The Legacy of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor
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16 Historically Speaking July/August 2008 How does one reconcile the evangelical culture emerging from the Second Great Awakening with the ideal of honor? And finally, does chronology and place matter in measuring ethics and behavior in the Old South? That is, as the frontier receded and places became more settled and tied into the market economy, did those ties of community and honor lose some of their force? What we do know is that Southern Honor has lost none of its force over a quarter century and continues to inspire historians of the South. Orville Vernon Burton is University Distinguished Teacher/Scholarandprofessor of history, African American studies, andsociology at the University of Illinois. His most recent book, The Age of Lincoln (Hill and Wang, 2007), was the recipient of the Chicago Tribune's 2007 HeartlandLiterary Awardfor nonfiction anda selectionfor Book of the Month Club, History Book Club, andMilitary Book Club. ' Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "WJ. Cash and Southern Culture," in Waller J. Fraser, Jr. and Winfred B. Moore, Jr., ed»., From the Old South to the New: Essays on the Traditional South (Greenwood Press, 1981), 195-214. 2 Bertram Wyatt-Brown, "The Ideal Typology and Antebellum Southern History: A Testing ofA New Approach," Sacíelas 5 (I97S): 1-29. ' Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners (Louisiana State University Press, 198S): 133. 4David M. Potter, "The Enigma ofthe South," Yale Review Sl (1961): 142-151. The Legacy of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor Kenneth S. Greenberg The best way to appreciate the brilliance and importance of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor is first to remember that most American historians who wrote about honor before 1982 labeled it as either "mythic belief" or "oddity and curiosity of a bygone age." In some ways these two approaches resembled each other more than they did Wyatt-Brown's framework, since neither drew on the insights and methods of anthropologists and neither understood honor as a complex set of values and behaviors woven deeply into the fabric of southern life. Mark Twain held the quintessential preWyatt -Brown view of southern honor. He blamed it on a "cult of chivalry" created by European writers like Sir Walter Scott. Thus, when Twain approached what he thought of as the bizarre looking capítol building at Baton Rouge, he wrote: Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible ... for it is not conceivable that this litde sham casde would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad . . . with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his book. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque 'chivalry' doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here. . . . But for the Sir Walter disease, the character of the Southerner . . . would be wholly modern. Many writers on southern honor before WyattBrown worked in this tradition and were completely unaware of much that now seems obvious. Harper's Magazine, October 19, 1881. Some suggested that climate turned Southerners from reality to romance. Others thought of Southerners as so tortured by shame and guilt that they turned to romantic views of the world in order to hide from the brutality and injustice that surrounded them. Still others ascribed the southern love of what they called the "romance of chivalry" to the need for an escape from the dull routines of rural life. One can see the same types of analyses in die way pre-Wyatt-Brown historians dealt with the institution of the duel. One introduced his study by noting it will be fidi of "thrills and foolishness." Among other things it included a catalogue of duels fought for "silly causes"—a fight over a goose, a disagreement over the size of landholdings, a game of cards. Most books on dueling before Wyatt-Brown had no analytic framework for discussing die duel other than as curiosity —and so they often took the form of grand compendia of one silly duel after another. One such compendium (with a focus that extended well beyond the American South) took the tide The Romance of Duelling in All Times and Countries. Another book included an entire chapter devoted to "unusual " duels. Here we learn about duels fought...


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