Ole Miss professor explores Southern spirit in new book

by Lynn Lofton

Published: June 19,2011

Tags: Book Biz, Charles Reagan Wilson, Flashes of a Southern Spirit

From the photo of people in exuberant worship on the book’s cover, it’s clear Charles Reagan Wilson is taking a vigorous view of the Southern spirit. In his book he explores its meaning, including religious ecstasy and celebrations of regional character and distinctiveness.

As the Kelly Gene Cook Sr., Chair in History and professor of Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, he wrote articles over a 10-year period on this subject. They often appeared in hard-to-find journals. Recently, he compiled them into “Flashes of a Southern Spirit,” making them available to a wider audience. “I decided to bring them together and revise what I had already written in terms of this theme of the imporantance of the spirit in the South to the Southern identity,” he said.

The professor took inspiration from W.E.B. DuBois’ “The Souls of Black Folk” along with everything from Cherokee religious ritual to gospel music, high literature and art. “We know our writers and literary critics talk about a Southern literary renaissance, but I wanted to bring music and art into the mix,” Wilson said. “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.”

Joe Creech, author of “Righteous Indignation: Religion and the Populist Revolution,” says Wilson’s scholarship and essays are of immense value to scholars and students of the American South and American religion. “Along with Wilson’s direct contributions to our understanding of southern religion and culture, his work on historical methodology and interpretation has been vital, as seen in his book ‘Baptized in Blood,’ a canonical work in southern religion,” Creech said.

Wilson, who is also general editor of “The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” sees ideas of the spirit as central to understanding Southern identity. “The South nurtured a patriotic spirit expressed in the high emotions of Confederates going off to war, but the region also was the setting for a spiritual outpouring of prayer and song during the civil rights movement,” he said.

He argues for a spiritual grounding to southern identity, showing how identifications of the spirit are crucial to understanding what makes southerners invest so much meaning in their regional identity.

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