New book by faculty emeritus Allen Paul Speer III shows how studying the past can be a guide for the future

Nobel Prize poet Czeslaw Milosz asks this interesting question: is it possible to know the true essence of our nature and who we are at the core of our being? Allen Paul Speer III, distinguished professor emeritus of humanities at Lees-McRae College referenced this question in his book, “Struck at the Crossroads in Boonville.” Speer taught at Lees-McRae for 34 years and specialized in intellectual history and history of political thought. In writing this book, he would learn even more history about his family and the societal scope of the country during that time. 

Speer wrote “Struck at the Crossroads in Boonville” in 2021. The book is a historical romance consisting of a series of love letters written by Speer’s great-grandparents, Aaron Smith Speer and Mattie Cleveland Thompson. The letters, which would have been written in the late 1890s, were discovered by Speer’s cousins Jim and Patty while they were cleaning out their attic. 

“It was a shock to find the letters,” Speer said. “No one knew they existed.”  

The focus of the book is the dialogue between Speer’s great-grandparents’ relationship and their everyday experiences in the town of Boonville. He includes images of the town that portray families, businesses, factories, and more. Speer takes the reader on a journey to show what life was like where his family lived and the challenges that came during this time, including the aftershocks of the Civil War, political battles between Democrats and Republicans, and social inequality.  

“The main idea that fascinated me with the book was how we go about defining our identity,” Speer stated.  

Speer wanted to see how different connections to people, places, and other agents of socialization inspire people to define themselves in a certain way. He wanted to use this book to not only highlight the relationship between his great-grandparents, but to also shed light on similarities between the nineteenth century and the present day. 

During the time period when the letters were written, people in Boonville and throughout the South were in conflict over political and social divides. The Civil War had just ended, but there was still a clear conflict between North and South and between Democrats and Republicans. According to Speer, “the South was called the ‘Solid South,” meaning the 16 Southern states made up a single solid voting bloc for nearly a century. Many Confederate veterans were Democrats, although this would eventually shift in years to come. Sides were chosen, and people fell to either the left or the right, just like in today’s time.  

“The polarization in the 1890s is similar to the divided loyalties in 2021 and just as devasting,” Speer writes. He believed that there were significant parallels between the political, social, and economic landscapes of the 1890s and the twenty-first century.  

“The concentration of the wealth was in the hands of the few during the 1890s, which was the Gilded Age, and you also have the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few right now, which is extreme inequality,” Speer said. 

Speer has observed that the country and the world continue to be fearful of change and unity, and the divisions that occur around race, class, status, and identity  still cause polarization today. When asked why this polarization continues more than a century later, Speer said, “I think people in power are afraid of losing status. I think they are afraid of losing control. I think they are afraid of minorities.”  

Speer eloquently uses this short book to highlight a romance between a couple while simultaneously describing the reality of the world around them. One of the main goals of the book was to highlight the special moments in Boonville between his great-grandparents. They often used the word “struck” in their letters to each other, which provided the inspiration for the title of the book.  

Speer was motivated to begin writing the book when he found himself with an abundance of free time during the pandemic. “I was bored to death,” Speer said. Transcribing his great-grandparents’ letters gave Speer something to do during the national quarantine, and writing this book allowed him and his current family to reflect and remember the lives of their ancestors.  

Knowing a little bit more about where you came from can inevitably spur one to get a better understanding of their identity. Speer is motivated to share this story with his future generations because he believes that “the only thing you really have in life is what you give away.” This mentality from Speer can be carried on and shared to others to dive deeper into the lineage of the ancestors that paved the way for them.  

Throughout the process of writing the book, Speer learned that the lives his great-grandparents lived through political divides, conflict, and war are not so different from today. He relied on his expert historical background to learn more about his family while also learning more about himself and the world around him and demonstrated how understanding the past is the ultimate guide to creating a better future. 

By Brian Sims ’22March 07, 2022