29 October 2010

On Understanding "A Sense Of Place"

**See an update at the end of this post

"The south has produced the world's best literature. It dominates world culture. Southern culture is the most powerful and expressive in the world." ~ Timothy Tyson

William Faulkner's Typewriter

"The American South is a geographical entity, a historical fact, a place in the imagination, and the homeland of an array of Americans who consider themselves southerners. The region is often shrouded in romance and myth, but its realities are as intriguing, as intricate, as its legends." ~ The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture

"The South is cultivated in collards and covered in kudzu . . . Many of us are descended from Scottish settlers and African slaves--and we usually find that we have more in common with each other than with Northern urbanites." ~ Clint Johnson

In a recent post at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin wrote about a question he was recently asked in a public forum. The question was in regards to where Kevin was born. He responded on his blog with this rather curious comment:

"The question is, of course, silly since it implies some kind of privilege or unique access to the past depending on birth."

Kevin's response presents a wonderful opportunity to briefly discuss how our place of birth and where we grew up - our "sense of place" -  impacts our views on history and does, in fact, often give one "unique access to the past" - particularly when it comes to the WBTS.

First of all, no honest questions are silly - especially if it pertains to one's place of birth and is asked of someone whose field of work specializes in dissecting and psycho-analyzing a particular geographic region of the United States.

Secondly, no informed historian or writer could state, with a straight face, that one's place of birth, and the various cultural influences of the diverse regional areas of the United States, do not impact one's perspective and views on history - whether that impact is realized or not. Of course, this is true of not only the South, but practically any region of the world since all regions have their own unique and colorful history.

Thirdly, I'm not quite sure what Kevin has to gain by insulting someone for asking an honest and reasonable question - someone who took time out of their schedule to come hear Kevin participate in a public forum. That won't go very far to encourage attendance and sincere questions at these types of events in the future, that's for sure.

Since Kevin has mentioned this issue before, I get the distinct impression he's uncomfortable with the topic, perhaps revealing his own feelings (justified or not) of inadequacy due to his not being "Virginian, born and bred." (See, I can pyscho-analyze too.) Many moderns like to imagine a homogeneous America where our rich regional differences have been purged and we all march in bland (and boring) lockstep sameness of opinion, perspective, dialect, and views on history. While some of that has occurred due to mass marketing and other influences, the various regions of the United States still have distinct cultural differences which impact the way we view all sorts of topics, history being just one of them.

Being born in Dixie and raised with the knowledge that your ancestors sacrificed and fought bravely to defend their homes against overwhelming odds certainly has an impact on your perspective, your emotions and, yes, the way one intellectually approaches the study of the WBTS. I should know since I was born on a battlefield where two of my own Confederate ancestors fought. I also spent much of my childhood at my grandmother's home on that same battlefield, exploring the surrounding woods, fields, and streams where, just underfoot, lay mini-balls, shrapnel and yes, blood. Images of Lee, Jackson and the boys hung from parlor walls, books on the WBTS adorned our bookshelves, and the ghosts of the Confederacy seemed to always be present. This experience does indeed give me "unique access" to the past.

Does anyone really believe it is a coincidence that the definitive biographies of the Confederacy's two most recognized icons - Lee and Jackson - were written by proud Sons of the South and descendants of Confederate soldiers: Douglas Southall Freeman and James I. Robertson, Jr.?

Could anyone, other than a Southerner like Faulkner (who grew up breathing Southern air still - figuratively speaking - heavy with the smell of gunsmoke), have written these words:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago. ~ William Faulkner, Intruder in the Dust
Some historians have openly admitted their regret for not having Faulkner's connection to the South and the Civil War:

Moreover, not a single ancestor fought in the war, a fact I lamented as a boy reading books by Bruce Catton and Douglas Southall Freeman and wanting desperately to have some direct connection to the events that fascinated me. ~ Gary Gallagher

Both Faulkner and Gallagher refer to this passion being associated with youth, but don't fool yourself into thinking that much of that feeling does not linger into adulthood - it often grows even stronger. And these feelings also often lead to a lifelong passion regarding history and one's life work, as evidenced in the following line about legendary relic hunter and historian, Tom Dickey:

"And, this was not just any war fought in a far away land. It was a war that took place on the soil where he was born and grew up, and therein lay his fascination with the Civil War and its artillery."

