Subduing Satan Turns 25

Guest post by Ted Ownby


This week, my book Subduing Satan: Recreation, Religion, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920, turns 25 years old. I remember the date because the book showed up in my mailbox the weekend I turned 30. As birthdays go, the 25th year of a work of history really doesn’t call for or deserve much attention. But it intrigues me to think about it, so I hope anyone reading this will forgive me if writing about my aging book seems a combination of self-congratulation, penitence, and nostalgia. Heaven knows southern history already has plenty of all three.

First, like so many academic books, it started as a dissertation. In the mid-1980s, I told John Higham, my advisor in the Johns Hopkins History Department, that I wanted to take a Saturday night and Sunday morning approach to the lives of white southerners, and he said, great, go do that.

I was inspired by four things and, to be honest, not too much by a fifth thing. My biggest inspiration was my own upbringing as an observer and sometime participant in the cultural life of the Tennessee town where I grew up. Like a lot of writers, my first book asked autobiographical questions, and mine involved how people lived and understood their religions, how people understood and experienced parts of their lives not just outside but in conflict with their religions, and how parts of cultural life fit or did not fit together. As I grew up, people identified themselves in significant part by how they enjoyed themselves—their choices about music and sports, how and with whom they passed the time, and what they chose to eat, drink, and smoke. As a watcher and an evaluator, I might have been a memoirist or documentarian, or if I had felt a bit more confident about my own religion, I might have been a minister or religious studies scholar. Instead, I wondered about the tensions I saw in other people and found in myself, and I wrote about them as a historian.

A second inspiration was the scholarship I was reading in and after graduate school. I was not trained in a program that emphasized the American South, and I’ve always been at least a little glad about that. The books that changed my life were challenging, aesthetically innovative works that were trying to rethink how to do history. My favorite book in graduate school was The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac, and I loved the books that claimed to study mentalités, a French term that went beyond “mentality” to attempt to study people’s everyday assumptions and categories. Many of the works that most influenced me as I wrote were part of that school: LeRoy Ladurie’s Montaillou, The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg, Robert Darnton’s essays in The Great Cat Massacre, books on religion and nature by Keith Thomas, and books on family and sex by Lawrence Stone. Those works were already starting to receive criticism for being too exotic or for avoiding issues of government and power, but they were my favorites.

A third inspiration was the emerging field of gender history, and I especially felt the influence of Mary Ryan’s Cradle of the Middle Class, which analyzed different perspectives on life and work in different cultural locations, most obviously, office work and the middle-class home. I read and thought about new works on saloons and amusement parks and how they represented spaces specific or not specific to gender.

I was only moderately affected by works of southern history. I read plenty of them and tried to use and honor the influence of recent works by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Edward Ayers, and Steven Stowe, but I wasn’t responding to them a great deal as I wrote. C. Vann Woodward’s still-sometimes-dominant Origins of the New South didn’t mean much to me, and I am amazed to notice that Woodward’s name did not appear in the index. I’m embarrassed about that now, and I encourage or require my own dissertation and thesis students to work much harder to know and use scholarship on the South than I did.

What inspired the book the most, and what I remember loving most about the process, was the research—weeks and months in papers in archives in university and public archives all over the South. Diary after diary, personal letters, memoirs, sermons and church discipline records, lots of newspapers, and scattered organizational records. County fair programs. The cockfighting publication Grit and Steel. Publications of temperance and other reform organizations. Toward the end of the project I taught myself to look up state laws.

The sources were my friends, and I took pleasure in going into archives and looking at papers without a great deal of preparation. The mentalités scholarship allowed me to think about what it might have meant when diaries said virtually the same things except on Sundays, or when diarists listed the numbers of ducks they killed, or when they wrote at length about circus visits, or when young women wrote, night after night, “Did my work today,” and meant they sewed, darned, or knitted. Sources were often surprising. I had never heard of ring and lance tournaments before they appeared in some letters. An otherwise frustrating trip to Savannah yielded the diary of a teenager who worried about the ramifications of making fudge on Sunday. I certainly recall finding a letter at the Southern Historical Collection in which a young man bragged about having sex with a young woman in a buggy after Sunday night services. And sources taught me things I then needed to analyze, like the self-conscious modernity of county fair organizers or the decline in church disciplinary proceedings or the practice of town women staying away from town squares when rural men invaded on court days and Saturdays.

