In Memoriam: Johanna Nicol Shields, 1942-2022

Headshot of Johanna Shields, cropped tightly around her face, looking directly at the camera.Johanna Shields passed away in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 23.  She was one of the earliest members of SHEAR.  Like the small group of founders, she was convinced that the decades between the Revolution and Civil War were as worthy of historical study as the wars that framed them.  She faithfully attended SHEAR meetings for three decades, well known for her intellectual breadth, tolerant spirit, and good humor.

Johanna was a pioneering woman in our profession.  She was born in Mobile, Alabama, and grew up in Tuscaloosa.  She earned her B.A. in American Studies (1964) and Ph.D. in History (1973) at the University of Alabama.  She devoted her career to the University of Alabama at Huntsville.  She joined its History faculty in 1967 and chaired the department from 1992 to 1996.  As founding director and later associate director of the UAH Humanities Center, she worked to highlight the constructive role of a humanistic perspective in the academy and community.  With characteristic friendliness and frankness, she got to know just about every historian in her state, across the South, and so many around the country.  She was a tenacious advocate of history, believing that history close to home is as important as global issues and that the public as well as professionals are our audience.

Johanna’s scholarship confronts the South’s troubling antebellum past.  Indeed, she shows it to be a national story.  Although she began as a political historian, her capstone work probes the minds of Alabama’s white writers.  These authors — among them, Johnson Hooper, Joseph Baldwin, Caroline Hentz, and Augusta Evans — fully shared the nation’s romance with liberty and prosperity.  Yet for them, slavery was the anchor of progress.  “Time and again,” Johanna writes in Freedom in a Slave Society (Cambridge University Press, 2012), “they extolled freedom’s possibilities and minimized slavery, despite their commitment to it” (p. xvi).  In their fiction and poetry, they did not yell in self-defense, but rather pictured their society as they imagined it.  They spoke to readers, north and south, with quiet conviction, and did so successfully.  Their writings were popular.

They also liked to be comically raucous.  What better way to win over readers than to tell an outrageous saga of frontier shenanigans?  Popular humor can be nearly impenetrable to analysis, entwined as it is with a people’s deepest instincts.  Johanna loved the challenge.  She issued a new edition of Alabamian Johnson Hooper’s Adventures of Captain Simon Suggs (1845; University of Alabama Press, 1993).  High satire, Hooper’s book presents itself as the campaign biography for Suggs’s run for sheriff.  He is the ultimate “rascal,” in Johanna’s words, true to his favorite motto:  “It is good to be shifty in a new country” (p. viii).  And yes, both the author and hero were racists.  “Nothing would shape his [Hooper’s] life more tragically than the struggle to reconcile his racism and his hope for economic progress” (p. xix). Judging by the literature of the time, con men were everywhere.  Hooper’s readers soaked up a familiar tale – and likely took the racist jokes in stride.

Freedom in a Slave Society:  Stories from the Antebellum South expands Johanna’s subject to the larger body of literary works written by white men and women of the frontier South.  Convinced slavery was the cornerstone of their own freedom, they made their case in fiction:  not only Hooper’s slapstick, but also sentimental novels, historical romances, and moralizing poems.  Abraham Lincoln was one reader in the 1850s.  Taking an hour off from a SHEAR conference in Springfield, Illinois, Johanna looked for Lincoln’s marginalia in his 1854 copy of Joseph Baldwin’s Flush Times in Alabama and Mississippi, now housed in the Lincoln Presidential Library.  The book was meant to be funny, chronicling a southern lawyer’s misadventures.  It turned out that Lincoln made no notes, but his finger smudges on the pages show that he read and reread, laughing along with the author no matter their other differences in purposes and values.  In 1863 Lincoln told Baldwin during a conversation at the White House that Flush Times was “one of his classics,” as Baldwin reported to a friend (p. xiii).  The gulf between the men – political, military, and ethical – remained.  But so did the kinship of scrambling for profit in a litigious society.  Johanna demonstrates that Alabama writing was part of the national literature.

My own friendship with Johanna goes back nearly forty years.  We met in 1984 at a SHEAR meeting.  We were the odd couple:  she was a lifelong Alabamian, and I, a thorough Yankee.  Without her sharp pen to edit every word I wrote about the South, I would not have dared publish.  We visited back and forth.  We shared stories of our children, grandchildren, cats, and dogs.  Our connection began with history, but in the end far exceeded it.

She leaves an exceptional legacy – her beloved daughters Anna and Katherine and their families, colleagues and friends who knew her generosity and wit, and students and readers grateful for her judgment and insight.  Our field has been enriched by Johanna Shields.

A scholarship fund in memory of Johanna has been established at the University of Alabama at Huntsville:

Annie Rose, Distinguished Professor Emerita of History and Religious Studies

Penn State University

27 September 2022

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