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Errors in “Slavery in the American Mountain South”

I haven’t finished reading Wilma Dunaway’s Slavery in the American Mountain South yet, but I’ve already run across two errors that are bothersome:

First, on page 1, “In geographic and geological terms, the Mountain South (also known as Southern Appalachia) includes that part of the U.S. Southeast that rose from the floor of the ocean to form the Appalachian Mountain chain ten thousand years ago.” Ten thousand years is too old for the Youth Earthers, yet far too young to be geologically correct.  Also, the sentence manages to say absolutely nothing; it boils down to “the Mountain South is the part of the south that’s in the mountains.”

Second, she writes that “slaves staffed a fashionable hotel atop Lookout Mountain, and they led regular expeditions to mountain sites nearby, like Tallulah Falls in Northern Georgia” (84). Lookout Mountain is at the extreme northwest corner of Georgia, at the GA – AL – TN junction.  Tallulah Falls is at the extreme northeast corner, at the GA – SC – NC junction. They’re 150 miles apart — that’s certainly more than a day trip in the 1840’s.

I’ve seen the same Tallulah Falls / Lookout Mountain error before in another primary source, whose name escapes me. I thought it might have been a confusion with “Lula Falls” and “Lula Lake” (very pretty, but not nearly as impressive as Tallulah Falls). There are a number of other falls much closer to Lookout Mountain: Ruby Falls is the most prominent in roadside advertisements, but Cloudland Canyon also has waterfalls.

The book also suffers from the academic tendency to never use a succinct phrase when a more pompous alternative is available. Capitalism is consistently described as a “world system” (whatever that means). Sometimes Dunaway’s vocabulary glosses over the facts in a particular unsavory way. The worst is when she writes “the region’s indigenous people were integrated into the commodity chain of the world economy to supply slaves.” The commodity chain, in the case of the Middle Passage, was more literal than figurative.

Her argument so far — that slavery was more prevalent and more essential in the Mountain South than most historians present — is compelling and seems well-researched. I wish that she’d avoided the errors and overblown style, but perhaps they are endemic to all the titles in Cambridge’s “Studies in Modern Capitalism.”

Written by timwestover

August 31st, 2011 at 7:03 pm

Posted in folklore