H-Slavery Interview with Dr. Robert Elder

Matthew Dawdy's picture

Dr. Robert Elder is an Assistant Professor of History at Baylor University. His research focuses on the cultural, intellectual, and religious history of the American South in the 19th century. His first book, The Sacred Mirror: Evangelicalism, Honor, and Identity in the Deep South, 1790-1860, examined honor culture and its influence on evangelical religion. His second book, Calhoun: American Heretic, has recently been published by Basic Books.


For starters, what can you tell me about yourself? Education, advisors, other projects you've worked on?

I did my undergraduate degree at Clemson University (which, not coincidentally, sits on land that was once John C. Calhoun’s Fort Hill plantation). I’m not from South Carolina, I feel I need to say that, but I did marry a South Carolinian so I’m an honorary citizen of sorts. I was a dual History and English major at Clemson. History won out for grad school since it seemed the job prospects were equally bad either way and I was a little better at writing in the historical mode than I was at doing literary analysis. I did an M.A at Clemson before moving to Atlanta to do the PhD at Emory, where I worked with Jim Roark. Jim was the best possible advisor because he kept me moving, often before I felt comfortable. That was an important counterbalance to some of my natural perfectionist impulses.


What else have you had published in the past?

Besides the books I’ve published a couple articles. One, an early interest, comparing civil religion in the post-Civil War American South and in South Africa under apartheid. The other, in the Journal of Southern History, on how honor culture in the South shaped the way women interacted with evangelical Christianity. That came from my dissertation research.


How do you get from religion and honor culture, ala The Sacred Mirror, to writing about John C. Calhoun? 

I think the link between the two is my fascination with the American South’s relationship to modernity, however you define that phenomenon. In The Sacred Mirror I was interested in the transition in the South during the nineteenth century between the communally-authored forms of individual identity that underpinned honor culture and the more individualistic forms of identity that we associate with evangelical Christianity. In Calhoun, I tried to reinterpret a figure who often served as a stand-in for the whole Genovesean interpretation of slavery and the South as set apart from modernity in the context of new scholarship on slavery, capitalism, intellectual life in the South, American foreign policy, etc. The working title of the Calhoun book was “John C. Calhoun and the American South in the Modern World,” until my editor said that sounded too much like a dissertation. The more prosaic but not less true answer to this question is that I have four kids and I can’t go traipsing off to the archives for a year anymore. I needed a project I could do without a lot of traveling, and all of Calhoun’s papers are published.


How has your work prepared you for American Heretic, both writing and in classroom teaching? 

I think I come at Calhoun from a slightly different angle than some of his previous biographers in that I see myself more as a cultural historian than a political one (even after this book!). Because my research is on the South, I’m more immersed in the literature on slavery than some of the other folks who’ve written on him, and since I’ve focused a lot of my research on South Carolina I think that lent the book a little more context, as well. As far as writing, I think teaching prepared me to write this book for a trade press because as a teacher you learn not to take previous knowledge of the topic for granted. You get really good, hopefully, at making clear distinctions and explaining context and concepts in a way that’s accessible. I thought about my students a lot as I wrote this book, but I hope in the end that my fellow scholars can read between the lines and see what I’m up to, as well.

What's the contribution you hope to make with American Heretic? 

In some ways, the contribution is quite straightforward. There hasn’t been a biography of Calhoun in nearly thirty years and we needed a new one that took advantage of all the incredible new scholarship that has transformed our understanding of his context during that time period. I hope the book makes people reconsider the image of Calhoun as an outdated reactionary standing athwart history, and instead see how he was always working amidst and with the main currents of his world, the same currents that shaped our world today.


What's it like writing about a figure such as Calhoun? As you yourself pointed out, there isn't a shortage of information on him. How much do you have to navigate what's been written before and where you want to take him as subject of a book?

In many ways I viewed my job as simply fitting Calhoun into some of the new scholarship which inevitably shed light on different aspects of his life and thought, fitting in with my argument that he was much more attuned to and in line with the currents of his world than we might like to think. So, for instance, all his previous biographers had written about his views on slavery and his counterattack on abolitionism in the U.S., but nobody had fully described the international dimensions of that fight, which Calhoun viewed as just as important as the domestic battle. I was always attuned to parts of him that didn’t fit what’s been drawn in other biographies, or in other accounts of the era.


How important is it, to your writing process, to have a set readership in mind? How's the comparison between writing for a trade press as opposed to an academic?

It is different, but in ways that I often found hard to pin down. One difference, a crucial one, is that in writing for a trade press you usually have an editor who is constantly pushing you to explain things rather than just reference them. You can take some things for granted with an academic audience that you can’t with a trade audience. I certainly take sides in academic arguments throughout the book, but often, I hope, in ways that won’t distract a reader who doesn’t have a PhD in history.  


How has access to materials altered the projects you work on or even the way you go about doing them? Calhoun’s papers are all published. Without going into too much conjecture, what do you expect that might mean for scholarship in the future?

