The Free State of Jones

Setting the Record Straight for Professor Stauffer

At a  recent two-day booksigning in Jones County, Mississippi, State of Jones co-author, John Stauffer, hurled some serious charges at your Renegade South moderator that must be addressed.  According to the November 13, 2009, online edition of the Laurel Leader Call,  Professor Stauffer attributed several comments to me that I have never made, and others that are gross exaggerations of what I have said in my critiques of their book (to see my 3-part critique of State of Jones, begin here). Perhaps Mr. Stauffer was simply confused; much as been written about his and Sally Jenkins’s book since its June 23, 2009 release. Let me, then, set the record straight.

First, Mr. Stauffer accuses me of refusing to debate him. The truth is, I have never received any personal communications from Mr. Stauffer—ever—much less an invitation to debate him.

He goes on to accuse me of having labeled him and Ms. Jenkins “Yankees and Carpetbaggers.” I have never made any such remark about them.

Nor have I ever said or written, as Stauffer claims, that Newt Knight was “no friend of blacks.” 

I have also never said or written that the writing in State of Jones is “inferior to that of high school students.” As a teacher of college students, however, I did agree with one of my blog commenters that if a student turned in a research paper that was as poorly documented as much of State of Jones is, I would insist that the student rewrite it.

Finally, according to Stauffer, I accused the authors of writing fiction rather than history.  Well, not quite. But I have commented several times in various sections of Renegade South on the manner in which Jenkins and Stauffer play fast and loose with the facts in State of Jones. I gather here those remarks, which I stand by:

1. In regard to State of Jones, there’s nothing wrong with history that reads like a novel, but the research and use of evidence must be done responsibly unless it is categorized as fiction.

 2. All of us love to read exciting stories, but the historian must always be careful not to privilege the excitement of a good story over factual accuracy. It’s fine to speculate, but you must tell the reader when you are doing so. The authors’ weaving in of other people’s histories with Newt Knight’s to suggest what he “might” have thought or done was not done carefully enough to separate fact from conjecture in my view.

3. Yes, I agree that it would be more accurate to define Jenkins and Stauffer’s work as “historical fiction.” But the authors themselves claim that their book is historical scholarship at its finest.

4. If writers are going to mix fact and fiction to build a more exciting story, they need to make that clear to their readers. If what Ms. Jenkins and Professor Stauffer wrote were to be transferred to a TV special, for example, it would have to be termed a “docudrama” to avoid charges of poor research and incorrect suppositions.

In the future, let’s hope that Professor Stauffer sticks to the facts in defending the contents of State of Jones, and that he resists engaging in ad hominem attacks on his critics. 

Vikki Bynum

NOTE: For my response to Professor Stauffer’s subsequent published remarks in the ReView of Jones County, see Confessions of a Texas Gadfly.

12 replies »

  1. Thanks for posting this response to Professor Stauffer’s latest misstatements, Vikki. The latter are of a piece with the sloppy scholarship and multiple false claims of State of Jones. They are also consistent with their casual — also demonstrably false — ad hominem against my father, (Dr. Rudy Leverett, author of Legend of the Free State of Jones), on whose work, along with yours, they rely heavily throughout SoJ.

    Please keep holding Professor Stauffer accountable for his liberties with the truth.

  2. Great meeting you in Louisville. I am so sorry that you are still having to deal with this nonsense. As far as I am concerned you’ve managed to hold the intellectual high ground from the beginning. The record is now out there for those interested.

    • Thanks, Kevin. I will always be grateful for your skillful moderation of the protracted debate between the authors of State of Jones and myself on Civil War Memory. So glad we finally had the opportunity to meet at the Southern Historical Association!

  3. If you won’t, I will label Stauffer and Jenkins as ”Yankees and Carpetbaggers” – since I have a “legitimate” connection with Jones County. I grew up there and have followed the many perspectives of this unique American history for a long time. Follow the money trail. They are not interested in advancing our knowledge of what really happened there. They are only in this for the money. I wouldn’t have a problem if they labeled their work as a “docudrama” or “historical fiction” as was created in the excellent novel and movie, Tap Roots. But, claiming that their work advances our knowledge of American history, when one has evidence to the contrary, reveals that they really are ”Yankees and Carpetbaggers” and are only in this for the money. Stauffer and Jenkins mock scholarly research and their work will never gain traction in the scholarly community.

  4. Since Stauffer and Jenkins have never stuck to the facts before, you may find it frustrating waiting for them to do so.

    And they are Yankees, but it is an insult to Carpetbaggers to call them Carpetbaggers.

  5. It seems each time I re-read a section of “State of Jones” I come across another factual error, including the new category of those where either your work or that of Rudy Leverett (and who knows who else) is used as a reference for a statement that, it turns out, is clearly NOT supported in the cited text.

    Stauffer dismisses you as a poor historian and the late Rudy Leverett as a “neo-Confederate” yet the end notes of “State of Jones” contain 57 cites of your book and 7 cites of your research files at USM. Rudy Leverett’s book is cited 51 times. Okay, so it appears some of these cites were simply to provide cover for Jenkins and Stauffer to toss off another unsupported statement. But still one has to ask why Stauffer felt the need to rely so heavily on the work of authors for whom he now expresses such contempt.

    But there is no real reason to wonder. Any person who feels his mission lifts him far above mundane concerns about factual accuracy has an intrinsic understanding of Lenin’s observation that a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. Well, at least it does in the mind of the teller.

  6. Hi Vikki,

    This most recent episode in this controversy is disturbing, and simply outrageous. Stauffer seems to be implying that you are a neo Confederate and apologist! Has he read your book? Just the opposite is true. Also, there is the not so subtle implication that you may be a racist. Another outrageous falsehood. I am astounded by this latest development. In a post on a fellow blogger’s site, Stauffer described himself as an “evangelist”. His behavior has proven why an historian’s role should not include the self proclaimed role of moral arbiter. In presenting himself as the messenger of truth, Stauffer is blind to his own shortcomings. In addition, he is undercutting the presentation of the truly complex history of Jones County, and of what that history means for both the white and African American communities. If I read the news article that you linked to, only; I would think that you are a Lost Cause adherent, which is laughable to anyone who knows your work. Stauffer, of course, did not write the news article. The reporter was reporting the story as it unfolded. Stauffer could have corrected the reporter, however, had he chosen to do so. I am much more interested in reading the history of Jones County as portrayed by you, Ed Payne, and Yvonne Bivins. The other history of Jones County, Newt Knight, and Rachel Knight is indeed fiction. I do hope that Yvonne Bivins writes a book. I would be interested to know, too, if Rachel did, in fact, have Indigenous ancestors as well, since her reputation as a “conjure woman” , seems to indicate that she may have. Also, Rachel’s preservation of African ceremony may have contributed to that reputation as well. Best, Sherree.

  7. Ed and Sherree both make important points. Stauffer and Jenkins rely heavily on my and Rudy Leverett’s works, yet if one studies the footnotes carefully there are a number of places where authors, including myself, are incorrectly cited. It is also the case that if one disagrees with Prof. Stauffer, one can expect to be characterized as politically retrograde.

    Vikki

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