The best books about the South (USA)

39 authors have picked their favorite books about the South and why they recommend each book.

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Confederates in the Attic

By Tony Horwitz,

Book cover of Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

I’ve used this book countless times in the classroom and it always prompts a probing discussion. The late journalist Tony Horwitz takes his readers with him on his travels, mostly through the South and mainly to locations where the Civil War seems to be a pressing, present-day concern. We meet Civil War re-enactors, members and sponsors of the Lost Cause-themed “Children of the Confederacy”, Civil Rights activists, school teachers, and tourists, all of whom share with Horwitz their perspectives on what the War means to them. Although Horwitz wrote this account in the 1990s, much of it feels like a foreshadowing of the conflicts we live with today.

Who am I?

Having grown up visiting lots of historic sites – and hearing my father sing old Civil War tunes (frequently off-key!) on long car trips – I gravitated pretty quickly to studying the Civil War, and its aftermath, when I was in college and then in graduate school. I was particularly interested in the way Americans experienced the Civil War after it was over: the sentimental novels they read; the romantic movies they watched; the reconstructed battlefields they visited. In my work as a professor at Boston University, I try to get students to think about the stories that do, and do not, get told about the Civil War and other events from the past. I suppose the question that always piqued my interest was why people might find the often wildly inaccurate versions of the past so appealing.

I wrote...

This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America

By Nina Silber,

Book cover of This War Ain't Over: Fighting the Civil War in New Deal America

What is my book about?

Nina Silber deftly examines the often conflicting and politically contentious ways in which Americans remembered the Civil War era during the years of the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. In doing so, she reveals how the debates and events of that earlier period resonated so profoundly with New Deal rhetoric about state power, emerging civil rights activism, labor organizing and trade unionism, and popular culture in wartime.

At the heart of this book is an examination of how historical memory offers people a means of understanding and defining themselves in the present. Silber reveals how, during a moment of enormous national turmoil, the events and personages of the Civil War provided a framework for reassessing national identity, class conflict, and racial and ethnic division. 

Apostles of Disunion

By Charles B. Dew,

Book cover of Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War

This slim volume packs a mean punch. Following the secession of the seven Deep Southern states in 1860-61, commissioners were sent out to the remaining uncommitted slaveholding states to convince their leaders of the necessity of joining the new Confederate States of America. While the arguments of these secession commissioners included constitutional arguments in favor of secession, they relied even more so on emotional pleas that framed the election of the nation’s first Republican president as a direct threat to the institution of slavery and white supremacy. Their speeches were laced with horrific images of emancipation and a region plunged into racial violence. Charles Dew offers a compelling argument that highlights the importance of slavery and race in the outbreak of war.

Who am I?

I am a historian and educator based in Boston. I have authored three books and numerous essays on the Civil War era. You can find my op-eds in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The Daily Beast. Over the past few years, I have worked with students and teachers across the country to better understand the current controversy surrounding Confederate monuments.

I wrote...

Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

By Kevin M. Levin,

Book cover of Searching for Black Confederates: The Civil War's Most Persistent Myth

What is my book about?

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, scores of websites, articles, and organizations repeat claims that anywhere between 500 and 100,000 free and enslaved African Americans fought willingly as soldiers in the Confederate army. Such claims would have shocked anyone who served in the army during the war itself. Searching for Black Confederates is the first scholarly study to explain how imprecise contemporary accounts, poorly understood primary-source material, and other misrepresentations helped to fuel the rise of this myth, beginning in the mid-1970s. 

Searching for Black Confederates also explores the roles that thousands of personal body servants and forced laborers actually performed in support of the Confederate army. Regardless of the dangers these men faced in camp, on the march, and on the battlefield, their legal status remained unchanged. The thousands of enslaved men that traveled with the army serves as an important reminder of the central importance that the Confederacy placed on protecting slavery.

The Complete Stories

By Flannery O'Connor,

Book cover of The Complete Stories

Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor is an incredible storyteller with characters often described as grotesque and morally flawed. Having been raised in the South, I find her characters so real it is as if I know them or have met them personally.

I know she disliked any of her stories being labeled ‘horror’ and instead called them ‘hard’. But you have to admit that a lot that happens naturally in life is indeed ‘horror’, so I use the term as a high compliment to her. But that alone would be too much, so she tempers it with her sardonic wit and has me chuckling at all the characters in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” but the story itself hits in a very different way.

Who am I?

I can’t remember a time I haven’t been drawn to and fascinated by the link between absurdity/humor and horror. Both genres involve setups and payoffs. The tension built up needs to be released in either a gasp or a laugh. In my own writing, I try to make myself giggle in joy at the ridiculousness of a situation and then recoil at the underlying horror that anchors it to the real world. It’s a balance I constantly try to reach and that I personally find is a joy to read.

