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Inside Alabama

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A little over a week ago, I wrote about my surprise at finding myself reading Harvey Jackson III’s The Rise and Decline of the Redneck Riviera: An Insider’s History of the Florida-Alabama Coast. I’m no less surprised by my decision last night to start his 2004 book Inside Alabama: A Personal History of My State, which I’m now about sixty pages into.

More about the book soon. First let me review how I found my way to Harvey Jackson’s books.

It started early last month, when we committed ourselves to visiting Athens and Augusta, Georgia. Eager to learn more about the state, I began with James Cobb’s short history, Georgia Odyssey, which I wrote about here and here. Next I read Ron Rapoport’s biography The Immortal Bobby: Bobby Jones and the Golden Age of Golf of one of the Masters co-founders, which I wrote about here.

I was ready next for a treatment of the South more broadly, so I decided it would be good to read Amanda Foreman’s A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, which had been on my reading list for some time. It’s a massive book. Partway through, I set it aside for a book on an entirely different theme. On returning, I had reached the halfway point when the latest of James Cobb’s occasional blog posts appeared. After reading it, I went to his blog’s home page, where I noticed an image of Jackson’s Redneck Riviera, which Cobb had written about last June. Soon I was reading it.

I finished Redneck Riviera on Thursday. Jackson is an amiable host. There was a stretch in the middle when I wondered how much I cared about the late twentieth century battles over developing the Gulf Coast in the stretch running east from Mobile Bay in Alabama past Pensacola, Fort Walton, and Destin and on through Seaside to Panama City. But the stories got better and better, and by the latter stages, I could hardly put the book down. Storms, beach destruction and restoration, a case on whether a particular beach should be restored that went to the Supreme Court, the marketing of Spring Break, student mayhem, and Girls Gone Wild movies (more court cases), the fortunes of Destin as fishing village, the development of Seaside as a planned urban community (later the site where the movie The Truman Show was filmed), the contrast between Seaside and the author’s own adjacent community of Seaside, the arrival of a wealthier class of people, the more problematic arrival of speculators, the 2007 bursting of the real estate bubble, and finally, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Who knew this was such an interesting region, just a thin 135-mile stretch on the Gulf?

On its completion, I returned to Foreman’s account of the Civil War, circa spring 1863. The book has a Stoppardian Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality, with major events such as the Battle of Chancellorsville told through the eyes of minor characters, typically British observers or participants. Whoever’s eyes, it’s quite a story, and Foreman’s writing is vivid. I should really read to the book’s end. But my pattern appears to be set. After another 50 pages or so of reading, I was already thinking yesterday about what to read next.

Should I wait for the Tuesday release of Claire Messud’s new novel, The Woman Upstairs? It already has a strong review in the New York Review (behind their paywall) by Alison Lurie, and another, by Sam Sacks, in yesterday’s WSJ. I considered it, then remembered that Jackson has a short history of Alabama. Here’s the publisher’s description of the book:

This book tells Alabama’s history in a conversational style with an unapolo-getically subjective approach. Accessible to general readers and students alike, it recounts the history and politics of a state known for its colorful past, told by one of the state’s most noted historians and educators, whose family came to the territory before statehood. A native and resident Alabamian, Harvey Jackson has spent a lifetime discovering and trying to understand his state. Expressing deep love for its people and culture, he is no less critical of its shortcomings.

Inside Alabama, as the title implies, gives Jackson’s insider’s perspective on the events and conditions that shaped modern-day Alabama. With humor and candor, he explores the state’s cultural, political, and economic development from prehistoric times to the dawning of the new millennium. Mound-builders, Hernando de Soto, William Bartram, Red Sticks, Andy Jackson, Bourbon Democrats, suffragettes, New Dealers, Hugo Black, Martin Luther King Jr., George Wallace, Rosa Parks all play colorful parts in this popular history. By focusing on state politics as the most accessible and tangible expression of these shaping forces, Jackson organizes the fourteen chapters chronologically, artfully explaining why the past is so important today.

Searching brought up as well a short review by Susan Pace Hamill that convinced me to download the opening portion and begin. She writes:

[Jackson] explores how historical myths surrounding the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods made it easy for otherwise good respectable moral people to believe excuses justifying what we now acknowledge as indefensible injustice.

Jackson’s blunt and blistering evaluations of Alabama’s lowest points will be uncomfortable for many to swallow but will also be difficult to ignore. Despite his substantial professional qualifications as a distinguished professor and scholar of southern history and culture for over forty years, Jackson does not come across as an aloof and judgmental academic locked up in the ivory tower at Jacksonville State University where he currently teaches. Rather, his affectionate tone clearly expresses unconditional love for the state. A native of Grove Hill with ancestral family roots going back before statehood, that include slaveholders and Bourbon Democrats who supported the 1901 Constitution, Jackson is very much connected with Alabama’s mainstream population – the very people who tolerated the terrible injustice dominating our past and who are currently allowing it to continue. In his coverage of segregated Alabama Jackson not only recaps the historical events but also ponders regretfully why so many good moral citizens, including himself, his own family and friends as well as others in his community accepted what we now understand was clearly wrong.

Once again, Jackson is a warm host. So far, I’ve read a short overview of Native American centuries, the arrival of French, Spanish, and British settlers and traders, the Revolutionary War, the familiar horrors of the Creek War, which took place in parallel with the War of 1812 and was one of Andrew Jackson’s great successes, the writing of a state constitution and coming of statehood in 1819, the first years of state government in the 1820s.

Featuring prominently in all this is Alabama’s geography, the river systems and early settlements, trade and development of agriculture. I’ve been studying maps, tracing the routes of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers, their joining just above modern-day Montgomery to form the Alabama, its route west to Selma and then southwards to Mobile Bay, with a name change to the Tensaw when the Tombigbee flows in. And then, up north, I’ve learned about the settling of Huntsville and its location on the Tennessee River, which maybe I once knew but, if so, have learned anew. The old trading and migration routes have given me a better understanding of the state’s major features.

This morning I was inspired to go to Alabama’s tourism site, page through the online version of their vacation guide, and order a print copy. I don’t know when we’ll get there, but I sketched out a trip that would at least cover Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Montgomery and Selma, Mobile and the Redneck Riviera. For now, I’ll be content with Jackson’s book.

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