In this book Harriet Owsley remembers the life, friendships, and scholarly career she shared with her husband, Frank Lawrence Owsley. The subtitle of her memoir calls attention to her husband’s field of study as teacher and scholar. His three books on the Old South are definitive, and they are still in print: State Rights in the Confederacy (1925), King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign Relations of the Confederate States of America (1931), and Plain Folk of the Old South (1949)—all three republished posthumously. Owsley was an Agrarian, one of those twelve Southerners who in 1930 took their stand for the Agrarian tradition of the South in opposition to the industrialization, urbanization, commercialism, and centralization of America’s emerging Leviathan State. Owsley was also a gifted and influential history professor, serving for 29 years at Vanderbilt University and for six years at the University of Alabama, until his untimely death by heart attack in 1956.

There is much of interest in Harriet Owsley’s informative and aflFectionate memoir of her husband. Many aspects of his life and career are pertinent to present-day concerns in the academy and in communities across the nation. Consider the relevance of the following passage from Owsley’s 1921 letter to fellow historian George Petrie concerning the shortcomings of academics he encountered while pursuing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Chicago:

Two things have I concluded in hob-nobbing with the royalty and nobility of the places of higher learning: (1) the greatest scholars are a bunch of selfish, conceited, narrow-minded doctrinaires who care nothing for the students—the personal element is missing. . . . They are so indifferent to their students [that] they do only second grade teaching; (2) the books they write are ninety percent “bosh” simply written to help themselves and not for the welfare of the students, and the greatest part of the books are never read except by a few critics and publishers and rival authors.

Seventy years later the same criticisms may be leveled at big-wig academics in many of America’s universities. Like those Owsley encountered, many are “jealous and mean and bitter toward rivals, fighting for their own promotion and prestige, and forgetting that there is a public or a student body and that it is their business to serve them.”

Owsley was devoted to his profession and to the academic community. But what is remarkable about him is his devotion to his students, both professionally and personally. Over the years he directed many theses and approximately fifty dissertations. Mrs. Owsley supplies testimonies from his students that indicate their fondness for him as a person and teacher; they remember him for his kindness, hospitality, wit, sense of humor, illustrative vignettes, and for his energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate pursuit of historical knowledge. Owsley knew that teaching and writing history were humane concerns that brought the present-day student and reader into contact with the past. As historian and teacher, he was not detached from his subject and students.

Ordinarily when the Agrarian movement is mentioned one thinks of those prominent men of letters who were both Fugitive poets and Agrarian social critics: John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. Sewanee Review editor and novelist Andrew Lytle also comes to mind. But this common view ignores the central position Owsley held among the Agrarians. Virginia Rock endeavored to correct this misconception in her unpublished dissertation, “The Making and Meaning of I’ll Take My Stand” (1961), to my knowledge the best general study of the Agrarians and their ideas. Mrs. Owsley also calls attention to her husband’s central position among the Agrarians. Like Andrew Lytle (of the original twelve the only one still living), Owsley was reared on a farm and owned one most of his adult life. He wrote essays for the initial manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930) and its follow-up symposium Who Owns America? (1936). He also wrote numerous “Agrarian” essays and book reviews for university quarterlies and for the short-lived American Review (1933-1937), a major outlet for Agrarian writings.

Many of Owsley’s essays emphasize a cardinal Agrarian tenet: liberty and property are essential ingredients of the good life. As Owsley noted in the conclusion to his Who Owns America? essay, “The Foundations of Democracy,” “The right to life, the right to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness, the right to govern oneself, the right to own property . . . [will] give way to the fascist or communist totalitarian State . . . unless private property is put back into the hands of the disinherited American people.” Today as in the 1930’s, creeping socialism, the burgeoning bureaucracy, and enormous corporate conglomerations still threaten liberties and make it increasingly difficult for the common man, or the plain folk, as Owsley called them, to own businesses, farms, homes, and land.

Perhaps Owsley’s best-known book is Plain Folk of the Old South. It is true that he wrote about these plain folk with a certain amount of nostalgia, but what he observed and celebrated—their “integrity, independence, self-respect, courage, love of freedom”—might make any modern nostalgic. This work (coauthored by Harriet Owsley, as were many of Owsley’s publications) has done much to overturn Marxist and northern myths about the South. According to the northern myth the Old South was comprised of three classes: the plantation aristocracy, the slaves, and the “poor white trash,” who were politically, socially, and financially “disenfranchised” by the plantation system. Northern traveler Frederick Law Olmsted and British economist J.E. Cairnes were two 19th-century writers who popularized this myth. In our own day Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. continues to make use of stereotypical versions of Southern society.

From firsthand acquaintance with men and women who lived before the Civil War, Frank Owsley knew this simplistic three-tiered view of Southern society wasn’t true. And this version of the Old South is now discredited, largely due to the researches of the Owsleys and their students. Ten years of research by the Owsley group—of county tax lists, manuscript census reports, diaries, memoirs, county histories, wills, county court minutes, marriage licenses, church records, and other sources—provide overwhelming proof that wealth and land were widely distributed among many economic groups in the Old South, and the largest group was neither rich nor poor: it was yeoman farmers and herdsmen of what we would call middle-class standing.

Ordinarily I share Flannery O’Connor’s aversion to surveys and statistics and the abstract light they shed on men and affairs, yet I recognize a historian such as Owsley must and should resort to these sources and methods to discern clearer outlines of the past. As Donald Davidson has observed, sociology sometimes “proves what common-sense persons already knew. But in our violently statistical, researching age, it is extremely useful to have on hand several bales of data to feed the asses.” In this context, the asses are , followers of Olmsted and Cairnes, and South-bashing journalists such as H.L. Mencken and W.J. Cash, author of that mixture of poetry, rhetoric, and ideology entitled The Mind of the South. One of the virtues of Owsley’s book is its attention to the culture of the plain folk as well as to economic statistics. Essentially conservative, the plain folk cherished their traditional folkways even as they ascended the economic ladder.

In places Harriet Chappell Owsley’s narrative is wooden. But this fault is more than compensated for by many positive features. She has written an informative account of the intellectual and personal life of one of the South’s major Southern historians. She fills in her narrative with revealing passages from her husband’s unpublished memoir and from letters he exchanged with fellow historians and with many of the Agrarians. Her book provides a useful overview of major aspects of the cultural, economic, and social life in the antebellum South, and it has an index and a 12-page bibliography of the Owsleys’ publications. Yet the book’s most positive feature is Mrs. Owsley’s intimate portrait of an admirable, humane historian.


[Frank Lawrence Owsley: Historian of the Old South, by Harriet Chappell Owsley (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press) 223 pp., $24.95]