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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 1-7

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Honor, Grace, And War (But Not Slavery?) In Southern Culture

J. William Harris

Bertram Wyatt-Brown. The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xix + 412 pp. Notes, appendix, and index. $55.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

The publication in 1982 of Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor: Ethics & Behavior in the Old South, was a landmark in the historiography of the U.S. South. In it, he took seriously a set of practices and beliefs that most historians of the antebellum South had either ignored completely or dismissed as little more than rhetorical flourish. Tracing its sources to folk practice deep in Indo-European history ("the ancient system for determining who belonged among the worthy and who did not") and drawing on the work of anthropologists, especially Julian Pitt-Rivers, Wyatt-Brown argued that a system of honor--in which outer reputation, more than inner conviction, determined most people's behavior--undergirded wide swaths of life in the Old South. 1 Honor, according to Wyatt-Brown, reinforced hierarchical conceptions of society and guided much public behavior. It assumed and required patriarchal rule within the family and a corresponding deference among women, as well as fierce family loyalty and resentment of all insult. The ethic and practices of honor were reflected in the legal system and, more importantly, in folkways that encompassed rituals of violence and shaming: charivari, dueling, and lynch law among them.

Wyatt-Brown made his case mainly not with a systematic or theoretical treatment of honor, either as concept or as practice, but rather with a linked set of essays, presented as a series of examples--some brief, some taking up entire chapters--interspersed with his own commentary. While anthropological theory informed the analysis from beginning to end, he was more likely to cite literary sources than social scientific ones, beginning with an opening chapter based on his reading of a Hawthorne short story, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux."

Southern Honor has been justly celebrated for opening up new avenues for understanding southern society and culture. Others have pursued the subject in books and essays on honor and its codes in the South and elsewhere. 2 As Wyatt-Brown himself notes, many of the concerns raised in Southern Honor [End Page 1] have been pursued by others under the heading of gender studies, focusing especially on the social construction and operation of masculinity and femininity. Wyatt-Brown rightly insists, however, that the study of honor, while related to the study of gender, deserves separate enquiry.

As most good books do, Southern Honor raised at least as many questions as it answered. One large issue concerns the specificity of the honor codes he identifies as "southern." When Wyatt-Brown writes of "primal" honor, with his sources ranging from Hawthorne to ancient Greeks, from the Bible to Thomas Malory, from ancient Germanic to contemporary Bedouin tribes, "honor" seems to operate as a kind of universal human category of social organization, much like "status" or "class." This is the sense intended by Orlando Patterson, in Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (1982), when he argued that slavery everywhere is most fundamentally based on the denial of honor, or by Georg Simmel, who wrote of an "ideal sphere" of honor that surrounds every individual and that is protected (or not, as the case may be) by systems of etiquette. 3 Wyatt-Brown, though, wants to identify a peculiarly "southern" honor, one that can be traced back to specific sources and distinguishes southern culture from a generic American or northern culture. Thus, Wyatt-Brown makes a good deal of the claims for Celtic influences on southern culture, suggesting that honor codes deriving from Celtic pastoral peoples helped to set the South apart from other regions. Yet, he also tells us that many Scots-Irish abandoned their old ways under English influence and that Louisiana Creoles, derived from French peasant stock, shared these Celtic family values. Moreover, some of his...


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