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Reconstruction and Gilded Age Southern Life in Edward L. Ayers' ‘The Promise of the New South’

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‘The Promise of the New South’, a non-fiction mid-Reconstruction literature piece by Edward L. Ayers. To start, the first half of the book is filled with perspectives on the South itself, with no specific character but perspectives from almost every part of the South. Ayers is able to accomplish that by minimalizing his own perspective. Detailing the race relations, religion, stores to mills. There are arguments spread throughout, these arguments being: lumber mills are their importance, forest products in the southern industry, that Southerners didn’t hide from the market forces and instead attempted to find the market itself, and the exclusion of races and unevenness of which lynching took place. The following section covers the politicians, in other words, populists, in which Ayers takes a more favorable approach. He describes the populists to have a great understanding of society and the market and desire to better their position in the system, a position more for than against. And finally, the last section covers the different elements of popular culture, including women reformers, sports, the African American blues, and literature. Ayers uses these as interesting sources to a vibrant culture and new type of creativity. While still being mostly optimistic, the region ends towards the end of the century with things going more downhill with the 1896 election. The racial segregation solidifying its way into the future of the south that wouldn’t be fixed for a while.

Ed Ayers’ thesis does not come out as clear as I would come to find. Ayers works with predicting future events that lead the region in the Gilded Age. He creates this umbrella of women and African Americans in this narrative of the South or New South. Ayers opens up with a more optimistic view of the region, describing the South as a bustling and full of energy place. Highlighting the social and economic dynamism, a stance that is less popular but does not make it less of a truth.

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Ayers captures the history of the South during the years between the Reconstruction era and the ‘turn of the century’, which lead to the cause and effect of the promise of the New South. The depiction of the south through power brokers to tenant farmers, from lands of forced growth and tradition. Swept and carried through the towns built with help of the profits of cotton, to remote towns weaving themselves around railroads. From abuse and intimacy within families to outward wailing prohibitionists. With several of these aspects of society, economics, and politics Ayers still is able to get weave all these details to show how the region follows its own patterns.

I found that Ayers’ writing to be interesting in his take on the cultural, social, and political history of the South. He brings strong imagery when he writes the disadvantages and the ‘promises of the New South’. I have also come to find his work complimentary to Woodward’s work, ‘Origins of the New South’, drawing a similar conclusion of educated assumption of the aftermath of the Reconstruction. Ayer’s attempts at capturing the hopeful spirits of those searching for a new start, “fields grew wild because it did not pay to farm them. Children came upon bones and rusting weapons when they played in the woods”. Rather than defining the people specifically but looking at it in a broader perspective, of what it means, of what it had meant then. Ayers’ captures cultural expansion and economic torture but most of all the passion for a new world.

I would say that this work on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age Southern life is an important one compared to others, though there are instances where I felt I was reading my history textbook and less of a book. While Ayers’ intention was to be the least bias there was so much overwhelming and unleashed attention towards a few specific topics. His treatment of jazz music, for example, it came off too detailed and stirred me away as a reader. He describes certain specific details with material like newspaper clips and journals, and overall capturing the human element. And that’s what Ayers was trying to do all along. I do think that writing about a time period, such as the development of the South and its events leading up and creating what it had become was an effort in understanding what was really going on from the perspective of a present translator. He provides this new address of the New South, well described as, “a land with one foot in the future and the other in the past”.

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Reconstruction and Gilded Age Southern Life in Edward L. Ayers’ ‘The Promise of the New South’. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Reconstruction and Gilded Age Southern Life in Edward L. Ayers’ ‘The Promise of the New South’.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022,
Reconstruction and Gilded Age Southern Life in Edward L. Ayers’ ‘The Promise of the New South’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Reconstruction and Gilded Age Southern Life in Edward L. Ayers’ ‘The Promise of the New South’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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