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FW: Gudmestad on Wyatt-Brown, _The Shaping of Southern Culture_

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  • A.J. Wright
    fyi..this book may interest some subscribers...aj wright // ajwright@uab.edu ... From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@H-NET.MSU.EDU] Sent: Friday, December 28,
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      fyi..this book may interest some subscribers...aj wright // ajwright@...

      -----Original Message-----
      From: H-Net Reviews [mailto:books@...]
      Sent: Friday, December 28, 2001 11:00 AM
      To: H-REVIEW@...
      Subject: 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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