I wrote...

The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales

By Thersa Matsuura,

Book cover of The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales

What is my book about?

Beautiful, haunting, and grotesque, The Carp-Faced Boy and Other Tales offers stories reminiscent of traditional Japanese folktales alongside contemporary horror fiction. Matsuura’s unique voice, in its poignancy and lightheartedness, is unforgettable.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Harriet Beecher Stowe,

Book cover of Uncle Tom's Cabin

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Abraham Lincoln supposedly said when he met Stowe. The quote may be apocryphal, but it points to a truth about the 1852 novel that shaped American opinions about the cruelty and injustice of slavery. The writing is a bit melodramatic for modern sensibilities, but it’s hard to beat the scene in which the escaped slave Eliza tries to carry her young son across an icy river for freedom on the other side.

Who am I?

John J. Miller is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, a writer for National Review, and the host of two book-themed podcasts, The Great Books and The Bookmonger. His books include The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football and Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas. He lives on a dirt road in rural Michigan.

I wrote...

The First Assassin

By John J. Miller,

Book cover of The First Assassin

What is my book about?

As the United States teeters on the brink of Civil War and death threats pour into the White House, Col. Charles P. Rook takes on the responsibility of presidential protection. Meanwhile, a mysterious killer hired by a secessionist leader slips into Washington, D.C., seeking to murder Abraham Lincoln. As the bodies pile up, Rook realizes that he’s caught in a dangerous game with a cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing to complete his mission. His best hope is Portia, a runaway slave who holds the key to the assassin’s identity—if only she can stay alive long enough to deliver it. Packed with dynamic characters, rich period detail, and a sinister villain, The First Assassin is a riveting thriller for fans of historical fiction. Praise from Vince Flynn: “An excellent book—it’s like The Day of the Jackal, set in 1861 Washington.”

Everything That Rises Must Converge

By Flannery O'Connor,

Book cover of Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories

Although trespassing on Faulknerian Southern gothic territory, this posthumous collection of nine demonically disquieting stories by Flannery O’Connor pits inhabitants of the New South circa 1960 against old school elemental forces of mystery and revelation.

Set in and around the suburbs of what she called the modern “Christ-haunted” south -- whether on a newly desegregated bus trip to the YWCA, in a doctor’s waiting room, or in a social worker’s ordinary suburban home, grotesque eruptions of violence are the means to startling and sometimes deadly ends. Hypocritical manners that mask ugly generational racism, false liberalism that leads to an unthinkable family tragedy, even the simple act of getting a tattoo – all have theological implications in stories that reveal O’Connor’s uniquely apocalyptic vision, presented with unwavering comic detachment.

Who am I?

As someone who grew up a child of the sixties amidst suburban conformity but with a decidedly nonconformist gothic sensibility, I have wanted to find a way to combine these contradictory forces. Happily, as a professor of literature and film studies at Hofstra University, I was able to achieve my goal last year when I taught "(Un)Dead Girls and (Un)Safe Spaces: The Suburban Gothic in Film" and "Suburban Horrors" (a literature class). Unaware however that a global pandemic would mean teaching these courses via Zoom, my students and I found ourselves trapped within the confines of our own boxes in a suburban nightmare while discussing fictional and film narratives about sinister neighbors, monsters in closets, murderous family members, conspiratorial racists, and uncanny house hauntings. Oh, the horrible irony.

I wrote...

American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "it" Girl and the Crime of the Century

By Paula Uruburu,

Book cover of American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the "it" Girl and the Crime of the Century

What is my book about?

The sensational true story of America’s first It Girl. In 1900, 16-year-old Florence Nesbit arrived in Manhattan “with nothing but her looks.” She would soon be seen by millions as the iconic Gibson Girl and most photographed woman of the era. Moving quickly from artists’ studios to the stage (when she became Evelyn) she ended up on the witness stand, where she not only affected the course of the new century’s culture but sealed her fate as “the girl in the red velvet swing.”

After her insanely jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, murdered famed architect Stanford White in what was dubbed “The Crime of the Century,” Evelyn was thrust into the limelight again. The girl “with a face to die for” ignited a scandal that signaled the beginning of a national obsession with the currencies of power that still feed the American dream -- youth, beauty, wealth, celebrity, and sex.

