Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics & Behavior in the Old South.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
In Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s comprehensive work, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, the author unravels the mystery of the white Southern man’s archaic code of honor and what role it played in both public and private affairs. This book expands the definition of honor, or rather how honor was perceived by the Old South. A Southerner’s thoughts and conduct was a regional code held sacrosanct by the white population. Wyatt-Brown suggests honor as having three basic components; an inner conviction of self-worth, the claim of that self-assessment before the public, and the assessment of the claim by the public. (p.14) Through this complex map of honor and the ethics pulled from it, which was “designed to prevent unjustified violence, unpredictability, and anarchy,” (p.61) Wyatt-Brown admits this can occasionally lead to that very thing.
The author’s parents were raised in the South but moved north to Pennsylvania where they raised their son. Wyatt-Brown chose to continue his higher education in Tennessee at the University of the South. Following a stint in the military, he received his second B.A. from King’s College at Cambridge University. Later he earned his Ph.D. in history at John Hopkins University while under the supervision of C. Vann Woodward, a noted historian of the South.
Wyatt-Brown traces the origin of Southern Honor to an old 1860’s volume entitled Scenes in the South by Colonel James R. Creecy in which Creecy describes mob justice. Unsatisfied with the court’s official ruling, the townspeople proceeded to beat, tar and feather the landowner who had murdered his wife and thus dealt with the guilty landowner themselves. Fulfilling what they considered their duty, honor was satisfied and the crowd dispersed. By the author’s admission, “my own background and interests helped me to perceive the incident as a cultural artifact, a pattern of crowd behavior with almost religious overtones,” (p. viii) and not simply a case of “frontier justice.”
In Southern Honor Wyatt-Brown dissects a short story published in 1832 by a New England explorer, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Similar to Creecy’s account of a town banding together to administer their own type of justice, so does Hawthorne’s sketch. Robin was the main character of the story who had journeyed far in search of his cousin. He was met with derision and scorn when he broached the topic of his whereabouts. Not long after he watched his cousin being brutally dragged through the streets by several townspeople applying their own justice to the man. He quickly realizes that to further his cause he must side with the majority against his cousin. Robin made a poor first impression but now that he has seen the error of his ways he will be more accepted. Wyatt-Brown references My Kinsman, Major Molineux often and implies, like Hawthorne, that “rich and poor, high and low, join together in the selection of a person to blame.” (p. 11)
It should be noted that the author, a trained historian, approaches this work on a more anthropological level. That is, his main body of focus is on the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of the Old South. Wyatt-Brown touches on several subjects including the relationship between parent and child; the role the patriarch played; gentility; a woman’s place; views on law, sexual misconduct, gambling, and combat.
Wyatt-Brown divides his book into three parts. The first section, “Origins and Definitions,” examines the highly involved roots of Southern honor. The author uses many writings, both literary and historical, to show the development of the South’s reliance on honor. Honor was not just about a person’s status or standing in the community, it also governed society. Honor rules made lives predictable, creating standards to live by. These varying standards “from primal valor to Christian graciousness, from bloody deed to right reason—provided a means to restrict human choices, to point a way out of chaos.” (p.114) Two different types of honor made up the South’s antebellum code of ethics. Primal honor, believed to be descended from Indo-European tribalism, is the first. This type of honor fell under the protector code of ethics, supporting the strong and masculine and as such, Southerners must stand against threats to their homes and identity. This type of honor was carried out by a man’s actions, thoughts, and physical prowess. Wyatt-Brown calls the second type of honor gentility.
Gentility involved Southerners attempting to master certain proprieties, especially of the English form, to increase their marks of status. This could range anywhere from a suitable accent to making sure your conversational gambits were appropriate. Unlike men from the north, Southerners considered too much learning to emasculate a man, which in turn left them behind the “quickly industrializing North.” (p.19) Wyatt-Brown felt the North flourished with such industry because it was settled more densely and with emigrants who came from more domesticated areas near London, unlike the settlers in the south that were much more agrarian in nature and more sparsely populated.
The second section of the book, “Family and Gender Behavior,” covers the day to day life of families. He evaluates family law, raising children and sibling rivalry, along with marriage. There was no more important unit in Southern life than that of family. The author noted significant differences between Southern and Northern practices of courtship, marriage, and child-rearing. Interestingly, Southern marriages had a higher rate of unions between first and second cousins. Northerners would mold their children through conscience bearing teachings while Southerners used shame tactics to ingrain in them the ideals of honor. Wyatt-Brown is very clear when he states that “white Southerners reared children to value honor as much as, if not more than, godly conscience.” Teens from the North experienced the passing phase into adulthood through “commercial or religious” venues, whereas Southern teenagers stepped much less light into the world by following their older, male contemporaries lead, by gambling, fighting, drinking and horse racing.
The final section, “Structures of Rivalry and Social Control,” focuses on the community standards, the limitations these had on individuals and their families, and how much latitude was given outside the norm. Though informal, these standards governed much of the behaviors and activities mentioned in section two, like gambling and combat as well as what the author considers the community will. “Lynch law, vigilantism, and charivaris were the ultimate expressions of community will,” (p. 402) and were explained as the ancient rituals that were a way of policing the slave society. According to the author, such violence, arrogance, and oppression subjugated all relationships. Whether it be a husband dominating his wife, parents over their children, rich over the poor, whites over the African Americans, and of course, masters over their slaves.
This punishing dedication to honor at all levels in the Southern society is what Wyatt-Brown said blanketed all thoughts when the issue of succession came up. The author believes that the South felt it was their very honor that was being called into question and not that of slavery. Wyatt-Brown concludes that the South did not feel a threat to their economic system but to their way of a decent life and this then, forced primal honor to the fore while gentility kept to the shadows; and so, the Southerners fought.
Wyatt-Brown’s study of honor was significant and forces the reader to acknowledge that the antebellum South certainly had a very unique code of ethics. The title, introduction, and entire first section of the book clearly states the author’s thesis centers on Southern honor and the characteristics of Southern life. The author believes this led to the divisions that eventually erupted into the Civil War. Wyatt-Brown seems to switch his focus for the second part of the book by scrutinizing family relationships, young males, courtship and marriage, male dominance and custom, and sexual misconduct. Though interesting and filled with well-researched material, it might have served well as a stand-alone piece allowing Wyatt-Brown’s true thesis more focus.
One might also have trouble with Wyatt-Brown’s explanation that slavery was only important to the South as an object of Southern honor. Considering that it is well documented that most white Americans during this time considered African Americans as inferior, and had they occupied the North in such vast numbers the Northern whites might have reacted similarly to their southern brethren. To a society that not only believed African Americans to be inferior, and that they were an absolute necessity to the region’s economic strength, it seems a bit of a stretch that Southerners imposed such violent punishment of the slaves for the sake of honor alone. This unquestionably strikes a parallel with the treatment of Native American Indians – considered little more than savage animals, the Native Americans were driven off their land or killed when their territory conflicted with the white man’s desire to settle larger and larger tracts of land. Does Wyatt-Brown also consider Americans’ treatment of the Native American people a matter of honor? It is largely acknowledged that it was done for nothing more than racial bigotry and greed. Avariciousness is known the world over, which brings about an argument that perhaps Wyatt- Brown used only stories that promoted his honor based theory. Indisputably, this book was masterfully sculpted to bring Southern honor to vivid life. If nothing else, this is an excellent book to bring about discussions and debates about the period.
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