Freeman would never have written his monumental biography of Lee were it not for his youthful fascination with the Confederacy and his ancestral ties:

Douglas Freeman had acquired a lifelong devotion to Confederate history from tales told by his father, one of General Lee's soldiers. He was taken to see the first 'Civil War Re-enactment', one performed by the actual veterans and it was then that he vowed to write the history of Lee's fabled Army of Northern Virginia. As well as the two massive biographies, Dr Freeman (he was part of the first generation of historians to earn a Ph.D.) wrote several other works of Southern history and historiography. ~ Richard Mullen: America's Greatest Biographer: Douglas Southall Freeman

And David Johnson, in his excellent biography of Freeman, further points to the fact that Freeman's place of birth, and all that went with it, continued to influence Freeman's writings until the day he died:

Having written and read millions of words, Douglas Freeman chose to be remembered with words from Tennyson's Ulysses: I am part of all that I have met.

The influences that shaped his life never left him. Always there was Walker Freeman - wounded veteran, struggling clerk, successful businessman, keeper of the faith; always there was the city of Richmond - its traditions, its heritage, its tragedies, its future . . . always there was Lee - the supreme example of service and sacrifice.

Now, all of this is not to say that those from outside the South can't write good histories of the region or offer insight on the Confederacy and the WBTS. Outside observers very often do see things that natives miss. That is a perspective (whether one admits it or not), as is one which comes from a homegrown Southerner. So, yes, it is important to know of an author's or historian's place of birth, where he grew up, and whether or not he understands what many have referred to as "a sense of place" so one may evaluate bias and perspective. That is certainly a legitimate inquiry. Why would anyone think otherwise?

In reading Kevin's blog, and others like it, it seems many writers and historians have difficulty getting their mind around the concept of "a sense of place."  Wikipedia offers some good insight on this concept:

Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists and urban planners study why certain places hold special meaning to particular people or peoples. Places said to have a strong "sense of place" have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual's perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The sense of place may be strongly enhanced by the place being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music, and more recently, through modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing places felt to be of value . .

In order to have even the most fundamental understanding of Southern history and memory, one must understand this concept referred to as "a sense of place." This is especially true of the South and her various (and often complicated) perspectives on the WBTS . One's place of birth does, very often, provide a "unique access" and perspective to the study of history - especially the WBTS. And it can also be "privileged." I consider mine both.


Kevin and his followers have responded here, kinda. First of all Kevin defends the charge that he "insulted anyone during this conference." That's great, except I didn't accuse him of that. The insult came in his post after the conference, by calling the question posed "silly" which, as I've demonstrated, it wasn't.

Kevin then evidences a misunderstanding of what I was referring to in "sense of place" by stating, in part: "The study of history has taken me all over this beautiful state. " If you will read my post, you'll see that's not quite the same thing. Kevin then poses the question:

"What exactly does it mean to be “biased against Confederate heritage/history”?"

That's curious. Does he not understand the definition of "biased?" Does he not know what Confederate heritage/history is? Kevin implies that this is some kind of new revelation or accusation. Really? Perhaps in his worldview, but not others. Many have written about it. Robert Krick has spoken about it. A 2007 piece in the Washington Times noted:

Robert E. Lee has been attacked by revisionist historians who have argued that the Confederate commander's reputation was a "postwar mythical creation," a Civil War historian said at a weekend conference in Arlington. "A wretched flood of Lee biographies" has been published in recent years, Robert K. Krick told more than 200 attendees at Saturday's Lee Bicentennial Symposium at the Key Bridge Marriott hotel. "These kinds of books ... offer no new evidence," said Mr. Krick, author of 16 books on the war. The revisionist arguments, he said, consist mainly of "counterfactual blathering." Revisionists have asserted that Lee's reputation was inflated after the war as part of a "Lost Cause myth," said Mr. Krick, who spent three decades as chief historian of Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.
I actually attended that conference where Krick also noted that revisionists have most certainly attempted to redefine Lee, not by the facts or any reasonable logic and scholarly research, but by pseudo-history and psycho-babble. Calling some of these writers “anti-confederate” Krick went on to note that those making these false assertions about Lee—particularly that his hero status was the result of “Lost Cause” sympathies after the war—must, by necessity, fall into one of three categories:

1. They are stupid.
2. They are lazy.
3. They are malicious.
    (His words, not mine.) 

    So, recognizing writers and historians who are "anti-Confederate" is certainly not anything new or outside of the mainstream, as Kevin and his followers would like for us to believe.
    In closing his not-so-convincing response to my original post, Kevin states:

    "In the end, Richard has done little more than follow in the footsteps of the individual he accuses me of insulting." But in his comments here, Kevin stated: "Thanks for the follow-up. It sounds like we actually agree on quite a bit here." Apparently, Kevin disagrees with himself.