Slaves Without Masters

By Ira Belin,

Book cover of Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South

This book uses census data and other historical facts to highlight the 250,000 free blacks who were in the south post-Civil War. It shows the struggles black people faced in regards to their community, liberty, education, and economic independence inside an oppressive society. Berlin does a good job at depicting the interaction between Blacks and Whites both free and enslaved. He offers a better understanding of the complex race relations that existed in the south. He gives one of the best accounts on record, of the wealth black people accumulated during slavery and 20 years after despite the pushback they faced.

Who am I?

My family’s farm was lost due to a dishonest lawyer that my great-grandmother entrusted. Because of that, I have devoted the past 20 years of my career to providing low-cost legal services to aging rural farmers around estate planning and civil rights. As an attorney, I have worked for the US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Civil Rights in Washington DC. I also founded the non-profit organization F.A.R.M.S., which provides services to aging rural farmers such as preventing farm foreclosures, executing wills, and securing purchase contracts. After drafting Systematic Land Theft over the span of several years, I am happy to release this historic synopsis documenting the land theft of Indigenous and Black communities. I have written extensively on the topics of agriculture, environmental, and land injustice in a variety of legal, trade, and other publications.

I wrote...

Systematic Land Theft

By Jillian Hishaw,

Book cover of Systematic Land Theft

What is my book about?

Systematic Land Theft is a well-documented outline of U.S. history regarding Black and Indigenous land theft. Land Theft compresses 300 years of archives into 1200 footnotes, 12 chapters, and countless literary accounts told by Black farmers, civil rights leaders, and pioneers in the agricultural movement.

This is a heart-wrenching chronicle of how Blacks went from owning upwards of 16 to 20 million acres to the current estimate of 4.5 million acres. Jillian Hishaw thoroughly explains why over 97% of U.S. land is owned by White Americans and less than 3% is owned by people of color. The strategic immigration of Europeans and the adoption of English common law led to the murderous dispossession of tribal land as well. U.S. property laws have tactically benefitted Whites by allowing them to acquire stolen land and using it as collateral to secure their economic position for centuries. As Blacks continue to lose 30,000 acres per year in land ownership the need for legal and economic resolutions is immediate.

Buy this book directly from the author here. 

Deep Roots

By Avidit Acharyo, Matthew Blackwell, Maya Sen

Book cover of Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics

I love this book because it’s political science at its best; it uses a lot of great data to study how history affects us in the present; it shows us how hard change is and also what makes it possible. It’s depressing and hopeful and super smart. It’s social science but it’s also very readable.

Who am I?

I believe in democracy. I think the US has the opportunity to be the world’s first multicultural and inclusive democracy. And I think that’s a very, very hard thing to do. I’ve been writing about democracy through the lens of presidential history my whole career, and I think the US has done some things so impressively well while at the same time it frustratingly keeps failing to live up to its own ideals. The tensions and contradictions in our history as we try to expand and enact those ideas are endlessly fascinating. And I’m nervous that we may be seeing the end of a national commitment to democracy. 

I wrote...

Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

By Mary E. Stuckey,

Book cover of Deplorable: The Worst Presidential Campaigns from Jefferson to Trump

What is my book about?

From the contest that pitted Thomas Jefferson against John Adams in 1800 through 2020’s vicious, chaotic matchup between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Stuckey documents the cycle of despicable discourse in presidential campaigns. Looking beyond the character and the ideology of the candidates, Stuckey explores the broader political, economic, and cultural milieus in which each took place. In doing so, she reveals the conditions that exacerbate and enable our worst political instincts, producing discourses that incite factions, target members of the polity, encourage undemocratic policy, and actively work against the national democratic project.

Keenly analytical and compulsively readable, Deplorable provides context for the 2016 and 2020 elections, revealing them as part of a cyclical―and perhaps downward-spiraling―pattern in American politics. Deplorable offers more than a comparison of the worst of our elections. It helps us understand these shameful and disappointing moments in our political history, leaving one important question: Can we avoid them in the future?

Lee Considered

By Alan T. Nolan,

Book cover of Lee Considered: General Robert E. Lee and Civil War History

Alan Nolan became one of the first to challenge the Lee myth that had been created in the decades after the general’s death in 1870. He starts with the premise that Lee was a good man whose actions have been distorted beyond all recognition. He then subjects the historical record to a withering cross-examination. Nolan asks: Why did Lee commit treason? Did he really oppose slavery? Did his stubborn persistence harm his beloved state of Virginia? What did he do to unite the nation after the war? Nolan even challenges to the traditional belief that Lee was magnanimous to his enemies, writing, “The historical record shows that Lee constructed a demonic image of the Federals.” This book takes no quarter and may infuriate Lee’s supporters.

Who am I?

