On Sunday, June 11, 2023, my dear friend and a man who is rightly called “the Dean of Southern Historians,” Dr. Clyde N. Wilson, will celebrate his 82nd birthday. For some fruitful fifty-five of those years he has been at the forefront of efforts to make the history of his native region better known, and, as events and severe challenges to that history have happened at a dizzying pace, he has stood, like one of his admired historical figures, General Thomas J. Jackson, “as a stonewall” resisting the increasing insanity and madness of our age.
His various books, including the published multi-volume complete works of Southern statesman John C. Calhoun (University of South Carolina), books of essays, edited volumes, annotated bibliographies, and hundreds of articles give testimony to a tireless, indefatigable champion, intent on both mining and revealing the richness of Southern history and also resolutely defending it against powerful and virulent enemies, both nationally and amongst us. Unlike far too many of his fellow Southerners, Dr. Wilson has understood that the geographical region we call “the South” has had an important role not just in the 350 year existence of the land we call “America,” but in a very real sense in maintaining that Western Christian heritage inherited from original settlers, to the point of going to war to defend that precious patrimony.
I think it was when I was in grad school at the University of Virginia in the early 1970s that I first came across articles and essays by Clyde Wilson. I was already reading National Review and the quarterly, Modern Age (long before they went over to Neoconservative/NeoReconstructionism). Wilson, along with writers like Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk, for whom I served as assistant the year after securing my MA in history, wrote fairly regularly for what was called “conservative media.” Southerners were welcomed by such publications back then. Indeed, Kirk dedicated an entire issue of Modern Age (which he founded) to Southern conservatism (Fall 1958). Older Southern writers, essayists, and poets associated with the Southern “Agrarians,” men of stature like Donald Davidson, Andrew Lytle, and Cleanth Brooks, continued their labors in their twilight years.
When I returned to the United States after earning a doctorate at the University of Navarra, in Spain, and teaching for a while in Argentina in 1981, I began to reacquaint myself with writers and the culture of my homeland. Soon I was contributing essays to the Southern Partisan magazine and renewing my friendships with Mel Bradford and Russell Kirk.
Then, in 1990 I came across a book which made a profound and lasting impression on me: Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew (University of Georgia, 1990), by Clyde N. Wilson. In fact, the volume was an edited version of his Ph.D. dissertation presented at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1971. At that time UNC was hospitable to more conservative and traditional scholarship; not only Professor Wilson, but also former Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming, and my former co-worker at the North Carolina State Archives, Wilson Angley, all finished their graduate degrees there.
Pettigrew, a noted Confederate general who fell at Falling Waters during the retreat from Gettysburg, like Wilson and myself was a North Carolinian. Like most Southern boys who came of age during the “Civil War Centennial” (1961-1965) and a Tar Heel born and bred, I had some idea of Pettigrew’s exploits during the War. But I was unprepared for the wealth of detail which Wilson revealed. For indeed James Johnston Pettigrew was a man larger than life who, if he had lived, might have become one of the nation’s finest essayists and writers. In Carolina Cavalier Wilson discusses at length Pettigrew’s “travel book,” Notes on Spain and the Spaniards (1861), which like English author Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome, is far more than a simple travelogue. Like Belloc forty years later, Pettigrew possessed the ability to translate his observations into meaningful and eloquently descriptive paragraphs which in a profound sense soar above the printed page and in an impressionistic way speak of the continuity and grandeur of our Western culture. His understanding of Spanish traditions and religion have seldom, if ever, been matched by any American. And from a certain perspective, is there not in his exquisitely expressed, philosophical understanding and descriptions of Spanish society a veiled, analogous comparison to his own Southland?
A few years after acquiring a copy of Carolina Cavalier I was able to bring Clyde Wilson back to North Carolina. We had begun to correspond, and since I was chairman of North Carolina’s Annual Confederate Flag Day observances, I invited him to come to Raleigh and offer remarks in the old Senate chamber of the historic 1840 State Capitol. He was one of the distinguished guests of note we had over the years, including Don Livingston, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and North Carolina Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake, Jr. And shortly afterwards, Pettigrew’s volume which had been out-of-print for well over a century, was brought out in a facsimile edition by the University of South Carolina Press (2010), with a new introduction by Wilson.
Another significant work which Dr. Wilson produced was The Essential Calhoun: Selections from Writings, Speeches, and Letters (2017), with an introduction by Russell Kirk, a valuable primer for students of the great South Carolinian who have been perhaps deterred by the daunting task of searching through the edited twenty-eight volumes!
Additional works include his several polemical volumes in “The Wilson Files”; his four books in the “Southern Reader’s Guide” series; From Union to Empire: Essays in the Jeffersonian Tradition; Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture, and several significant published symposiums which he has edited. Dr. Wilson has also been the M. E. Bradford Distinguished Chair at the Abbeville Institute, which specializes in the online publication of Southern writers and holding seminars on Southern themes. And he is the guiding spirit behind Shotwell Publishing in Columbia, South Carolina, offering an outlet for Southern authors and their manuscripts.
During his thirty-two years as professor of history at the University of South Carolina, Dr. Wilson taught a wide variety of courses in history and directed sixteen doctoral dissertations. His legacy of scholarship and love for the history of his native region, thus, is carried on by those—and other—students who were privileged to study under him. And by many thousands more who have read his books or attended his conferences, or been so fortunate as to call him a friend.
Would that in the midst of today’s vicious offensive against everything traditionally Southern there were more teachers and giants like Clyde Wilson.
There is a memorable passage in Donald Davidson’s magnificent poem, “Lee in the Mountains,” which in a way sums up Clyde Wilson’s resilience and heroically staunch defense of his beloved Southland:
Then, let us wish Clyde Wilson a most happy and blessed 82nd birthday, and ad multos annos! May your critical labors go on and continue to inspire us!
This piece was published at My Corner on June 8, 2023.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.