    Also, I would recommend readers here read the comments section in Kevin's post as the person who posed the question that got this whole thing started has posted a very thoughtful comments and response to Kevin's accusation. Somehow, this person doesn't seem to have the fangs Kevin suggests. Kevin now appears to walk it all back by thanking the commenter for his "silly" question. 


    Chaps said...


    You leave absolutely nothing left to be said on the subject. This is masterful and not subject to rebuttal.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Chaps - thank you kind sir. The notion that one's birthplace is irrelevant to one's perspective on history is, quite frankly, absurd on its face.

    Lawrence Underwood said...

    That is the best writing I have ever read on the topic. You not only summed it up, you summed it up with eloquence.

    Kevin said...

    Hi Richard,

    Hope all is well. Once again, I appreciate the attention given to one small passage of mine.

    You said: "Since Kevin has mentioned this issue before, I get the distinct impression he's uncomfortable with the topic, perhaps revealing his own feelings (justified or not) of inadequacy due to his not being "Virginian, born and bred." (See, I can pyscho-analyze too.)"

    First, don't quit your day job. :D Actually, I believe that a "sense of place" can have an influence on how we view the past. The difference, however, is that I don't believe it necessarily renders an advantage to any one individual. In other words, how we view the past and engage in historical study is influenced by a host of factors. I assume this is not very controversial.

    In this case, the question was asked not as a means to engage me in discussion, but to dismiss anything that I had to say as a panelist. I assume that you would agree that this is a questionable appeal to "sense of place." Thanks again for the post.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Thanks Lawrence.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Good morning Kevin. You're welcome. Yes, all is well. Hope the same is true with you.

    Small passages are often pregnant with meaning.

    "Actually, I believe that a "sense of place" can have an influence on how we view the past."

    Then why did you refer to the question addressing that fact as "silly?" That would appear contradictory. Also, I would go beyond mere influence and add: "insight" and, as you put it, "unique access." Unique in the sense that it is impossible for someone like yourself to experience my perspective because you've not lived it. Certainly, that is not controversial either and would apply to all types of experiences in life.

    You add:

    "The difference, however, is that I don't believe it necessarily renders an advantage to any one individual. In other words, how we view the past and engage in historical study is influenced by a host of factors. I assume this is not very controversial."

    I would agree, but suggest that while it does not NECESSARILY render an advantage, it does, very often, render an advantage regarding perspective, as I clearly demonstrated in the post. I gave just a few examples. One could cite dozens more.

    In regards to the intent of the audience member's question, I assume you were reading tone and body language, since merely asking where you were born would not indicate the inquirer's intent. A few thoughts on that. #1, perhaps you are being a bit over sensitive. #2, so what if he/she was posing the question in a manner to dismiss your viewpoint as a panelist? Even if the question was hostile, it would have presented a wonderful opportunity to expound on the topic and clarify somewhat, as you've done here. #3 - you must realize your reputation of being highly critical of certain perspectives regarding Southern/Confederate heritage proceeds you. Tough and hostile questions often come at these types of events, particularly to panelists who are members of Virginia's Sesquicentennial Commission.

    No need to take my post personally, I've seen similar comments by other historians (most often those from the North), who dismiss Southern writers who do claim "special privilege." Since I do read your blog, and since your posts do often spur thought, I trust you don't mind if I use our areas of disagreements as an opportunity to offer a different perspective. I do usually try to include a link back to your post so that readers here can get both sides of a topic. Best, RW

    Kevin said...


    Thanks for the follow-up. It sounds like we actually agree on quite a bit here. You are right that I was picking up on the tone of the question and body posture. Others commented on it as well after the conference. I answered the question honestly and then went on to address the question about how I conduct my class. I'm not sure what else I was supposed to have done. I referred to it as "silly" because, as I said, the individual wasn't really interested at all in where I am from. It was an attempt to intimidate me or dismiss me. You can take me to task for my choice of words, but I hope my point is clear.

