Setting the Terms of the Debate
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14 Historically Speaking · July/August 2008 19th-century South (perhaps especially on its frontiers ) honor actually mattered more than it ever had before. For perhaps the first time in history, honor could potentially allow all free men in a complex and wealthy society to claim its peculiar forms of status and approval. Historians of gender, whether focused on women or men, have not taken a full account of the implications of Southern Honor's major thesis for the history of masculinity. The history of masculinity has an awkward relationship with the history of gender in general. In a 2004 article in Gender and History Toby Ditz criticizes the historiography of masculinity for focusing too much on relations among men at the expense of men's gendered power over women. Yet while much of Ditz's argument is compelling, she does not cite or mention the two most powerful cases for concentrating on how men use gender against each other: Richard Trexler's Sex and Power and, you guessed it, Southern Honor. A close reading of Southern Honor reveals that access to women was not the sole factor that shaped competitions for male power. The anthropological staple of distribution of women is indeed part of Wyatt-Brown's argument: planter men used relationships with each other to get wives. But they also made marriages to get closer to powerful men. And while white men sought to establish and demonstrate honor in their interactions with white women, as well as with African-American women and men, honor—and political power—was ultimately distributed only by their peers. Indeed, the argument for starting with men v. men in order to understand how masculinity shapes a particular history begins with these questions : Where is the power in society? And where is A close reading of Southern Honor reveals that access to women was not the sole factor that shaped competitions for male power. the main contest over it? This is the argument for studying the decision making of dictators, the racial attitudes of whites, the business practices of Microsoft. It is not the whole of history, but it does drive a huge proportion of historical change. Wyatt-Brown's emphasis on the gendered ways that white southern men related to each other accounts for the fact that so much of southern political and cultural history before the Civil War—if you read the newspapers, for instance, of any southern community—seems not to be a story of southern white men fighting against women, African Americans , or even Northerners (until the last decade). Instead, they are fighting each other. More than that, they are denying each odier's manhood, rhetorically feminizing and enslaving each other, blackening their respective names as it were, sometimes actually killing each other. They are battling before a community of their peers for honor, in short. And all of that relies on, and ultimately seeks to protect, slavery and male power. While some insist that histories of masculinity must always be a report on its foundation—the traffic in women, for instance—Wyatt-Brown's account of southern honor suggests something richer and more complex . It gives us a key to understanding the essential contest that structured the political and cultural histories of the South—not only the protection of slavery, but also the contest for manhood in a society structured by honor. Its implications are rich indeed, and we have only begun to scratch their surface. We need to think longer and harder about the arguments that Southern Honor makes and grapple with die ways in which it contradicts and undermines some of our existing paradigms of gender, political, and cultural history. After twenty-five years, we are only now able to sound the depths of this complex, suggestive, phenomenal book. Edward E. Baptist is associateprofessor of history at Cornell University and the author of Creating an Old South: Middle Florida's Plantation Frontier before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), which won the Florida Historical Society's Rembert Patrick Award for the Best Book in Florida History. Setting the Terms of the Debate Stephen Berry Let's face it: twenty-five years is a long time...


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