This article, by Rebecca Lauck Cleary, originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the Southern Register.
Charles Reagan Wilson Retires from Teaching to Focus on Writing Projects
Charles Reagan Wilson brought together everything from Hank Aaron to Zydeco as coeditor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, and now his final chapter at the University of Mississippi is complete. After 33 years as a history and Southern Studies professor, Wilson retired in May.
During his three decades at UM, Wilson has watched the both the Center and the university grow. “When I came here the undergraduate program had just been established, so we had less than ten majors, and we were constantly having to justify the program with administrators,” Wilson says. “We didn’t have a master’s program until 1987, and we never anticipated the master’s program would grow that much. That has been one of the most dramatic changes since I’ve been here.”
In 1981, the university grounds were mostly dirt, gravel, and open space, with buildings in need of renovation. “Barnard Observatory was particularly fascinating because it was such an old building and it had such character, but it was in a Tennessee Williams state of decline,” Wilson says. “So you had that sense of a wonderful physical setting to study the South, and that was kind of the campus, too.”
Ann Abadie, associate director emeritus, says that Wilson made quite a name for himself during his time at UM. “He came to the University of Mississippi for an interview in early 1981 and, after visiting with him and hearing his lecture on religion in the South, Bill Ferris, Sue Hart, and I, along with many others affiliated with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, knew that he would be the perfect director for our encyclopedia project,” Abadie says. “Charles accepted the challenge and in the fall began working on the encyclopedia, teaching courses in history and Southern Studies, and enlightening the community with talks about the religious and cultural history of the South.”
In the beginning, Wilson’s job was managing editor of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The National Endowment for the Humanities gave the university a grant to fund the project. He calls his work on the Encyclopedia his biggest accomplishment, and something he is proud of, because he now understands the demands of such a project. “It is a real collaborative project involving so many of us at the Center and hundreds of scholars across the nation and the world as well. It’s a big management project, a big intellectual project to figure out the issues involved in producing a reference work about the South,” Wilson says.
On January 26, 1983, he spoke about Robert E. Lee and other Southern heroes who at their deaths were honored with elaborate funeral processions and mourned throughout the region. Answering an audience question about the next Southern hero likely to receive such acclaim, Wilson predicted Bear Bryant. Later that day, when news broke of Bryant’s death, students and colleagues began referring to Wilson as “Dr. Death,” a moniker that has stuck. The nationally acclaimed publication of the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture in 1989 earned him a second epithet—the “Diderot of Dixie.”
He served as director of the Southern Studies academic program from 1991 to 1998, and director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture from 1998 to 2007. As director of the Center, Wilson played important roles in helping establish the Southern Foodways Alliance and the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, and continued to receive accolades as a teacher and a scholar, including the 2010 Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award.
Wilson’s first book, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865–1920, helped
bring the concept of civil religion into Southern Studies scholarship and was the first book to address the topic of how white southerners came to remember the Civil War as a kind of religious effort. The University of Georgia Press published a new edition of Baptized in Blood in 2009. Historians continue to use the book to understand the meanings and memories of the Civil War. In 1995 Wilson published a collection of closely related essays, Judgment and Grace in Dixie: Southern Faiths from Faulkner to Elvis, and in 2011 he published Flashes of a Southern Spirit: Meanings of the Spirit in the U.S. South. All three of those works show his expertise in Southern religious history, a topic Wilson taught in numerous undergraduate and graduate classes. “I have been proud of my scholarly career working on issues of Southern culture and religion, and I have also been very proud of working with students.” Wilson also edited or coedited Religion in the South, The Encyclopedia of Religion in the South, Religion and the American Civil War, The South and the Caribbean, the Religion by Region series, and the New Directions in Southern Culture series for the University of North Carolina Press.
Despite the fact that he says one of the things he learned from the first encyclopedia was never to do another one, at the beginning of the 2000s, Wilson and colleagues at the Center and the University of North Carolina Press decided a New Encyclopedia should be published, in 24 volumes. “It was a bit daunting when we first started, but looking back on it, that was a great decision, enabling us to expand the scope of the original Encyclopedia, update everything and add new articles, and really make it an Encyclopedia of Southern Culture for the 21st century, raising a lot of the issues that have come out of the explosion of scholarship in Southern Studies in the last 15 years or so,” says Wilson. “I was extremely lucky to work with Jimmy Thomas, who has been the managing editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and who is such a wonderful scholar, writer, and editor. He was a pleasure to work with on that project.”
