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Discovering the South (The Book)

When Jonathan Daniels set out to "discover the South"in his stately black Plymouth, he especially hoped to find the land that existed somewhere between the mythical old plantation and the sharecropper's cabin, between Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind and Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road. He acknowledged that there are "as many Souths, perhaps, as there are people in it," and he claimed to have met "no more than a comparative few" of this wide range of black and white southerners.

In truth, Daniels's published and unpublished accounts of his trip captured a panoramic picture of the South during the Great Depression. In Discovering the South: One Man's Travels through a Changing America in the 1930s, historian Jennifer Ritterhouse follows Daniels on his journey to explore a wide range of interrelated topics, from the New Deal's impact on the South to the literary and intellectual history of the Southern Renaissance, and from the race, class and gender dynamics evident in the tragic Scottsboro case to planters' and industrialists' violent responses to labor organizing.

The questions at the center of Discovering the South are big ones: What was the true nature of the South and its problems, and who was trying to address them--in what ways, against what opposition, and with what results--during the Roosevelt years? More provocatively, why, in the late 1930s when Jonathan Daniels, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a great many other Americans were "traveling," did the destination of a more just and egalitarian South prove so impossible to reach?

In addition to making important people, places, events, and themes of twentieth-century southern history visible to readers, Discovering the South draws an analogy between Daniels's own moral and political journey and the United States' longer and still-unfinished journey from a whites-only to a truly pluralist democracy. The road beyond the nation's slight left turn in the 1930s would be long, narrow, and frequently obstructed. But the black-led civil rights movement that eventually wrested change from a reluctant nation and a defiant white South could not have taken off and gained as much ground as it did if the United States had not already entered the long civil rights era--if it had not emerged into new political and human rights territory through Depression-era journeys like that of Jonathan Daniels.