Friday, August 31, 2007

Subduing Satan: A book review

Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion, Recreation and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1990). 286 pages (this includes an extensive bibliography and endnotes). Numerous photos and tables.

I’m trying to get this review in under the deadline for the Southern Reading Challenge. This is the fourth book review I’m posting for the SRC, but it’s one of the ones I had originally planned on reading so I wanted to get it posted (I’ve read two of the three I’d planned on reading). Over the past few years, I have engaged in a study of Southern social history, partly to get in touch with my roots and partly to expand on my regional work in history that has focused on the American West. Subduing Satan is an academic work; I don’t recommend it for a good read on the beach.

Ownby explores the tension and conflict between the evangelical social norms and the prevalent male vices of the South in the post-bellum era. In a way, as he points out at the conclusion, this tension can still be seen in the regional music such as when Willie Nelson begins a concert singing about Whiskey River and concludes it with a heartfelt rendition of Amazing Grace. Another example is Elvis, a “flamboyant sinner,” known also as a gospel singer.

Subduing Satan is a social history of white southerners in the years between the Civil War and the Great War. During this time, men in the rural South were kept home on the farm except for the occasional visit to the town where drinking and gambling and fighting were common vices. Ownby explores this culture, from hunters who tried to outdo one another in the slaughter of game, to cockfighting and knightly tournaments, to harvest festivals and sharing agricultural chores. During most of this time, Protestant preachers railed against “masculine vices,” but there was little push for probation. As long as the vices were segregated (from women), preachers were happy to condemn them. As industrialization and technology began to bring the vices into the home as well as allowing women to be more easily found in the public sphere (thanks to the automobile and movie theaters), the push for laws against such vices occurred.

Ownby does a wonderful job of showing what life was like at this time in history in various realms of society (the field, the farm and plantation, the home, the church, Main Street, etc). He discusses reasons why Southern men seemed to enjoy a good fight and some of the underlying tensions dealing with racial relations and the role of women. This book would be valuable to anyone wanting to know how the past was different or any author wanting to more accurately portray life in this era.

For those wanting a more complete look at the role of religion in the South, especially in relationship to the rise of Southern Protestantism and the role the defeat in the Civil War played, I recommend the following two books:

Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1997).

Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptize in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (Athens, GA: Univ of GA Press, 1980).

For more book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. That's wild about Willie 'cos we saw him in the 70's and that was exactly his line-up, but I don't remember the same when we saw him at the fair grounds in the 90's working off his tax debt.

    Oh, and my dad is Scotch-Irish - yep, that's how we say it around these parts - and he craves a good fight. Must read this book to find out why?!?

    Thanks for participating in the SRC! You have made it memorable! ;D

  2. Thanks. Want to know as much as I can about the South, my future home

    In my post I meant that women still play by different rules. Our generation of women who broke rules never expected it to be easy. Younger women seem to expect to be applauded for doing things outside the norm

    I guess it somehow fits your review :)

  3. I like the title.

    It seems to be a serious read, as you yourself say.

    I like to read history. Your review
    is very well done and it sounds interesting to me. Another one to add to my list?

  4. I like the title too. And considering the subject matter...It's perfect.

  5. Great review as always . . . but probably not one I'm going to enjoy in an armchair with cocoa (or at the beach!) . . .

  6. Maggie, thanks for hosting the review!

    Pia, although this is a serious work, I think I'd recommend first reading Baptized in Blood (about the "cult" of the Lost Cause) for understanding your future home.

    Gautami, I'm not sure if I'd recommend this unless your interested in knowning more about the culture that produced writers such as Faulkner (note that the South didn't start producing many authors till after this period was over, but many of the great ones grew up in this era).

    Mistress, It is a neat title isn't it. One of my favorite Southern writers is Roy Blount (who like me is also exiled up north). On the cover of his massive collection of Southern Humor, he's in a chair on the front porch reading a book titled "101 Ways to Defeat Satan"

    Diane, I don't recomend this one for the beach! But if you do read it, skip the cocoa and go straight for the Jim Beam (but according to his thesis, women were to be kept from such "social ills" in the Old South

  7. You're "exiled" to the north?!? I bet it has something to do with the fact that you own and wear pink shirts. :-)

  8. sage - ha - will do! have you read the biography of Jesse James by TJ Stiles? I think you'd enjoy it

  9. Hope you're having a relaxing holiday weekend!

  10. It's an interesting title, but I don't believe it's my cup 'o tea or espresso or whatever. I prefer the suspenseful novel with a twist that I can read on the beach.

    Thanks for the low-down though. I will look for other books you review that are more up my alley.

  11. It sounds like quite an interesting read, quite deep too.

    I hope you've had a good weekend. I'm here from Michele's :)

  12. Thanks for the recommendations and the review. I would actually like to read a book detailing the religion of the South and how it all began.

    I was so glad to make the challenge. Maggie let me count Finn!