The sources helped organize the material by time, place, and gender. I spent hours just exploring and taking notes, and when I sat down to write, the sources, with some help from gender studies scholarship, told me to look for where men and women were located when they acted in particular ways. Twenty-five years later, the book’s organization still appeals to me, with chapters on The Field, The Town: Main Street, The Town: Professional Entertainment, The Plantation, The Farm, The Home, The Church, The Revival Meeting, and then two chapters on reform. Each chapter tried to detail the groups that experienced life in certain spaces, who was there, who wasn’t, and what went on there.

Another thing I still like about the book is that its primary tension pitted two things most scholars do not find very attractive. The spaces divided people with aggressive, competitive, self-consciously manly forms of recreation and spaces where people believed in the harmony of evangelical home life. So, the tension was not between people scholars tend to appreciate and those who they don’t—it was between two tendencies or cultural forms we as scholars tend to find troubling, even offensive. It is a book without clear heroes, and it tries to think along with people we could easily see only as villains or victims. I admire scholars who have a subject—great reformers or great musicians, for example—that they love, but I approached my topic with grumbling mixed emotions.

The book is not at its best at studying causation or change over time. If it has strengths, maybe they lay in the effort to fit together the cultural forces in southern life. I was influenced by anthropologist Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, which studied cultural life as a set of transitions between opposing cultural forces. Sometimes people went from structured order to unstructured moments of uncertainty with ease; other times the process revealed or created problems. So, one thesis of my book is that the forces in southern cultural life existed in an awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes combustible balance, and that balance became more difficult to continue in the early twentieth century. Prohibition laws passed in the early 1900s marked a turning point. I started the project expecting that a growing secularism would emerge as the main story. Instead, I found that as certain forms of behavior became harder for evangelicals to avoid noticing or suffering from their effects, many of them turned more toward organized, legal responses.

The title came from a suggestion from one of the University of North Carolina Press readers who believed the dissertation title, “Evangelicalism and Male Culture . . .” was too dry. As I recall, that reader suggested “Satan Subdued,” which struck me as too optimistic, so I argued for the gerund.

There are plenty of things the book does poorly (or did poorly, if I should start writing about an old book in past tense). It should have done a much better job using scholarship from women’s history. I had the impression that too much women’s history at the time was concerned with showing women rejecting the domestic ideal, as if resistance or acceptance were the only options. So I botched some paragraphs that are now embarrassing. And the book did a terrible job with African American history and, more broadly, the history of racial definition, racist terror, and attempts at white domination. Issues of race and segregation are all around the book, but they weren’t its main subjects, and in retrospect, I should have found ways to discuss race as a concept and African American men and women as central to the story. I did far too little with government, political movements, labor, and economics. More narrowly within the subject as I defined it, I made some lousy decisions. I studied religious history without studying theology. And I erred in studying evangelicalism without studying Pentecostalism and Holiness movements, in failing to distinguish among evangelical groups, and in failing to do much with people who were not evangelicals.

In retrospect, I likely made a mistake by publishing the book a year or so sooner than necessary. It might be a fuller, deeper book if I had learned from more the scholarship I was using to develop my classes on the history of the South since Reconstruction.

The book has done okay in its 25 years. Reviews varied widely, and it won no prizes. But when Samuel S. Hill, Jr., a hero to me and other students of southern religion, gave it a long, thoughtful review in the Georgia Historical Quarterly, I knew the volume at least had something to offer scholars. A favorite blurb came from Bertram Wyatt-Brown, who said the book showed “wit, a rare commodity in this often ponderous profession.” The people at the University of North Carolina Press never knew the geeky pleasure it gave me when one catalogue advertised the book on the same page as Isaac’s Transformation of Virginia. I was briefly pleased to learn that the book was mentioned in a column in The Nation but not too thrilled when the reviewer paired it with Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book about Men as a sign of a too-manly turn in men’s studies.

I hope some scholars have found the book useful or at least intriguing, and I can’t fault those who criticized it for oversimplifying cultural forces into a single dichotomy of conflicting cultural forces. I’m still pleased and a bit surprised to hear that some professors have assigned it in their classes, and it seems strange to say that the paperback version, first published in 1993, still sells a few copies. Also, having a book contract with UNC Press helped qualify me to get the job I still have in History and Southern Studies, and the book itself helped qualify me for tenure.

If this were a 25th birthday party, what would I say in my toast? I would start by thanking people who encouraged, edited, published, reviewed, and assigned the book and also those who read it, whether for pleasure or under orders. I would use the book as an example to encourage students and younger scholars to ask the questions that matter most to them, and I would quickly encourage them to pause and think more broadly than I did. Most of all, I would use it to encourage students to take pleasure in their research, to try to be creative in their own thinking, and to value the freedom that comes with being a scholar.