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Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the…

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982)

by Bertram Wyatt-Brown

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Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South explores Southerners’ understandings of honor and how that affected their lives and society. The book speaks to cultural history and draws upon the work of anthropologists such as Julian Pitt-Rivers and sociological studies, particularly the theories of Emile Durkheim.
Wyatt-Brown argues, “Honor served all members of society in a world of chronic mistrust, particularly so at times of crises, great or small” (pg. xxxv). Wyatt-Brown organizes his monograph and Southern society into three overarching topics: origins and definitions of honor, family and gender behavior, and structures of rivalry and social control. His focus on the origins of honor reaches back to ancient Rome and Germanic tribes as well as English and Celtic traditions. Discussing the fundamental role of honor, Wyatt-Brown writes, “At the heart of honor…lies the evaluation of the public” (pg. 14). He identifies three essential components to honor in the form of self-worth, public vindication of that worth, and reputation (pg. 14). These concepts drive his argument as he moves through each section in his monograph.
In his discussion of gender, Wyatt-Brown links honor directly to patriarchy. The family served as a physical manifestation in the world. Wyatt-Brown writes, “Reverence for parents was a classless ideal. Few questioned the right of fathers to demand instant, outward deference” (pg. 147). Society at large, and politics specifically, replicated this system. Wyatt-Brown writes, “The occupation of politics had a familial, closed character no less than banking. A young aspirant for office almost had to have a large and strategically placed set of kinfolks” (pg. 184). This section primarily serves to set up his final chapter, about the Foster family in Natchez, Mississippi, in which a man killed his wife. Wyatt-Brown would have benefitted from advancing this case study in his monograph and investigating issues as they arose. This may also have saved him from his overuse of Freud’s theories, which no longer work in psychology.
Finally, dueling plays a key role in Wyatt-Brown’s discussion of public honor. He writes that dueling “was alleged to be a defense of personal honor. Actually, that honor was little more than the reflection of what the community judged a man to be” (pg. 350). Wyatt-Brown works to counter the misconception of the duel as a breach in social etiquette, continuously returning to the rules and structure of the event. Unlike a feud, which may ravage a community, Wyatt-Brown writes, “duels…provided structure and ritual” (pg. 352). They also circumscribed social ranks and reinforced the hierarchy of the South, further affirming Wyatt-Brown’s claim that honor was a public system.
Wyatt-Brown draws upon Carroll Smith-Rosenberg and Mary Beth Norton for his discussion of gender. When discussing slavery, he makes extensive use of Eugene Genovese and often interprets chattel slavery through the lens of paternalism, especially in his explanation of slaves as an extension of the master’s family. Wyatt-Brown’s discussion of dueling draws upon Dickson D. Bruce’s 1979 monograph Violence and culture in the Antebellum South. ( )
  DarthDeverell | Nov 2, 2016 |
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Dedicated to Natalie Wyatt-Brown and in Memory of Laura Wyatt-Brown
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Paradox, irony, and guilt have been three current words used by historians to describe white Southern life before the Civil War.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195033108, Paperback)

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, hailed in The Washington Post as "a work of enormous imagination and enterprise" and in The New York Times as "an important, original book," Southern Honor revolutionized our understanding of the antebellum South, revealing how Southern men adopted an ancient honor code that shaped their society from top to bottom.
Using legal documents, letters, diaries, and newspaper columns, Wyatt-Brown offers fascinating examples to illuminate the dynamics of Southern life throughout the antebellum period. He describes how Southern whites, living chiefly in small, rural, agrarian surroundings, in which everyone knew everyone else, established the local hierarchy of kinfolk and neighbors according to their individual and familial reputation. By claiming honor and dreading shame, they controlled their slaves, ruled their households, established the social rankings of themselves, kinfolk, and neighbors, and responded ferociously against perceived threats. The shamed and shameless sometimes suffered grievously for defying community norms. Wyatt-Brown further explains how a Southern elite refined the ethic. Learning, gentlemanly behavior, and deliberate rather than reckless resort to arms softened the cruder form, which the author calls "primal honor." In either case, honor required men to demonstrate their prowess and engage in fierce defense of individual, family, community, and regional reputation by duel, physical encounter, or war. Subordination of African-Americans was uppermost in this Southern ethic. Any threat, whether from the slaves themselves or from outside agitation, had to be met forcefully. Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, but, according to Wyatt-Brown, honor pulled the trigger. Featuring a new introduction by the author, this anniversary edition of a classic work offers readers a compelling view of Southern culture before the Civil War.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:00 -0400)

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