I am the author of The Lost Indictment of Robert E. Lee and A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. I’ve been a teacher, editor, and writer for over twenty-five years. The Civil War, in particular, has been my passion since I first read Bruce Catton’s The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War as an elementary school student in the 1960s. My articles on Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant have been featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and on the History News Network.

I wrote...

A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

By John Reeves,

Book cover of A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee

What is my book about?

A Fire in the Wilderness tells the story of that perilous time when the future of the United States depended on the Union Army’s success in a desolate forest roughly sixty-five miles from the nation’s capital. Robert E. Lee, who faced tremendous difficulties replacing fallen soldiers, lost 11,125 men—or 17% of his entire force during the battle. On the opposing side, the Union suffered 17,666 casualties.

The alarming casualties do not begin to convey the horror of this battle, one of the most gruesome in American history. The impenetrable forest and gunfire smoke made it impossible to view the enemy. Officers couldn’t even see their own men during the fighting. The incessant gunfire caused the woods to catch fire, resulting in hundreds of men burning to death. “It was as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of the earth,” wrote one officer.

All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren,

Book cover of All the King's Men

The early ‘30s were marked by the rise of Huey P. Long, Louisiana’s populist governor, senator, and cult leader whom FDR called “the most dangerous man in America.” In All the King’s Men, the character of Willie Stark is based on Long and gives us a richly detailed look into the labyrinthine politics of the times. Fiction, but painfully true, not just to Long and the ways he corrupted decent people but to our own political times, as well. Favorite quote: “Politics is a matter of choices, and a man doesn't set up the choices himself. And there is always a price to make a choice. You know that. You've made a choice, and you know how much it cost you. There is always a price.”

Who am I?

I’m a writer and history buff who loves to make fiction out of facts. For me, the best stories are imagined out of truths we have all lived, real places that are mapped in our memories, real people whose names conjure events, past times that are prelude to our own. I like to read books built on plots and puzzles, so I write mysteries. I love books about real people, so I write biographical novels bent around the secret selves of people we only thought we knew: Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Georgia O’Keeffe. 

I wrote...

The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

By Susan Wittig Albert,

Book cover of The Darling Dahlias and the Red Hot Poker

What is my book about?

It’s Labor Day weekend, 1935, and the Darling Dahlias―the garden club in little Darling, Alabama―are trying to keep their cool at the end of a sizzling summer. This isn’t easy, though, since there’s a firebug on the loose in Darling. A dangerous hurricane is poised offshore and a hurricane of a different sort is making a whirlwind campaign stop: the much-loved-much-hated senator from Louisiana, Huey P. Long, whom President Roosevelt calls the “most dangerous man in America.”

The people of Darling face the challenges of the Great Depression with courage and grace, reminding us that friends offer the best of themselves to each other, community is what holds us together, and even when life seems too hot to handle, there’s always hope.

Rebels in the Making

By William L. Barney,

Book cover of Rebels in the Making: The Secession Crisis and the Birth of the Confederacy

This new 2020 book is a fresh synthesis of the scholarly work that has been done on secession and the young Confederacy in the past 30 years and has much that is new to offer  Its treatment of the weeks in Montgomery is rather brief, but insightful, and overall it makes a fine introduction to the political life of the CSA.

Who am I?

I find the early days of the Confederacy to be fascinating, a chance to look at Americans in the act of nation-making while surrounded by fear and crisis. Far more than in the convention of 1776, this episode offers sources that allow us to look inside their motives, and to evaluate them both as impractical rebels, and social and political idealists [albeit their idealism was always encased within the confines of a slave society]. Having written biographies of Jefferson Davis, Alexander H Stephens, Robert Toombs, and other Confederate politicians, this subject is a natural object of my interest. While I do not at all agree with or endorse the political measures they took in the secession crisis, I can feel some empathy for them and their people who felt themselves caught in a no-win position, facing [in their view] the possible destruction of their economy, society, and culture.

I wrote...

An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

By William C. Davis,

Book cover of An Honorable Defeat: The Last Days of the Confederate Government

What is my book about?

In February 1865, the end was clearly in sight for the Confederate government. An Honorable Defeat is the story of the four months that saw the surrender of the South and the assassination of Lincoln by Southern partisans. It is also the story of two men, antagonists yet political partners, who struggled during this time to achieve their own differing visions for the South: Jefferson Davis, the autocratic president of the Confederate States, who vowed never to surrender whatever the cost; and the practical and warm General John C. Breckinridge, Secretary of War, who hoped pragmatism would save the shattered remnants of the land he loved so dearly.

William C. Davis traces the astounding flight of these men, and the entire Confederate cabinet, as they flee south from Richmond by train, then by mule, then on foot.

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