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FW: H-South Review: Gudmestad on Wyatt-Brown, _The Shaping of So uthern Culture_

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  • A.J. Wright
    This book may be of interest to some subscribers...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@uiuc.edu]
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 7, 2001
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      This book may be of interest to some subscribers...aj wright //
      ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-South Review Editor Ian Binnington [mailto:binningt@...]
      Sent: Tuesday, December 04, 2001 9:29 AM
      To: H-SOUTH@...
      Subject: H-South Review: Gudmestad on Wyatt-Brown, _The Shaping of
      Southern Culture_


      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-South@... (December, 2001)

      Bertram Wyatt-Brown. _The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and
      War, 1760s - 1880s_. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina
      Press, 2001. xix + 412 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $55.00
      (cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2596-4, $19.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8078-4912-X.

      Reviewed for H-South by Robert Gudmestad (rgudmest@...), Department
      of History, Southwest Baptist University

      Reckoning with Honor

      Bertram Wyatt-Brown is most closely associated with introducing and
      explaining the concept of honor to the current generation of scholars. In
      fact, as Wyatt-Brown notes in his latest work, _The Shaping of Southern
      Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s - 1880s_, there were few
      bibliographic entries for the subject when he first began to explore it in
      the late 1970s (p. 296). That situation changed following the publication
      of Wyatt-Brown's highly acclaimed _Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in
      the Old South_ in 1982. In many ways, _Shaping of Southern Culture_ is a
      continuation and refinement of Wyatt-Brown's earlier work. In twelve
      related essays, five of them published previously, the author looks closely
      at how honor shaped "the world of public performance" in "governance,
      religious leadership, and war" (p. xviii).

      The three essays that comprise the book's first section deal with how
      southern males displayed honor in social, institutional, and political
      settings. This section is the least cohesive of the three, and each essay
      will be considered separately. Wyatt-Brown reconsiders Stanley Elkins'
      thesis and concludes that slaves, like their owners, had a sense of honor
      that bounded their world. While he does not defend all of Elkins'
      conclusions, Wyatt-Brown points out that the analogy to a Nazi
      concentration camp has some usefulness in explaining the psychology of
      enslavement. The constant dehumanization, shaming, indifference, and
      neglect were common to both experiences. This continual degradation forced
      African-Americans to modify the concept of honor and choose between
      compliance and resentment. For those slaves who chose the former, they
      inhabited a world of "legalized anarchy" (p. 21). Those who chose the
      latter remained truer to their inviolable self.

      Slaves, of course, chose both on different occasions, as the example of
      Frederick Douglass indicates. At one point Wyatt-Brown points out that
      frequent beatings made Douglass often cower before white men. He could
      have also noted that Douglass also decided to resist Mr. Covey, the "nigger
      breaker." The incident revived Douglass' manhood and he vowed that "the
      white man who expected to succeed in whipping [me], must also succeed in
      killing me." [1] Wyatt-Brown's excellent discussion about the honor of
      slaves serves to illuminate the fact that the peculiar institution was
      lived out in individual ways. Slaves, although they shared the same
      general attitudes, applied honor in different ways in various situations.

      The second chapter of the book discusses how honor informed colonial
      decisions to rebel against England. Colonists decided to defend their
      character against real and imagined British challenges to
      honor. Wyatt-Brown describes how "anger, a sense of insult, and outrage
      against arbitrary and arrogant behavior" combined with republican ideals to
      fire a revolution (p. 53). This sense of honor permeated all of the
      colonies and it only later faded in the North. For this reason, the war
      for independence resonated longer in the South and explains why
      Confederates were so quick to draw comparisons between their cause and the
      American independence movement.

      Wyatt-Brown next moves to Andrew Jackson and the rituals of dueling. In
      this brilliant chapter he shows how politics, honor, and ambition combined
      to produce a fierce adherence to the code duello. These ideas explain why
      Jackson was so fantastically popular in the South. Old Hickory's famous
      duels "channeled his emotions in conventional, conservative rituals" that
      helped produce his popular acclaim (p. 74). Jackson becomes a means to
      understand why intense passions smoldered under the surface of the
      conservative and hierarchical South. When John Brown raided Harper's Ferry
      or Charles Sumner insulted Andrew Pickens Butler, southerners took such
      incidents as personal assaults on their honor. The ferocity of their
      response is explained, in part, through a dedication to their reputation.