I would not have been able to write this book in the amount of time I did without the digital resources that hathitrust and other databases provide. Being able to pull up obscure political pamphlets, or copies of Blackstone’s commentaries, online, and search them, is just amazing. On the other hand, I felt I had to be very careful not to read things out of context or to just search for key terms because it was easy to do. I had to understand the context. Access is great, but you have to make sure it doesn’t change the way you read and analyze the text, which should take time. Also, Calhoun’s papers are not digitized, so those I had to read through completely, which I needed to do anyway. I did use Evernote to snap pictures of letters that I wanted to save, and Evernote will recognize text and make it searchable. So I sort of created my own little digital archive for every chapter of the book.

So, from my understanding, you want to put Calhoun into a more transatlantic perspective? Is that a good way to characterize your work? 

More transatlantic, but also just more embedded in the currents of the modern world, which reflects the state of scholarship on the American South. One dark aspect of this is that Calhoun is clearly reading the new scientific literature on racial difference that is emerging in the Atlantic world by the 1830s, often pioneered by American figures like Samuel George Morton and Charles Caldwell. This literature, which has the imprimatur of scientific authority, seemed to reinforce Calhoun’s arguments about slavery.


Why do you think that most biographers have rooted Calhoun in the South and removed the international context? 

I think it’s because his primary importance is clearly to American politics as a representative of slaveholding interests, and it also followed an interpretation of the South that saw it as insular and backwards looking. His biographers haven’t ignored his attention to foreign policy, but they underplayed the extent to which Calhoun always saw himself on a larger, more complex stage than just the United States. For instance, nearly his entire career, from the War of 1812 to his efforts against British abolitionism in the late 1830s, to his negotiations over the Oregon Territory as John Tyler’s Secretary of State in 1844, is defined by his constant engagement and conflict with the British Empire. Not to mention his active efforts to use American foreign policy to defend slavery in the western hemisphere in the 1840s.  


Is there an area of scholarship in the South that you imagine would benefit the most from international considerations? 

Well, I won’t presume to tell other people how to write their history, but I think the point to make is that almost all the fields of southern history have done this or are doing it now. Just look, for instance, at Tore Olsson’s amazing historiographical essay on the South in the world since 1865 in the latest Journal of Southern History. He makes the point that he couldn’t have written it a decade ago. The question now, I think, is going to be what remains distinctive about the South as we uncover all these new connections?


What's it like, working with an editor? And how is that different than a more "traditional" scholarly editing process?

I worked with an editor for both my books, but with a trade press there is a different sensibility, an awareness of the connections that an audience will make between your work and what’s going on in the world right now, and an intense focus on prose. In fact, one of the things that drew me to the trade route was that I wanted as much feedback on my writing as possible, instead of just on the scholarship (not that academic presses don’t publish amazing writers and writing!). Related to that, I think the biggest difference is that a trade book is not peer-reviewed, so I had to go out and ask friends and colleagues to read parts of the book and make sure I was on the right track.


What advice would you offer to burgeoning scholars coming to grips with digitized research? Are there better ways to go about it? 

To be clear, there are huge upsides. For instance, almost all the biographies on Calhoun have used a few newspapers that were nationally known, but I was able to find some great articles in lesser known regional papers that are available in digital databases. I also had a student who did a project compiling mentions of Calhoun in international papers, mostly in the UK. That would have been impossible or much harder twenty years ago. The pitfall will always be context. To take the newspaper example, what is the political orientation of the paper (they nearly all have one in the 19th century), or what is the overall argument of the pamphlet that you found on HathiTrust? You have to make sure you go slowly once you find things.


What exactly does Evernote do?

It’s not usually marketed to historians or scholars like Zotero (which I used for secondary sources). But it has a very flexible interface and great text recognition capability when you snap pictures of text. If you’ve ever had the experience of thinking “I know he mentioned this somewhere but I can’t remember where” then Evernote is a great tool for creating your own digital archive of material that isn’t digitized. It would work quite well for unpublished material, too, although the text recognition wouldn’t work quite as well. A colleague at my previous institution, Heath Carter, put me onto Evernote when I was starting this book, and I found it invaluable.


So, what’s next?

I’m not sure, but I am fascinated by parallels to Calhoun’s “tyranny of the majority” argument that are emerging on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-nineteenth century, some of them in different registers. For instance, you have Tocqueville arguing that American democracy demands cultural and ideological uniformity and will stifle any distinction or hierarchy, and in the 1850s you have John Stuart Mill warning about something similar about the need to protect freedom of thought and speech in the face of suffocating bourgeois religious and moral opinion in England. I’m not sure, but I suspect I can find abolitionists and women’s rights advocates speaking in similar terms. Democracy devolving into tyranny is a fear as old as Plato, of course, but I think there’s something interesting going on during this period with the rise of both modern individualism as well as mass democracy that prompts these sorts of fears. I’d like to return to my cultural history roots and write about it, but I have a lot of reading to do first.