summon Only the Brave!: Commanders, Soldiers, and Chaplains at Gettysburg

Confederate Sharpshooter Major William E. Simmons: Through the War with the 16th Georgia Infantry and 3rd Battalion Georgia Sharpshooters

MUP Authors to Attend Decatur (GA) Book Festival!

Mercer University Press is proud to announce a number of our fine authors will be attending the Decatur Book Festival!

Stephen Davis (What the Yankees Did to Us)
Robert Jenkins (The Battle of Peach Tree Creek)
Daniel Cone (Last to Join the Fight)
Raymond Atkins (Sweet Water Blues)
Carolyn Newton Curry (Suffer and Grow Strong)
Megan Sexton (Swift Hour)

 

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Decatur BookFest

MUP Remembers Leonidas Polk

Bishop/ROBINS_dj080306On this day in 1864, Leonidas Polk, one of the Confederacy’s more unique generals as he was also an Episcopal bishop, died this day in 1864 during William T. Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign. In fact, Sherman was directly involved in Polk’s death as the general spotted a cluster of Confederate officers scouting along a ridge. On his orders, the 5th Indiana Battery opened fire and General Polk was nearly cut in two.

Today, Glenn Robins joins us to discuss his biography of Polk, The Bishop of the Old South, and Polk himself.

1. Why do people remain interested in Leonidas Polk?

Aside from a basic interest in the mid-nineteenth century, I think people are fascinated with why a high-profile and well-liked cleric accepted a combat assignment with the Confederate army rather than serve as a chaplain. The noted Civil War historian James McPherson contends that the Civil War armies may have been the most religious in American history. And yet, there is really no one comparable to Polk, a bishop who became a general. Also, the dramatic and unusual circumstances of Polk’s death—being killed by artillery fire—seem to have created something of a sympathetic figure. Some people see him as a symbol of the Confederate cause by conflating his religious devotion, his reputable personal character, and his military service. Finally, religious generals such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are viewed simply as Christian, whereas Polk is a decidedly Episcopalian figure, which appeals to a certain population.

2. What were your reasons for writing this biography of Leonidas Polk?

Generally, Leonidas Polk is known as the Bishop-General and his life is viewed through the narrow lens of the Civil War. I wanted to construct a narrative of Polk’s life that emphasized his prewar activities, particularly his ministerial career, his ownership of a large sugar plantation, and his role in developing the University of the South.

3. What surprised you the most about Polk’s prewar life?

First, in economic terms, he was a very successful sugar planter. He used innovative farming techniques and employed a slave management system that afforded slaves more responsibility and greater autonomy. Second, he was deeply committed to his ministerial responsibilities. He helped make the Louisiana Diocese a vibrant Episcopal organ in the South that challenged the societal influence of the region’s larger protestant denominations. Third, Polk had a remarkably ambitious vision for the University of the South. He did not envision the university as an insular institution—quite the contrary. He hoped that the university would compete with the premier universities of the nation and of Europe. He intended to recruit world-class scholars, promote academic excellence, and cultivate the Episcopal faith, as well as make the university a gathering place for social elites and public intellectuals. Of course, the war and Polk’s death changed all of that.

4. What stands out about Polk’s Civil War generalship?

Polk was a mediocre corps commander serving in a theater dominated by mediocre generals. Despite his West Point education, Polk had no real military experience and was probably not deserving of such a high-ranking appointment. It’s counterfactual history, but I have always wondered how Polk would have fared in the Army of Northern Virginia under that army’s superior leadership. Whatever limitations Polk had as a fighting man, he was widely popular with his men. Late in the war Polk became more involved in the religious life of the Army of Tennessee. He baptized several generals, including Braxton Bragg, which was truly bizarre considering that each man attempted to have the other stripped of his command.

5. Having reached the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the death of Leonidas Polk, do you have any thoughts about future studies in these areas?

I think for those individuals who survived the war more work needs to be done on their postwar lives and not just on their involvement in the political reconstruction of the nation and their respective states. Instead, there needs to be a greater emphasis on how the war impacted the participants as individuals and as families, and on how groups and individuals understood and assigned meaning to the war. As for those figures like Polk who died in battle, we need clear assessments of their initial view of the war and to know if their view of the war changed over time, and why. And for those individuals who have become symbols of a particular version or interpretation of the war, we need to examine whether the memory of the man matches the realities of the man.

Related Titles

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Frank Lambert’s Separation of Church and State Now Available!

SeparationOfChurch

Separation of Church and State: Founding Principles of Religious Liberty, Frank Lambert’s powerful corrective against faulty history skewed to serve political ends, hits the shelves today. With immaculate logic and compelling writing, Lambert reveals the flaws in would-be historians’ arguments and political agendas. Pointing to evidence that others would ignore, Lambert reminds us of the importance of exploring the historical evidence evenly and equally, especially when our own beliefs are challenged.

 

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The Warm Springs Story Available Today!

The Warm Springs StoryThe long-anticipated release of F. Martin Harmon’s The Warm Springs Story: Legacy and Legend has arrived! Mercer University Press is proud to be part of such important scholarship on a much neglected aspect of medical, presidential, and Southern history.

Today, F. Martin Harmon stops by the blog to offer us a few insights into the book.