      The book's middle section explores the intersection of honor and religion
      (or grace, as Wyatt-Brown uses the term) in southern society. It is here
      that Wyatt-Brown has most difficulty reconciling two seemingly
      contradictory ideologies. Honor demanded fidelity to an aggressive
      mentality while Christianity demanded meekness and the ability to turn the
      other cheek. Salvation, moreover, was open to all, no matter their
      position in the social order, so women and slaves were equal to white males
      in God's eyes. Wyatt-Brown argues that southerners essentially modified
      Christianity to fit the dictates of honor. At first they were able to
      harmonize grace and honor by stressing the need to control passions, but as
      the southern church grew in authority, southern clergymen were more likely
      to support the social order. An uneasy truce meant that Christ became "the
      Ruler of Honor, Pride, and Race" (p. 104). This reconciliation meant that
      southern intellectuals and clergy couched their defense of slavery in terms
      of Christian patriarchilism. Once they did so, it became much easier to
      southern Christians to accept secession because they were defending God's
      design for society.

      War and its aftermath is the subject of the third section of the
      book. Wyatt-Brown makes the salient point that slavery "came to symbolize
      all that was right or wrong about Southern race relations, culture,
      politics, and livelihood" (p. 177). The elaborate synthesis of grace and
      honor needed to be defended; it was the duty of southerners to preserve
      their honor in the face of northern challenges. Any northern action or
      statement that implied the moral inferiority of the South had to be
      answered. Since honor was virtually inseparable from white freedom and
      racism, that southerners resorted to violence in 1861 is
      understandable. Defense of slavery was tantamount to protection of family
      and community. For these reasons, southern soldiers were ideologically
      driven to preserve individual and collective honor. Wyatt-Brown explains
      that this ideology sustained the southern war effort. What is not so clear
      is how he would explain the huge numbers of deserters within the
      Confederate ranks. A recent study of the Stonewall Brigade - one of the
      South's fiercest fighting units - concludes that sixteen percent of the
      unit's soldiers were permanent deserters. That figure is higher than the
      brigade's casualty rate during the war. [2] It seems that the war
      challenged southern honor in a way that needs further explanation.

      The postwar years in the South were a time when southerners sought to
      restore the place of honor. While dueling became an anachronism, another
      type of violence was closely associated with the honor code. Lynchings
      were a tangible reaction to the reminders of defeat that were
      everywhere. African-Americans who walked the streets as free people,
      northerners who moved south, and the physical destruction of the land were
      all pungent examples of Confederate inadequacy. Such day-to-day
      experiences grated upon southern sensibilities and created a rage that
      propelled southerners to the extreme violence associated with the Ku Klux
      Klan. Wyatt-Brown poignantly captures the bitterness, anger, and despair
      in the South that expressed itself in mob violence against African
      Americans. Since honor was closely associated with white supremacy, the
      incredible number of lynchings in the South should come as no
      surprise. While Wyatt-Brown effectively captures the rage in the wake of
      the war, he might have done more to link the Lost Cause to a reassertion of
      Southern honor. Although he makes passing references to the rituals
      created by the Confederacy's adherents, it seems they expressed themselves
      in non-violent ways as well.

      Wyatt-Brown has done what most historians dream about doing: produce a
      graceful, thoughtful, and important book. His _Shaping of Southern
      Culture_ significantly contributes to our understanding of how honor
      animated behavior and helped create a southern ideology. The depiction of
      honor in the book is often unflattering. As Wyatt-Brown acknowledges,
      "Honor has caused more deaths than the plague" (p. 295). It is with this
      idea, one that is so great and terrible, that historians must reckon.

      Notes

      [1] Frederick Douglass, _Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an
      American Slave_, (New York: Anchor Books, 1989), p. 74.

      [2] Jeffrey D. Wert, _A Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the
      Stonewall Brigade, C.S.A., and the Iron Brigade, U.S.A._, (New York: Simon
      and Schuster, 1999), p. 314.

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