    A "sense of place" as you describe can be of great assistance in bringing focus to a certain topic, but I've seen that it can also function as a liability.

    Yes, I have been highly critical of certain "Southern/Confederate heritage" perspectives. Finally, I don't this personally; in fact, I appreciate the change to exchange ideas here.

    Do I smell a fire burning on your side of the Blue Ridge? Enjoy what promises to be a beautiful day in central Virginia.

    13thBama said...

    Mr. Williams, my new work takes me away from home during the week and I do not get much time to post responses anymore. Do not let that lead you to believe that I am no longer reading your posts. This one was excellent! Thank you!

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Thanks 13B. I appreciate anyone who finds my posts worth their time, including critics.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


    "A "sense of place" as you describe can be of great assistance in bringing focus to a certain topic, but I've seen that it can also function as a liability."

    I agree but lacking one can too. I believe that being aware of these potential liabilities helps us learn. Balance and honesty is the key - as in all things.

    Yes, there's some kind of fire not too far from my home. Not sure of the source.

    Michael Bradley said...

    Mr. Williams, what a well written post. It is true, as Mr. Levin said, that a "sense of place" can function as a liability but it is amusing that he does not wish to consider that those words could apply to himself.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


    Thank you and you are so right. Kevin's "sense of place" - the North - is a liability when it comes to his biases against Confederate heritage and history.

    Jonathan Dresner said...

    One of the things that historians learn, if they're taught properly, is that the past is not the present, and very little is passed down whole and unchanged even when it's called a tradition.

    I suppose I'm the wrong person to be part of this discussion, because I'm professionally bound to the proposition that it's possible to study, analyze, understand and explain histories other than one's own. That said, my experience is that too much faith in one's own intuitive understanding of a present culture can be a great liability in effectively studying the past: filling in the gaps and filtering the evidence with an unquestioned ideology means making assumptions rather than asking questions.

    Does that cut both ways? Perhaps, but when an outsider historian presents evidence, and an insider dismisses it with intuition, a responsible observer should have no question who is the more reliable source.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Jonathan - thanks for your comments. The problem is that we all pick and choose which "evidence" to emphasize, which to downplay, which to include and which to exclude. Those choices can sometimes be due to a prejudiced conclusion one wants to "prove" or, due to one's perspective & background, i.e - "sense of place."

    "it's possible to study, analyze, understand and explain histories other than one's own."

    Of course it is, and I said the same thing. My point was, however, that those who have lived and experienced those histories (at least to some degree) bring something to the table that outside observers cannot possibly do. Can they come close? Sure, but due to all the points I've already made, it's not quite the same thing.

    Thanks again for your comments.

    Anonymous said...


    I wonder if the same consideration of "place" is given to other authors who are not from the South? Say, like Thomas DiLorenzo? Because he writes with a decided Southern leaning style, does the same question ever get asked of him, I wonder?

    Michael Bradley said...

    It is probleatical when an outsider brings to the discussion "evidence" which actually represents bias and when the outsider refused to recongize that bias.

    I use the term "bias" in the professional sense, a point of view.

    The insistence on interpreting the past through the view point of race and gender produces evidence which is skewed by the bias which led to the evidence. Rejecting that point of view is not intuition; the rejection simply represents another point of view, one which has longstanding roots in the study of hisory. Too many younger historians assume that there is a permanent historiography which represents absolute truth.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Anon - I don't quite understand the question or your point. Perhaps you could clarify a bit.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


    "the outsider refused to recognize that bias."

    Precisely. He is so adamant at pointing it out in others, but is shocked when others see it in him.

    Michael Bradley said...

    Mr. Dresner says he thinks it is possible to "study, analyze, understand, and explain" the history of others. I can agree, but only to a point.

    It is certainly possible to study, analyze and explain the history of other peoples and cultures but the ability of an outsider to understand that history will always be limited.

    An historian may "understand" the facts but will hardly have a true understanding of the emotions which underlie those facts. I have studied, analyzed, and have explained the "Trail of Tears" but I do not "understand" that event in the same way as does one who is a Cherokee.

    This is one of the problems the United States is having today with the Moslem world--we study, analyze, and explain but our understanding is limited because we are not vitally involved in the events which make up that history. We do not understand much of what happens in that culture because we miss the emotion of that history. The history means nothing to us other than an academic exercise.

