Review of Timothy J. Williams's "Intellectual Manhood: University, Self, and Society in the Antebellum South"

tags: book review, Timothy J. Williams, Intellectual Manhood

Luther Spoehr is an HNN book reviewer and a Senior Lecturer at Brown University, where he teaches courses on the history of higher education.

Standing at the intersection of the history of higher education, the history of the South, and gender studies, Timothy J. Williams, a historian at the University of Oregon’s Honors College, wants us to reimagine the history of the “old-time,” pre-Civil War college.  Contrary to a long-lived stereotype, going to college was not, he insists, a dull, intellectually stifling experience, periodically punctuated by raucous outbursts of drunken revelry, dueling, and miscellaneous violent pranks.   Rather, many students engaged in a serious, self-conscious quest for what they termed “intellectual manhood,” as they made their way from childhood to adulthood.  

To prove his point, Williams has “excavated” a vast trove of resources, including “more than one hundred private manuscript collections of students’ letters and diaries, as well as literary society minutes, library catalogues and borrowing records, book marginalia, class compositions, notebooks, speeches, student magazines, and memoirs [as well as] more than 800 extant addresses and speeches archived by the [University of North Carolina’s] Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies.”  In a nod to our contemporary impulse to count things, he adds that “this is the first study to quantify, classify, and contextualize literary society debate questions,” over 4,000 of them.

This creative and exhaustive research pays dividends.  Exploiting approaches such as reader response theory, Williams demonstrates students’ agency in their own education, both in the classroom and (especially) outside it, in the “informal curriculum.”  Here are some of his challenges to the old master narrative 

            *Southern college students were not the stereotypically touchy, temperamental aristocrats-in-the-making, hypersensitive to slights of their honor.  Downplaying the emphasis on “Southern honor” proposed by Bertram Wyatt Brown and others, Williams says that “intellectual culture…on campus…promoted popular bourgeois values of American selfhood:  industry, self-restraint, self-mastery, sobriety, and chastity.”  

            *The self-conscious pursuit of “intellectual manhood” makes the Southern college and Southern college men much more similar to their northern counterparts than previously recognized and suggests that Southern distinctiveness is far less pronounced than previously thought, at least until the very eve of the Civil War.  Examining the seven decades before 1860 leads Williams to conclude that “antebellum education did not create proto-Confederates.”  Like their counterparts throughout the nation, Southern students used their college years to focus on “questions of how the self was defined, composed, and articulated.”  Their romantic, even heroic, conceptions of themselves were consistent with conceptions their contemporaries were creating throughout the country.

*Higher education in the South was not confined to a tiny elite:    “Many students were sons of planters, but others were sons of professionals—merchants, grocers, teachers, ministers, and professors who only aspired to elite status.”  Students were drawn from the “educated class…united under similar cultural values and practices that defined the national bourgeoisie.”  Of course, accepting Williams’s argument here depends at least partly on one’s definition of “elite.”  And he is quick to note the exclusivity of this “educated class,” which was confined to white men and excluded women and black slaves.  Some of his most interesting analysis centers on literary society debates that tried to reconcile America’s commitment to freedom and republicanism with the continued existence of servitude.

Overall, Williams’s argument boils down to a refutation of Henry Adams, who famous said, “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament.”  Southern college students, Williams contends, exalted “mind over temperament, restraint over impulse, and independence over dependence.”  A curriculum that treated Cicero and Horace as timeless contemporaries and emphasized the importance of  public speaking and leadership in public life was seen as quite relevant by undergraduates.  Perhaps more important was the “informal curriculum”:   the noble Romans, along with 19th-century romantics such as Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron, “existed alongside popular American ballads and folk songs in students’ literary imaginations.”  The libraries of the Dialectic and Philanthropic Societies, larger than the University’s own, offered a rich array of history, biography, and current affairs (including periodicals such as the Southern Literary Messenger), all well calibrated to help fledgling adults take on their future roles. 

Perhaps the most important and revealing activities were the regular (and frequent) student debates, usually sponsored by the student societies.  Williams’s seventh chapter, subtitled “Debating Every Great Public Question,” is itself worth the price of the book, as he recounts students’ rhetorical disputations about the status of women, Native Americans, and enslaved persons, and other topics.  To shatter the stereotype of the hermetically-sealed South, it may be enough to show that these debates took place at all.  But, thanks to the detailed minutes Williams uncovered, he manages much more.

Naturally, as with any book so determined to upset so many historiographical apple carts, there are issues of emphasis.  For instance, Williams is careful to add that the he’s NOT saying that honor wasn’t an enduring, important value for Southern men.  He and we know that carousing, noisy revelry, brawls, and worse were not rare.  But exactly what was the balance between all of that and the efforts to achieve the middle class values he identifies as so important?

Although he casts his research net widely, Williams focuses heavily on the University of North Carolina (founded in 1789).  He makes a good case that UNC was a reasonably representative institution, despite its lack of evangelical ties. And thanks to the growing literature on student life and higher education, he has numerous secondary sources  to buttress his claims to larger significance.   But we still don’t know enough to be certain (at least as certain as historians can be) about just what that balance was. 

Finally, a stylistic quibble:  at times, instead of developing his arguments further, Williams merely repeats them.  Somebody somewhere evidently gave him this ancient advice: “Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em.  Tell ‘em.  Then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em.”  Phrases such as “mind over temperament, restraint over impulse, and independence over dependence” reappear so often, verbatim, that they become a kind of mantra.  Okay!  We get it!

Such caveats aside, however, this is a tremendously useful, provocative, and accessible book.  By calling attention to continuities over time and similarities between regions, it reminds us that even in the early 19th century, a national culture, propelled in part by the “market revolution,”  mattered more and more.  Most remarkably, by showing how students incorporated what has been dismissed as a dry-as-dust curriculum and their own extra-curriculum into their search for meaning in their own lives, Williams has done what not too many years ago would have seemed impossible:  shining new light and breathing new life into the gloom that supposedly was the “old-time college.”  No mean achievement, that.

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