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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Heroic Memphis

When Gerald M. Capers Jr. set out to write in the 1930s what would become a history of Memphis from its beginnings to 1900, he believed he was charting new territory for historians—or at least urging them to move into territory that was properly theirs. Indeed, as Capers points out in his foreword, historiography itself was changing: social and economic history had finally attained a status formerly reserved only for political history, and it was now time to write the history of the United States “from the bottom up,” rather than “from the top down.” Needed now were sectional histories, histories of the great plains, the Pacific coast, the Appalachians—and above all, histories of cities. “Cities,” Capers writes, “are often more representative of fundamental economic interests than artificial political divisions like states.” As he worked on his history of Memphis, a history that began as a PhD dissertation at Yale University and was eventually published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1939 under the title The Biography of a River Town: Memphis; Its Heroic Age, he became convinced of the importance of cities as a subject for historians. “An adequate biography of any of our key cities—New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Kansas City, and a dozen more—would be more significant to the national epic than the biography of even so prominent a figure as Theodore Roosevelt.” It was high time, Capers announced, that the modern-day Herotodus turn his or her attention to the great American metropolises, scholarly treatments of which were “primarily and fundamentally the job of the historian.”

In Capers’s estimation, the most important sectional division in the country was that between the eastern seaboard and what used to be regarded as the West—that region of the country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. And even that section had to be divided into an upper and lower West. And no city—not even New Orleans—more epitomized the lower West than Memphis.

Capers’s “biography” presents a Memphis that was rough-hewn out of the forests on the Fourth Chickasaw Bluff, went through growing pains as it evolved into a “flatboat town,” then enjoyed a boom time in the 1840s and 1850s as its economy flourished with the cotton trade. The city had just gotten back to “normality” after the disruption of the Civil War when it was nearly wiped off the face of the map by the yellow fever epidemics of the 1870s, especially the 1878 breakout, only to rise again “heroically” and take its place as one of the leading cities of the South by the turn of the last century.

Clearly, Professor Capers, who died in 1992, felt a lot of affection for Memphis, and his book was written in an age whose scholarship was dominated by white men of a certain sort, men from educated, prosperous, and well-connected families who believed they were in a position to speak intelligently and authoritatively on behalf of all classes and races and who, in their writings, tended to rationalize the existing order if they nevertheless felt discomfited by it. In short, one could have expected Professor Capers to write a history of Memphis that was in many ways self-serving, one that affirmed a particular, and partial, vision of what the city, in all its complexity, really was. Yet his history is not that. He for instance documents the race riot of 1866, and although he does not approach the subject of African Americans with the sensibilities of the present-day white liberal—sensibilities that, however well intentioned, are often hypocriticalin the last chapter of his book Capers regrets that we know so little about Memphis’s black citizens. The fifty thousand or so blacks who lived in the city during the last two decades of the nineteenth century “kept no diaries” (no doubt untrue), and only their criminal actions were reported in the newspapers. But in the course of his lament, Capers drops this: “No files have been preserved of the first Negro paper, the Memphis Free Speech, started by a woman in 1890, for its tone grew so militant that a mob burned its press.” Unapologetic details like that one abound in Professor Capers’s book and make it such a rich and valuable account, and his reference to the unnamed Ida B. Wells can only be admired.

The Biography of a River Town is immensely useful for several reasons, not least of which are the annotated bibliography at the end and the numerous statistical tables scattered throughout its pages. Especially interesting to this writer is the table of postbellum cotton statistics for Memphis showing the number of bales received, the dollar value of the bales, and the number of bales produced in the country as a whole. But do not miss table 7, which lists well over fifty productsamong the more colorful are oakum, gunny sacks, and cloverseedthat were shipped to Memphis in 1861 to in turn be transported to other markets. The largest, as one might expect, was cotton, of which over $18 million dollars’ worth had been received in the city that year. Even then, Memphis was already an important distribution center.

Gerald M. Capers, who was a professor of history at Tulane University, was born in 1909 and received his undergraduate education at Rhodes College in Memphis (back then it was known as Southwestern). He wrote a second edition of his book in 1966, in part because in the quarter century since the first edition had been published, “a lot of Yankees who occasionally read local history have moved to Memphis.”

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