There’s little doubt the 1960s and 1970s were among the most tumultuous decades in United States history. Depending on where you lived at the time, your views of what was going on are different. Thomas Nelson history professor Zach Lechner explores those differing views in his book, “The South of the Mind: American Imaginings of White Southernness,1960-1980."
While Lechner's book, due out on Sept. 15, explores what was going on in the South in that 20-year period, it’s not a history book. It discovers “less the reality of the South and more of people’s perception about it,” he said. “Perception is just as important as reality (because) the perception becomes the reality if it comes to dominate how people respond to something.”
Lechner, who joined the Thomas Nelson's faculty in fall 2016, has been working on the book, or some version or revision of it, for several years.
“It started as a dissertation in graduate school so I actually started working on it when I was working on my MA at Purdue,” he said. “Then it was my Ph.D. dissertation at Temple.”
A Missouri native, Lechner has varied interests: from the Civil War to modern America to the South. He also enjoys music, particularly British and American rock and roll from the 1960s and early ’70s. But this book, his first, has a chapter on The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“That music is always talking about the South, talking about where it comes from,” Lechner said.
Combing history and music was a labor of love for Lechner, but working on the book also proved to be a learning experience.
“I really like a lot of the music that I talk about in the book,” he said. “I definitely got a better appreciation for Southern rock music, like the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd, which before I did the research for the book, I did not know much about. But it definitely gave me a great appreciation.”
The book, 166 pages and published by the University of Georgia Press, was initially going to cover 1960-76. The epilogue takes readers up to 1980, which Lechner said makes more sense.
“The 20-year period is clean,” he said. “During the turmoil of the ’60s and then the fallout from the ’60s in the ’70s, I think the white South is invoked repeatedly by Americans to allay their concerns of their anxieties about the dizzying changes that are going on around them.”
Dr. Patrick Tompkins, dean of Communications, Humanities and Social Science, said Lechner is “a really good writer."
“His book brings history together from a variety of standpoints. So there is cultural history, there is social history going on in there,” said Tompkins, who has been named provost of Thomas Nelson’s Historic Triangle campus in Williamsburg and will assume the role in late September.
Tompkins said having one of its professors publish a book has great benefits for the College.
“It gives that faculty member credibility, and it excites students because history becomes a little bit more real to them,” he said. “They will go home and they will say, ‘My teacher just published a book.’ And they like telling their parents and people in their lives that because it gives them credibility for their education.”
Lechner already is thinking about his second book, which would be an extension of this one.
“It would look at Jimmy Carter as both a politician who embodies the spirit of the 1970s, but also someone who, more so than I think he’s been given credit for, was a consequential figure,” he said.