 

 

1. Why has Warm Springs been so ignored in the studies of FDR?

This question is easy to answer because of the voluminous ways Franklin Roosevelt impacted his era. Looking back now, it seems he was involved in everything. By being president for so long, his fingerprints are all over the twentieth century, such as coping with the Great Depression with his various social programs, the build-up to WWII and the war years; the start of Social Security, rural electrification and the TVA, and national parks and the continued conservation efforts started by his cousin, Teddy, and so on. I just think historians ran out of time and space when it came to his adopted home. After all, Warm Springs was very much tied in with his disability and his own, very personal efforts to overcome polio, a struggle he kept in the background. With all of the other pieces of history that he touched, I just think historians have largely missed the important role he played in disability awareness, compassionate healthcare, rehabilitation, medical fundraising and research, and independent living—all things the famous “spirit of Warm Springs” was about. It’s understandable, but in its own way was no less impactful than all the other things for which he has been better known.

2. In the book, you discuss how close Warm Springs came to closing despite its historical significance. Why do you think states are so shortsighted in such matters?

In the early years, immediately following FDR’s death in 1945, polio was still very prevalent and there were good reasons for keeping the historical and medical parts of Warm Springs separate. The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was still a very active force under FDR’s anointed lieutenant Basil O’Connor and although the Little White House and its environs was an immediate and ongoing attraction, it made sense to keep the two entities separate. That all changed, however, with the advent of the Salk vaccine. The hospital’s emphasis had to shift with polio’s gradual decline. Naturally, other forms of rehabilitation were embraced by the medical powers-that-be. Meanwhile, the state kept alive Georgia’s FDR history at the Little White House and eventually got into the rehab business itself with vocational rehab, and, unfortunately, kept it all separate after assuming control of the medical side from the foundation. As with many things at that level, politics probably got in the way of logic. With more than one department in charge at Warm Springs and elected officials coming and going, the merging of everything that could have been so beneficial never happened. Tourism was continued through the FDR story, but the much larger (and warmer) Warm Springs story never got its due and so never had a chance to enhance the ongoing rehab legacy and economic potential. Worst of all, the famous water was allowed to fade away—the very reason for (and name of) the place—a marketing gaff rarely committed at a location with such historic significance. With so much on their plate, I think many Georgia leaders didn’t want Warm Springs, but they also didn’t want to be responsible for its going away. It’s a shame the federal funding (and control) that was discussed never happened because the significance warranted support from that level. The state was never up to running a rural hospital no matter how famous, especially given ever-increasing competition in the medical marketplace, and, as always, visionaries were few and far between. I’m sure other states have endured similar missteps for similar reasons. In tough economic times, which state budgets almost always profess, common sense solutions are often missed even when obvious advantages far outweigh risks. It all becomes too political to handle.

3. Do we have a modern polio, that is, a disease that is wrecking lives and ruining human potential?

At one time, diabetes was called the new polio and a diabetes management program was even proposed at Warm Springs to renew its medical glory. Unfortunately, that idea came at a time when Warm Springs was more concerned with upgrading vocational rehabilitation as part of the labor department rather than branching into a new medical rehab future. And although cancer probably remains the disease we would like to conquer most, it does seem that the ongoing problems caused by a lifetime of diabetes probably most closely mirrors a life with polio and what we now call post-polio syndrome.

4. How has the social stigma of physical handicap changed since FDR’s struggle with polio?

There’s no doubt Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a trendsetter and one of the trends he clearly established through the creation of Warm Springs was bringing disability out into the open, where it could (and should) be dealt with honestly and fairly on a day-to-day basis. Obviously Warm Springs was way ahead of its time in the use of automatic doors, ramps and inclines, hand rails, accessible bathrooms, and even elevators. Warm Springs was ADA compliant fifty years before the actual act made such things mandatory. In the final twenty-one years of his life, FDR returned to Warm Springs repeatedly for his own restoration, but also because he wanted each and every Warm Springs patient to realize that disability should be no excuse to abandon one’s dreams. How else could you view a “handicapped” or “crippled” man who had achieved the nation’s highest office? He was (and is) a hero to the disability community. When the great debate was raging over whether or not to allow a statue of him in a wheelchair at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, no less an authority and historian than Hugh Gallagher, a man with polio himself, famously proclaimed, “Don’t let them take our hero” in support of the statue.

5. What were you surprised to learn about FDR during the writing of the Warm Springs Story?

Perhaps my biggest surprises concerning Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to do with the what-might-have-beens that could have altered (for good or bad) the history of Warm Springs if FDR had never returned to politics, allowing his vision of Warm Springs to come to pass. With such a prominent, energetic, and charismatic man working constantly on Warm Springs rather than the economy, war, politics, and the nation’s future, imagine what he might have achieved for Warm Springs’s tourism and medical fronts. In fact, his documented plans for the place in lieu of all he accomplished as president and how famous he became make it even more of a head-scratcher that such things have been ignored by the generations since. Added to that was my realization of the marketing corners he was willing to cut and the truth he was willing to stretch to ensure survival of the place. He was, after all, a master of public relations, in his own words “one of America’s two greatest actors” (along with Orson Welles), and no place exemplified his talent for the well-placed comment (or con) more so than Warm Springs.

 

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