Tuesday, December 1, 2009

"Coming of Age in Utopia"

The life and work of former Southern Regional Council President Paul Gaston have earned him a reputation as one of the most respected southern historians in the country, and his new memoir, Coming of Age in Utopia: The Odyssey of an Idea, chronicles his life as an agent of change from the shores of Mobile Bay, Alabama to the streets and classrooms of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia.

"In this exquisitely wrought memoir of a committed life, historian and civil rights activist Paul Gaston reveals his deep roots in the unique Alabama town founded in 1894 by his grandfather and later led by his father. The Fairhope colony was the creation of Ernest B. Gaston, an Iowa journalist, Populist, and communitarian reformer. Fairhope grew into a unique political, economic, and educational experiment and a center of radical economic and educational ideals and institutions. It was home to vibrant idealism and creative arts, and a haven for reformers, writers, and other visitors. As time passed, however, Fairhope, once a community where people came to solve social problems, became a resort where they came to escape them. By the early 1950s it was clear that great changes were coming to the South, and the author began to look outward for ways to take part in the coming struggle—the civil rights movement."

"Gaston's career at the University of Virginia, where he taught from 1957-1997, forms the core of Coming of Age in Utopia. For a young man looking to enter the struggle against racial injustice, Virginia offered the white supremacy myths, values, and institutions of the Deep South but less of its violence and retribution. Beyond Virginia, his long years as an officer in the Southern Regional Council and his several visits to South Africa provided widening vistas for understanding how social change comes about and is thwarted."

"A master storyteller with a compelling personal life and unique involvement in these events, Gaston weaves accounts of struggles for social justice into a forceful narrative enriched with provocative interpretation. "

About the Author

Paul Gaston, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Virginia, was born and reared in Fairhope, Alabama, about which he has written two books. He is also the author of The New South Creed, winner of the Lillian Smith Award for distinguished writing about the South. He served for twenty-five years on the executive committee of the Southern Regional Council and has been a frequent visitor in South Africa, both before and after the fall of apartheid. He has received numerous awards and honors for both his professional work and civil rights leadership, including the outstanding professor award from the Commonwealth of Virginia; bridge builder recognition from the city of Charlottesville; legendary civil rights activist from the NAACP; and community leader, from his alma mater, Swarthmore College. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife of fifty-seven years, Mary Wilkinson Gaston.

Charlottesville's Assistant City Manager Maurice Jones recently interviewed Professor Gaston for Dialogue On Race, a new city initiative designed to improve race relations. The interview touched on Gaston's life as a southern historian, his work as a civil rights activist, and the progressive change he’s witnessed over the past forty years in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia. To view a video including the entire interview and two others in this series, click here.


"This deeply moving memoir and absorbing social history takes Paul Gaston from an upbringing in a model utopian community in Alabama to a forty-year career as a model scholar-activist for several generations of students at the University of Virginia, marked throughout by his radical commitment to racial and economic equality and his lifelong hope in the possibility of a more humane South."

Matt Lassiter, Professor of History, University of Michigan

"Paul Gaston has given us two great gifts: a life well lived and a story powerfully told. Gaston has been a witness to, and a maker of, profound and humane Southern change. An enduring love of the South shines through in every act and in every sentence."

Edward Ayers, President, University of Richmond

"From a utopia to a university, from growing up to growing wise, from an idea to an ideal—Paul Gaston's compelling memoir of promoting racial justice in the South."

Julian Bond, Board Chairman, NAACP