In Counterfeit Gentlemen, John Mayfield explains how the stories told by southern male writers in the decades leading up to the Civil War provided a space in which definitions of manhood could vie for dominance. He explores southern male humor, which contained self-deprecating and ironic themes, to further understand male identity in the antebellum South. Mayfield argues that two manhoods existed within the antebellum South, one based on dominance with airs of gentility and another based on business and the market. Southern men used these competing definitions of manhood to gain power and legitimacy which were fundamentally based on a fiction, supported by circumstance and necessity, which created a "masquerade culture."
The humorous examples used within this book come from [End Page 400] novels, serials, and short stories written by southern men. Each chapter analyzes a particular author and his usage of humor "as part of a larger and sustained critique of Southern Culture" (p. xx). The authors examined came from the professional and business sector, not the planter class, with links to the North either through birth or education. Each writer claimed himself a self-made man with agency to act on his own and for society in general. They desired access to elite society, barred to them by planters. Mayfield portrays these men not as mindless jokesters but as "critical, thinking men." They evaluated the southern planter gentleman's value as a model for society using him as the brunt of the jokes within much of their prose. They recreated the gentlemen as domesticated, effeminate, and trapped by dependents with little access to true freedom. The southern planter gentleman, in the hands of these humorists, became a sham and a front to hide the true (feminine) nature of the planter class. The writers applied this humor against the gentleman to present alternative avenues to southern honor and become gentlemen themselves. They questioned what it fundamentally meant to be a southern man. Southern humorists believed that competition and success within business and industry qualified them for honor and manhood and by result, elite status. Yet, in spite of their best efforts, as the tensions over slavery rose: "The gentlemen's paternalistic benevolence and his domestic values of family and home-centered responsibility were far more effective apologies for slavery than the savvy negotiations of the businessman" (p. 105).
This book joins a historiography rich in both its quality and quantity, too long to fully discuss here. William R. Taylor's classic intellectual history of the South, Cavalier and Yankee (1961), examined the perceived and accepted identity of the antebellum South. Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor (1982) provided an intricate understanding of the rules and customs southern men followed in justifying their actions. Building further upon this theme, Ritchie Watson Jr.'s study, Yeoman versus Cavalier (1993), used literature as a way of examining the competing identities of southern men. Counterfeit [End Page 401] Gentleman adds to these works by providing a detailed account of how southern nonplanter men attempted to gain access to honor and become southern gentlemen through humor literature. Mayfield also provides an insight into southern class conflict but fails to truly reconcile these humorists with the larger rising middle class as discussed in Jonathan Daniel Wells's The Origins of the Southern Middle Class (2004).
With only 128 pages of text, Mayfield expertly balances a number of themes: honor, manhood, humor, and identity. He presents the material in a way that makes it obvious that he, as the historian, had a good time researching and writing this book, which provides the reader with a clear prose that makes unpacking the details of Mayfield's argument a pleasant and at times humorous adventure.
Jonathan B. Crider is a PhD student at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He studies southern editors' interaction in politics and recently published "De Bow's Revolution: The Memory of the American Revolution in the Politics of the Sectional Crisis, 1850-1861," American Nineteenth Century History...