A 2001 book published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, J. William Harris' Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation, was named last week as one of three finalists for this year's Pulitzer Prize in history. An intimate and magisterial study of the complexity and dynamism of life in the American South between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War II, Deep Souths previously was named co-winner of the James A. Rawley Prize, awarded by the Organization of American Historians, and winner of the Theodore Saloutos Memorial Book Prize, awarded by the Agricultural History Society.
Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won the Pulitzer for history; the other finalist was Daniel K. Richter's Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Harvard University Press).
"This is wonderful recognition for a terrific book and the good work of the Press," noted Press director Jim Jordan. "Bob Brugger, the Hopkins editor who acquired the book, steadfastly believed in the cogency of the message and the quality of the author's writing and research, and brought the book to fruition. We are very proud of everyone involved."
Harris received a doctorate in history from Johns Hopkins after graduating from MIT with a bachelor's degree in humanities and science. He is currently chair of the History Department at the University of New Hampshire.
The product of more than a decade of research, Deep Souths stands as both a major achievement in historical scholarship and a captivating, nuanced study of three distinct regions of the American South during Reconstruction. The idea of the "Deep South," with its connotations of stasis and uniformity, persists today in both popular culture and scholarship. Harris' achievement in Deep Souths is to challenge this simplistic representation, offering readers a more complicated and vibrant portrait of the lower South. Harris takes into account the vast social, political, economic and cultural differences that existed between the Mississippi Delta, the Georgia Piedmont and the Georgia Sea Islands, as well as the sweeping changes that occurred there over the course of a century.
Drawing on a wide range of sources, from census records to oral histories, Harris' narrative of life in these three regions emerges through the stories of individuals: planters, sharecroppers, small farmers, educators, activists, businessmen and artists. The ground-level view of history in Deep Souths illustrates the ways in which these three regions diverged during the three generations after Reconstruction. Along the Georgia coast, thousands of former slaves became landowning peasant farmers and conserved traditions that had largely disappeared elsewhere. In the Georgia Piedmont, plantation agriculture revived with the use of black and white tenant labor, and the region became a Populist Party stronghold in the 1890s. In the Delta, huge public works and land-clearing made possible the creation of cotton plantations on a scale unknown before the war and drew tens of thousands of black migrants who nurtured the growth of a radically new musical form, the blues. Harris takes his acclaimed history up to the end of the New Deal era when, he contends, changes in these regions had prepared the way for the civil rights movement and the end of segregation.