A University of Mississippi history professor has compiled a book of essays exploring the meaning of spirit in the American South.
Charles Reagan Wilson, the Kelly Gene Cook Chair in history and professor of Southern studies, has released “Flashes of a Southern Spirit: Meaning of the Spirit in the U.S. South” (University of Georgia Press). A reading and signing will take place at Off Square Books, 129 Courthouse Square in Oxford, at 5 p.m. June 16.
The book is compiled from articles written over a 10-year period that first appeared in other places such as European publications and hard-to-find journals. Wilson realized the pieces all had common issues and themes.
“I decided to bring them together and revise what I had already written in terms of this theme of the importance of the spirit in the South, to the Southern identity,” he said.
In his introduction, Wilson takes his inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’ book “The Souls of Black Folk,” in which Du Bois identifies the black spirit on the Southern landscape.
“Du Bois was talking about the South being a kind of grounding for spiritual life above and beyond the materialism that was part of the new South philosophy, which was about the need for the South to make more money and become economically diversified,” Wilson said.
The main audience for the book is scholars and historians, as well as people who are interested in religion in the South, and one of the most important contributions is the focus on Southern creativity.
“I argue that there was a Southern cultural renaissance in the 20th century,” Wilson said. “We know our writers and literary critics talk about a Southern literary renaissance, but I want to bring music and art into the mix. I looked at what was happening at the same time that our great writers were writing, and we also had our great musicians, so we had Faulkner in Mississippi, but also Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters.
“So what happens when you look at them together, what kind of common themes do they have, and how are they different? What does this say about creativity in a state or in a region that had all these social problems?”
Ted Ownby, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, said Wilson’s essays draw source material from a wide variety of sources, which is no surprise for someone who is also an editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
“Studying ‘the spirit’ can be difficult, in part because the concept means different things to different people, in part because sometimes it connotes things that are hard to put into words,” said Ownby, UM professor of history. “Wilson’s approach of using essays on a wide variety of topics is a terrific way to get inside how different Southerners experience and express spirituality. The essays show how religion appears not just in topics we might conventionally define as religious history, but in fiction, music, art, beauty pageants and more.”
Charles A. Israel, associate professor of history and chair of the Auburn University Department of History, wrote this review: “Collected here under the umbrella of what he terms ‘Southern’ spirit are some of his best essays, with discussions of Southerners both famous and forgotten, gospel music, high literature and self-taught art, all connected through Wilson’s deft understanding of the complicated role of religious experience in shaping and being shaped by Southern culture.”
Wilson has an additional reading and signing planned for the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta over Labor Day.
He is the author of “Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis” and “Baptized in Blood: The Religion of Lost Cause, 1865-1920,” both University of Georgia Press.