    In short, to use a good Tennessee aphorism, you need to have a dog in the fight to understand what is going on. Otherwise, you will be an informed spectator but not a participant.

    markerhunter said...

    I find it interesting that we'd hear that one's geographic/cultural background makes no difference. Yet, how often do we hear that a person's view point is jaundiced by their background? Seems to me this should be a two way street we all recognize.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    All excellent points Professor. Thanks for adding your thoughts. I agree wholeheartedly.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    Craig - you're right. Someone else made the same point and I admit, it cuts both ways. It is important to possess some self awareness as to how our backgrounds can be both an asset as well as a liability. I recognize that, others some seem to have difficulty or are hyper-sensitive to that fact in their own work. Thanks for chiming in.

    Anonymous said...

    Mr. Williams,

    I mean to say that it seems very strange to me that those of Northern birth or origin, seem to never get the "sense of place" question when they write articles n support of the old Confederacy or Southern Heritage. It seems as long as one agrees with a certain point of view concerning Confederate history, he is seen as "one of us" and no one seems concerned where he was born or raised. But if one does not agree with that majority opinion of Confederate history, it is almost the very first observation or question made. "He is not from the South, etc." DiLorenzo, in my view, is a perfect example. He was not born in the South, but he defends Confederate/Southern heritage and never seems to be bothered by such concerns as a "sense of place." Why is that, you suppose? "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" perhaps?

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


    A good question, though I've already touched on the answer in the original post. However, I'll restate and try to elaborate some later on today. Right now, I need to go vote and defend my sense of place. ;o)

    Check in later this afternoon or evening.

    Anonymous said...


    First, thank you for respecting my privacy and my desire to remain anonymous on this forum. So am I to understand that this option when presented on your forum, is NOT really an option, but merely seen as a form of challenge for yourself?

    Second, as we seem to be discussing a "sense of place" as something important when debating the Civil War, how is it possible for anyone of this century to claim a sense of place with the 19th century? Who can confidently claim to understand how it "felt" to be a soldier in the 1860s? Or to feel a connection with the women of Richmond when they rioted for bread? Has anyone of this time actually suffered from a mine ball wound or see hundreds of their neighbors die of disease due to lack of sanitation? I can understand an attachment, a feeling for home and family, but to somehow claim a superior position on history because one happens to live in the area that history took place seems a bit far-fetched. Sense of place? All it seems to me is a way of saying a false sense of superiority based on location, not knowledge of history.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


    No need to be hostile. It's a bit of a stretch to accuse me of violating your privacy by simply referring to you by your first name, which is not at all uncommon.

    "how is it possible for anyone of this century to claim a sense of place with the 19th century?"

    You can't be serious, can you? Did you read my post? I answer that question. Do you not think Native-Americans have a "sense of place" after living on their native lands for centuries or Cubans on their native island, or Chinese who have lived in their land for thousands of years? Why do you find it so difficult to grasp a Virginian who can trace his ancestral ties back to the 1600's to have that same claim? I find your question extremely odd.

    Moreover, "sense of place" refers more to "place" and events not a time period (the 19th century) per se. You're attempting to put words in my mouth.

    "Who can confidently claim to understand how it "felt" to be a soldier in the 1860s?"

    No one, really, in a strict sense. However, those of us who have heard stories handed down from generation to generation can identify with the particulars of their own ancestors and family heritage. Nothing unusual about that.

    I have copies of letters from my great-great grandfather. I've heard the stories of how his widow wondered until her death what became of him. That's real. I've heard the stories of my other ancestors who fought for the Confederacy - prison stories, woundings, sufferings after the war, etc, etc. The fact you can't relate is not due to my "false sense of superiority" but to your inability to comprehend how that ties into a "sense of place."

    "to somehow claim a superior position on history because one happens to live in the area that history took place seems a bit far-fetched."

    That's your subjective opinion and it is not universally shared. But I would agree it is not necessarily true. Perhaps "superior" is not the proper term to use. "Unique" (in a positive way) might be better suited for our purposes, though "superior" might be appropriate when discussing the familial and ancestral aspects of a region's history.

    "based on location, not knowledge"

    Actually, based on location AND knowledge.

    Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

    BTW - I've not forgotten your other question. I'll respond soon.