Sunday, July 19, 2009

The State of Jones-Review

This is an interesting story that would have worked better as a novel. The protagonist's narrative overcame the flaws in the writing. This book does not live up to its promise.

As the work progresses, the reader gets the sense that there is simply an insufficient amount of material about its protagonist, Newton Knight, and his men. The authors are at times reduced to guessing about what Knight and his group did. For instance, the authors write on P. 175, "It is quite possible that a member of Newton Knight's company..."

This is especially true on the subject of Knight's romance with Rachel Knight. The authors, Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, are unsure about her appearance. The reader is given a choice between two prospective photos about how she might have looked. There are no notes or letters between them. This is not the authors' fault but there is clearly a lack of material here.

Indeed, Jenkins and Stauffer often engage in exercises of speculation. On P. 277, they write,"Newton left no record of his mood after the election of 1875, but it can be guessed at..."

Jenkins and Stauffer then try to compensate by bombarding the reader with what they do know. When they quote from documents, they provide overlong extracts. For example, the authors subject the reader to the two-page report of Colonel William Brown of the 20th Mississippi on P.206-208. There is no reason for two pages of documents. The same holds true for their odd choice of attaching transcripts and testimonials at the end of the chapters. Primary source materials should be woven into a historian's prose. The skill in historical writing is the ability to make the quoting appear seamless.

This war book also suffers from a lack of maps. Like most of the readers and the authors themselves, I am not from Mississippi or Jones County. I would have liked to have seen the locations of these events.

Jenkins and Stauffer also show a fundamental ignorance of the nature of warfare. Their 21st-century prejudices become glaring. They describe John Bell Hood's actions as commander of the Army of Tennessee. They characterize John Bell Hood as "almost psychotically combative." Clearly, the authors fail to realize that generals succeed and fail on being aggressive. They are supposed to be combative. Lee and Grant gained their victories by having that characteristic. In addition, these men were fighting in the 19th century with the example of the Napoleonic charge over their shoulders. Hood was a conventional but incompetant 19th century general.

Jenkins and Stauffer, in their determined effort to lionize Newton Knight, are unfairly critical of the man's son Tom Knight. The authors seem blind to the fact that Newton's romance with Rachel, though racially progressive, was still adultery. Any son would be deeply angry when a father betrayed his mother in such an open manner. Newton, however brave, still engaged in baleful personal behavior. Though his conduct had racial undertones, Tom Knight's rejection of Newton and the man's second family seem quite understandable when you consider what Newton did.

On the positive side, the authors do a good job of evoking life in Mississippi during and after the war.

They also show how the old order reasserted itself in Mississippi after the war. Stauffer and Jenkins describe how Grant's lack of will allowed the return of the ex-Confederates to power. Basically, Jefferson Davis's Unionism of the 1850's became reality. He saw the South staying formally within the Union with the whites dominant and the blacks in a servile state. That vision came true by the end of Reconstruction.

This book does not live up to the caption on its front cover. Jones County returned to neo-Confederate control during Reconstruction. The only broad repercussions from Newton Knight's rebellion seemed to be for him and some of his men. The loss of rights for the blacks in Jones County also occurred to the rest of the freedmen in the South.

This book is interesting and worth reading on the subject of Southern Unionism. However, its flaws outweigh its virtues.

Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry

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