Southern Cultures 11.3 (2005) 109-110
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Over the last fifteen years, historians such as Eugene Genovese and Michael O'Brien have done much to recover the vibrancy of the Old South's intellectual life. This scholarly reappraisal has demolished the idea that slavery extinguished serious inquiry or discouraged critical thought below the Mason-Dixon Line. Historians generally agree that southern intellectuals participated in and contributed to important nineteenth-century debates regarding the meaning of progress in a world embracing free market capitalism and bourgeois liberalism. The broader influence of the South's intellectual class is difficult to gauge, however, because we know so little about how ordinary southerners, particularly students, responded to the region's leading minds. Robert F. Pace's Halls of Honor: College Men in the Old South is a highly descriptive account of student behavior during the antebellum period, written in the tradition of early social history. He covers a wide range of subjects related to student life, but this book is limited by its lack of the essential contextual analysis that would have enabled the author to explain how southern students made meaning of their lives as young men coming of age in a slave society.
Pace believes a decisive confrontation between honor and "natural adolescent development" energized and shaped student culture. It is true that the ethic of southern honor and the life cycle stage played a pivotal role in student development, but the author's framework seems too simple and his use of honor mechanical and deterministic. Throughout the text honor surfaces as the only motivator, an uncontrollable force that rendered students to behave like either prigs, pranksters, or violent thugs. Students, for example, were always on edge in the classroom, fearing that professors could expose them to public humiliation during recitation. In fact, Pace believes that shame was the "primary motivator" of [End Page 109] all teaching methods. While the author deserves a great deal of credit for capturing the tension that existed between teacher and pupil over the issue of honor, he ignores the intellectual discourse that flourished between professor and student. The content of the lectures and the substance of student papers and university literary magazines must be considered in order to appreciate how honor functioned within a broader set of ideals and aspirations that guided student behavior. No southerner, regardless of age, sought honor purely for the sake of honor. Community acclaim and public acceptance depended on a changing set of ideas about what it meant to be a man. Pace never tells us about the nature of those ideas. Moreover, his failure to connect honor and adolescence to contemporary intellectual debates about slavery, progress, individualism, and Christianity makes it difficult for the reader to see how southern students created their own cultural and political expressions.
If Pace had contextualized the place of honor within a Victorian code of manliness, he would have seen how southern men strove and often struggled to become Christian gentlemen. He does hint at this confrontation throughout the book. In his lively discussion of student entertainment and amusements, Pace gives many examples of drinking and tavern hopping among young men, but he also notes that in the 1850s many students formed temperance associations. Why some men gravitated toward reform associations and others did not is not addressed. Could not a desire for honor have compelled young people to reject the reckless behavior often associated with the "young bloods" of the South as a way to earn adult status in their own communities, while gaining reputation for their region as a place where morality prevailed?
The depiction of the difficulties that young men faced in trying to achieve adult status is the strongest section of Halls of Honor. These young men, facing an unpredictable future, were wrought with anxiety and desperate for their families and friends to see them as men. Pace, however, is reluctant to recognize the expressions of college...