Ted Ownby on Subduing Satan, 25 Years Later

ownbyIt is a significant anniversary for Ted Ownby’s book, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920, which turned twenty-five this year. In the following post, which can be found in its entirety on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture blog, Ownby recalls the experience of giving birth to his book twenty-five years ago:

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.

Read Ownby’s full post, “Subduing Satan Turns 25,” on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s blog.

Ted Ownby is director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of history and southern studies at the University of Mississippi. He is author of Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 and American Dreams in Mississippi: Consumers, Poverty, and Culture, 1830-1998 and co-editor of The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture Volume 13: Gender.