“Kenneth M. Stampp, a leading Civil War historian who redirected the scholarly view of slavery in the antebellum South from that of a benign relationship between white plantation owners and compliant slaves to one of harsh servitude perpetuated to support the South’s agrarian economy, died Friday in Oakland, Calif. He was 96.
The cause was heart failure, said Richard Hill, a friend who was also the family lawyer and a former student of Mr. Stampp’s.
Mr. Stampp, who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1946 to 1983, wrote several influential books about the Civil War period, from the decade leading up to the war to Reconstruction.
His reputation was founded on two books that turned accepted wisdom inside out and engendered seismic shifts in the scholarship of the period. They became staples of university classrooms.
The first, in 1956, was “The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South,” which juxtaposed the views of slaves themselves with the more conventionally researched perceptions of slave owners, yielding a far different picture of the institution than historians had previously created.
Rather than portraying slaves as docile, simple-minded creatures who were complicit in their own subjugation, Mr. Stampp showed how by working slowly, breaking tools and stealing from their owners, the slaves were in constant rebellion. And rather than portraying the owners as beneficent upholders of a genteel culture determined to maintain racial harmony, Mr. Stampp revealed the slave-keeping impulse to be an economically motivated choice.
“We now viewed slavery not only through the eyes of the masters but through the eyes of the slaves themselves,” said Leon Litwack, a long-time colleague and former student of Mr. Stampp’s at Berkeley, and the author of “Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980. “He was clearly one of the influential historians of the 20th century. All you have to do is open history textbooks and compare what you find in them to what you found before 1960.”
The second seminal book, “The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877,” published in 1965, demythologized another favorite trope of previous historians: that the decade after the Civil War was disastrous for the South, a time of vengefulness visited upon it by the North, of rampant corruption and of vindictive political maneuvering….”
From a 2006 “History Doyens” profile by History News Network:
“To my best recollection, it was a former graduate student, Richard Heffner, who, hearing my feeling that there was a need for a new book, said, “Well, why don’t you write it?” and I thought about it. I do insist that it had nothing to do with the civil rights movement.
The book came out in 1956, and so somebody suggested–I think it was Win [Winthrop] Jordan, actually, who used to be in our department–that it was somehow connected with the civil rights movement, and it really wasn’t. My decision to write it dated back to the forties.
I began working on it as soon as I finished a book called And the War Came, which I finished in 1948. In the spring of 1952, I had applied for a Guggenheim, and I received one. I was due for a sabbatical. So I planned to be away for the whole year, from the summer of ’52 to the summer of ’53. That’s when I was going to do the bulk of my research on this book.
In January, I moved to Chapel Hill. I had written to a friend at the university there, and he had found a quite satisfactory place for us to live in a suburb of Chapel Hill called Carboro, which is a mill town. It was rather interesting living in a Southern mill town for a while. I couldn’t have done the book without going there, yes. I don’t think it had any effect on the tone of my book. A lot of the Southerners whom I saw, when the book came out, didn’t write to me and say, “This is a great book.”
When the Guggenheim year was over in July, we came back to Berkeley. I had a little more research to clear up out of secondary sources, but I began writing in the late fall or maybe early winter of 1953-’54. It was a terrible experience beginning that book. I was terribly concerned about this book and my responsibility in writing it. I really wanted to write a book that would persuade Southerners that slavery wasn’t quite like the myths and legends.
Now, the question of a publisher, Knopf published it, but I had an unfortunate relationship with Knopf with my book And the War Came–giving them an opportunity to reject it twice. It was a double humiliation. Anyway, And the War Came was out in 1950, and it had very good reviews. Alfred Knopf, the old man, was pretty peeved at one book man at Knopf, one of their field men, because he’s the one who had solicited the manuscript. I had said, “I will never publish a book with Knopf.” Anyway, this man came to me in 1952 at a convention and said, “I hear you’re writing a book about slavery.” I said, “Yes, but Knopf is not going to have it.” I don’t think is an exaggeration: I think he must have been under considerable pressure from Knopf because he practically got on his knees and asked for it. I said, “I’ll never send you the manuscript. If you want to give me a contract without ever seeing the manuscript, okay.” And I got it.
Sight unseen. I was never going to let them turn down another manuscript or another book of mine. So I’m very glad because Knopf makes beautiful books, and he does a pretty good job of promoting. So I sent the manuscript to Knopf the late summer of 1955, and I had an editor whose name I can’t remember, and he disappeared before the book was finished. He probably was fired. Knopf was always firing people. So for the last bit, I didn’t have an editor. The manuscript–it was a clean manuscript. I had a typist who really made no typos–I couldn’t find any–and raised a couple of questions. She did a little bit of editing, actually, anyway. So the manuscript was a nice clean one that I sent to Knopf; then later in his reminiscences, Alfred Knopf said that in all the time that he was running his company, he had only received two manuscripts that could go straight to the publisher without editing. Mine was one, he said; another was a friend of his who also had written on black history. Well, that was partly true, but it also covered the fact, or disguised or concealed the fact, that my editor had been fired. Anyway, it’s a nice story, and it never made me unhappy to have Knopf say that my manuscript was so letter-perfect.
It was published in October, 1956. As far as I know, it received no prizes. There was no Pulitzer prize or Bancroft prize. There was a prize at that time given for the best book in Southern history, and it didn’t even win that prize, though I think it was by far the best book in Southern history that year. The only prize actually came years and years later — I got the Lincoln prize in 1993. It was sort of a lifetime award, but the thing they always featured in their presentation prize was The Peculiar Institution, which most people think is the most important book I wrote.”