Thomas says Reagan is an incredibly generous person and scholar. “Working with Charles Reagan Wilson is always such a rewarding experience—both intellectually and personally. Looking back, I was a Southern Studies neophyte when he and Ann Abadie brought me to the Center to work on The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, but from day one he treated me as a colleague. I am indebted to him in countless and immeasurable ways,” says Thomas.
Wilson has an extraordinary record as an adviser of graduate work. He has directed more than 20 dissertations in history and well over 100 MA theses in Southern Studies and history, and he has served on, as described by Center director Ted Ownby, “too many thesis committees to count.”
“The encyclopedia work Charles has done really contributes to his teaching, because it means he is interested in everything. Charles has a great talent for listening to what students say about their interests and then finding the best ways to help them turn those interests into scholarly projects,” Ownby says.
The best part about teaching, Wilson says, is to be able to do so at a place with such a storied history and with students who have a Faulknerian love-hate relationship with this place. He has worked with students to figure out specific ways of engaging the South through their own research. “I have been so fortunate to be able to think about the South and to talk to visiting scholars, researchers, lecturers, and students, and to think about the South from the perspective of the University of Mississippi and the state of Mississippi,” Wilson says. “It is really the diversity of material that I have been able to work with the students. In Southern Studies for example, we have students who come from backgrounds and interests in history and literature and art, folk art, music, politics, religion, just such a variety of things. All of us who teach Southern Studies have to deal with a variety of student topics and interests, and it broadens us so much. Working with students always challenges me because of their variety of interests.”
Wilson didn’t start out as a historian, though. He entered college at Texas Tech because he wanted to be a sports reporter. He was sports editor of his high school newspaper, and he then worked on the college paper and covered sports for the El Paso Times. “I covered Texas high school football, so what could be better than that?” he laughs. “I went to college thinking I would be a journalist, but I took the required history courses and found I liked them and that I was good at it, and got more and more interested in history.”
During his time at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1970s for his doctoral degree, Wilson realized Austin was an interesting place to be studying the South. “In many ways Austin is a distinctive, unique city, and it is always problematic to talk about Texas as a southern state,” he says. “But I had that same kind of love-hate relationship with the South in the ’60s and ’70s that many of our students in Southern Studies have always had, so I got more engaged with wanting to understand the complexity of the South, particularly how important religion was for understanding Southern history and Southern culture.”
Wilson was also interested in how religion related to the issues of race, gender, social class, and the diversity of social places beyond the stereotypes of the South. “History became a way for me to think about and research particular topics that would help to illuminate the complexity of the South,” Wilson says.
One of the people who influenced Wilson was his dissertation adviser at UT, William Goetzmann, a 1967 Pulitzer Prize–winner in history. “He was one of the most brilliant men I ever knew, and he made me think. He challenged me, and he was a true mentor in terms of studying history. I studied his books in graduate school to see how he put together a chapter, and how he put together an argument,” Wilson says.
Religious historian Samuel Hill also influenced Wilson. “He was a scholarly father figure, because he was the first modern scholar of religion in the South. He helped me to imagine what studying religion in the South could be. He also is a very kind man and a kind of figure of what the scholar-intellectual could be, and that is always something I wanted to represent the best that I could.”
Once retired, Wilson will focus on two writing projects. “After retirement this spring he will complete his books on the Southern way of living, the Southern way of dying, and other topics,” Abadie says. “He will have time to enjoy other names he has earned, including Distinguished Professor, Witty Raconteur, Gourmet Cook, Charming Host, Superb Guest, and Dear Friend. I wish him well.”
Besides writing and researching for The Southern Way of Life and a short cultural history of the South, Wilson will be traveling more, spending time in his garden, and experimenting more in the kitchen. “People don’t know that professors cook, but I love food, and I love to cook,” he says. “My wife and I each have our own dishes, and part of our daily routine is to cook together in the evening. That is an important part of our relationship.”
One thing Wilson will not miss is grading papers. “I have always enjoyed being a teacher, but I have always wanted the time to research and write history, so I am looking forward to having the full time and concentration to do that,” he says. “One of the things I have always liked about university life is that it has a beginning and an end. It has seasons in terms of semesters, and you get closure on a class and then you can start fresh. You have young people coming and going, and young people always keep you vibrant and alert.”
One of Wilson’s last duties as university professor was to deliver the University of Mississippi Mortar Board Last Lecture, the final lecture of 2014–15. Delivered on May 2 in the Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts, the lecture was titled, “Whose South? Lessons from Studying the South at the University of Mississippi.” The entire lecture is available to view online at player.vimeo.com/video/94189269.