West Virginia Day — that’s today — is, by its very nature, a chance for residents to reflect on the history of their state. The West Virginia University Press and the West Virginia Humanities Council have joined forces to preserve some of that history.
Last fall, they published the first two volumes in the West Virginia Classics series: “West Virginia” by J.R. Dodge and “The Shenandoah” by Julia Davis, both with new introductions.
What is the West Virginia Classics series? The WVU Press is glad you asked:
The West Virginia Classics series republishes editions of treasured literary and historical works. This rediscovery of classic texts reveals the culture and diversity of West Virginia while speaking to a new generation of readers who desire to explore the story of the Mountain State. The highly designed editions of West Virginia Classics clear a delightful path to the past, helping citizens of all ages discover and rediscover the history, culture, and diversity of West Virginia.
“Highly designed” may sound like some fancy sales pitch, but I’ve got the first two volumes in the series, and they’re some nice-looking books.
| “West Virginia: Its Farms and Forests, Mines and Oil-Wells” by J.R. Dodge, the first statistician for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the introduction by Kenneth Bailey, professor emeritus and former dean at WVU Tech, the book’s genesis came after information about the “agricultural status and prospects” of the newly formed state was published by the USDA in 1864. Bailey says the report “stimulated a huge demand for more information,” which led to Dodge’s book, first published in 1865.
Dodge’s book contains several lists and tables, which are no doubt of use to serious historical researchers, and of passing interest to many general readers. But the real pleasure for many West Virginia readers will be the glimpse of the state as it first coalesced. He gives a survey of the state’s various regions: residents, history, topography, industry, natural resources.
It’s far from dispassionate history; it was the end of the Civil War, after all, and there’s no shortage of that flavor from Dodge, a New Hampshire native and a civil servant in the Lincoln administration. (On his very first page, Dodge writes of the “humbling of the pride of Virginia secession.) But that only adds to the period atmosphere of the book. Dodge’s snapshot of West Virginia as it became a state is often fascinating.
| The second of the West Virginia Classics — “The Shenandoah” by Julia Davis — was originally published as part of another series: the landmark “Rivers of America,” which spanned decades and relied on authors and poets, rather than historians and geographers, to tell the story of the great rivers of the United States.
Davis — the daughter of John W. Davis, West Virginia’s only major presidential candidate — was the author of more than two dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction. She was recommended to write about the Shenandoah River (and Valley) by poet Stephen Vincent Benet, one of the editors of the Rivers of America series, according to the new introduction by nature writer, poet and former Shenandoah Valley resident Christopher Camuto. As Camuto writes:
The heart of “The Shenandoah” is Julia Davis’ engaging account of the role the Valley played in American history from early European exploration in the late seventeenth century through the tragedy of the Civil War and the pains of reconstruction.
In October (just in time for the West Virginia Book Festival), the third book in the series will be published — and like “The Shenandoah,” it’s a section of a larger series that is particularly germane to West Virginia.
“History of the American Negro: West Virginia Edition,” by A.B. Caldwell, was first published in 1923. Caldwell edited and published seven volumes of the series, consisting of biographical sketches of prominent, and sometimes not-so-prominent, black citizens of the day. The first two volumes focused on Georgia; future volumes encompassed South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington, D.C. West Virginia was the seventh and final volume of the series.
According to the description at the WVU Press website:
In a statement printed in the first volume of this series, Caldwell wrote that his intent in publishing this collection was neither “comprehensive nor exhaustive,” yet he was determined to shed light on the “successful element unrecorded” of black Americans in the United States. … A resource for genealogists, historians, and citizens alike, this history provides a detailed account of the often overlooked lives of ordinary men and women.
The introduction for the new volume will be by Joe Trotter, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and author of, among other works, “Coal, Class and Color: Blacks in Southern West Virginia, 1915-1932.”
Who knows what the next part of the West Virginia Classics might be? Well, maybe you do. The WVU Press is soliciting suggestions for the series. So if you remember a book from your youth that taught you something about West Virginia’s history, let them know. And come to the marketplace at this fall’s West Virginia Book Festival, where the WVU Press has been a mainstay for years, and pick up a couple of West Virginia Classics.