Some Recent Reading

Hallie Erminie Rives, Smoking Flax.

I’m reading this for some ongoing research on lynching, crime, and the Southern economy. It’s a defense of lynching in the form of a short novel featuring predictably one-dimensional characters and racist tropes. It’s a quick read and a useful foray into the rhetoric of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century racism. Here’s some commentary on the title’s Biblical allusion.

Joel Mokyr, A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy.

Mokyr is my academic grandfather, having advised my advisor. A Culture of Growth is deep and wide, and it is an important follow-up to his earlier books The Lever of Riches, The Gifts of Athena, and The Enlightened Economy. Mokyr makes a sweeping argument that complements Deirdre McCloskey’s in her “Bourgeois Era” trilogy, and one she and I will rely on in our book on the Bourgeois Deal: political fragmentation and intellectual integration meant that there was a pan-European “republic of letters” that eventually became impossible to suppress. There developed among participants in the republic–elites, all of them–belief in the possibility of progress as well as the desirability of progress. This, according to Mokyr, was the stuff of A Culture of Growth that allowed us to enjoy the development of the modern economy. Here’s an excellent outline by Brad DeLong.

Richard Gamble, In Search of the City on a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth.

I’ve long been intrigued by the development of civic religion, and I’ve become more and more convinced in the last decade or so that many American evangelicals identify much more as American than they do as evangelicals. Gamble, with whom I had the privilege of appearing on the program at a conference sponsored by the Center for Reflective Citizenship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in November, offers a fantastically readable discussion of how John Winthrop’s use of the phrase “city on a hill” from Matthew 5:14 came to be understood as a prophetic statement about American exceptionalism. Gamble recovers the original understanding of the phrase, which was a charge to the settlers as Christians rather than a charge to the settlers as soon-to-be-Americans. Gamble’s un-making of this American myth should lead us to rethink the sermons that are so popular around political holidays.

Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman.

I’m about halfway through the follow-up, titled “The Second Coming.” I started reading Percy after a discussion in the Samford Great Ideas Summer Institute in which one of my colleagues cited Percy’s essay “Stoicism in the South.” The South suddenly made a lot more sense to me after I read this paragraph from Percy’s essay:


“The greatness of the South, like the greatness of the English squirearchy, had always a stronger Greek flavor than it ever had a Christian. its nobility and graciousness was the nobility and graciousness of the Old Stoa. How immediately we recognize the best of the South in the words of an Emperor: ‘Every moment think steadily, as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and a feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice.’ And how curiously foreign to the South sound the Decalogue, the Beatitudes, the doctrine of the Mystical Body. The South’s virtues were the broadsword virtues of the clan, as were her vices, too—the hubris of noblesse gone arrogant. The Southern gentleman did live in a Christian edifice, but he lived there in the strange fashion Chesterton spoke of, that of a man who will neither go inside nor put it entirely behind him but stands forever grumbling on the porch.”


And continuing:


“From this vantage point he caught sight of Pericles and Hector and the Emperor, and recognized them as his heart’s elect. Where was to be found their like? In Abraham? In Paul? He thought not. When he named a city Corinth, he did not mean Paul’s community. How like him to go into Chancellorsville or the Argonne with Epictetus in his pocket; how unlike him to have had the Psalms.”


Insightful and illuminating. I haven’t quite made heads or tails of The Last Gentleman yet. Perhaps I won’t until after I’ve finished The Second Coming. Anyway, here’s a 1966 review of The Last Gentleman from Commentary magazine. It’s a book that has aged well.

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