Allison Fredette is Assistant Professor of History at Appalachian State University. This interview is based on her new book, Marriage on the Border: Love, Mutuality, and Divorce in the Upper South during the Civil War (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020).
JF: What led you to write Marriage on the Border?
AF: I started this project because I wanted to understand the conflicted regional identity of people in the border South, both in the past and today. I was born in Indiana and then lived in southern California for eight years before moving to West Virginia at the age of 11. Having lived throughout the country before settling in the South (and yes, I think West Virginia is in the South), I was fascinated by the confusion with which West Virginians themselves might answer the question, “Are you from the South?” I wanted to understand how West Virginians’ identities got so complicated and messy. Knowing that I wanted to analyze this through the lens of gender, I initially looked at married women’s property laws before my father, an archivist in the West Virginia and Regional History Center in Morgantown, unearthed a box of divorce cases from Wheeling and sent me down an investigative rabbit hole.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Marriage on the Border?
AF: Marriage on the Border argues that the marriages and marital roles of mid-nineteenth-century white Kentuckians and West Virginians reflected the hybrid nature of the border on which they lived. As the Civil War approached, white border southerners sought marriages based on mutuality and individualism–and embraced theories of contractualism to end them when they failed to meet those standards–civil all while living in a society with a deeply racist, hierarchical slave system.
JF: Why do we need to read Marriage on the Border?
AF: Marriage on the Border is about a region of the country that is often overlooked. Historians of gender and marriage often focus on New England or the Deep South, and similarly, studies of southern households before, during, and after the Civil War usually take the plantation as their starting point. Studying the border South and thinking about the formation of a variety of types of southern identity is pivotal for understanding the entire region, as well as how we construct our own identities today.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AF: I probably decided, on some level, to be an American historian when I read the Little House books in the second grade. I loved getting lost in the past and learning about families that seemed so different from mine. Although I have read many books since then, I am still an American historian, and I am still a historian of the household.
JF: What is your next project?
AF: My next project, Murdering Laura Foster: Violence, Gender, and Memory in Appalachian North Carolina, revisits the infamous 1866 Wilkesboro murder case that inspired the ballad, “Tom Dooley.” I put Laura Foster, the victim, back at the center of the story by using gender analysis to study the murder, trial and folk song.
JF: Thanks, Allison!