The books under review here concern the topic of manhood in the Old South. John Mayfield’s Counterfeit Gentlemen is a short though highly [End Page 664] sophisticated study of southern humor. Stephen Berry’s Princes of Cotton is a collection of four diaries written by young southern men who came of age in the period 1848–1860. Each author writes from the premise that while much of southern history has been written about men, we still know very little about how men thought about themselves as men. Mayfield’s book helps correct this problem by exploring how southern humorists wrote about manhood and even grappled with masculine ideals in their own lives. The four diaries that Berry has edited, annotated, and compiled in Princes of Cotton allow us to plumb the depths of men’s inner, emotional lives to understand better the everyday processes behind fashioning manly lives in the Old South.
Berry and Mayfield approach the study of southern manhood from a similar historiographical perspective and with similar goals for advancing the field. For the past three decades, honor and mastery have been the primary means by which historians have sought to understand southern men. This paradigm is a highly stable one in which southern men defined themselves by an ability to control others—children, wives, and slaves—which was codified at the bar and pulpit. Any claims that undermined the southern patriarch had to be settled within the community according to the rules of honor. However, by investigating cultural and literary sources—novels and diaries—Mayfield and Berry challenge the rigidity of this approach and provide much-needed access to men’s less-known inner lives.
In Counterfeit Gentlemen, Mayfield uses the fictional writings of southern humorists—principally John Pendleton Kennedy, Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Joseph Glover Baldwin, Johnson Jones Hooper, Henry Clay Lewis, George Washington Harris, and Thomas Bangs Thorpe—to understand “values and identity in the Old South” (xiii). Specifically, he asks how men defined themselves and what their definitions can tell us about being southern. Using history, masculinity studies, and literary criticism, Mayfield finds that manhood “was a matter of negotiation” between two competing masculinities (xv). One was the southern gentleman ideal, tied to traditional, premodern notions of honor and mastery; the other was the new American self-made man, tied to a competitive, market-oriented modern world. Thus, the “real spirit of Southern manhood,” explains Mayfield, was not a stable identity like patriarchy, where power and authority were constant, but instead was “confused, tentative, situational, self-fashioned, and always in search of the right prose or ‘presentment’”(xv). “Southern men, like their Northern counterparts,” he concludes, “felt overlapping pressures [End Page 665] to define themselves in more modern, progressive terms,” giving a certain “edginess” to southern manhood (xviii).
The humorists themselves lived on the margins of elite manhood and felt the pull of two Souths in their own lives. Some were northerners, some were middle class, and some were professionals; all of them observed class and manliness in conflict. This tension characterizes Augustus B. Longstreet’s Georgia Scenes (1834), the subject of perhaps the most compelling chapter in Counterfeit Gentlemen. A lawyer and shrewd businessman from Augusta, Georgia, Longstreet incorporated market competitiveness and southern theatrics into his story. Mayfield points out that all the characters in Georgia Scenes “do what market folk do”: They eliminate strict social hierarchies by bargaining and negotiating with one another. Yet all the characters are “acutely aware of appearances and of what [southern] masquerade culture demands of them” (29). If the southern man was defined by his social authority, he must have been laughably uncomfortable in Georgia Scenes.
Nowhere was the negotiability of southern manhood as palpable as it was in the southwestern frontier. Johnson Jones Hooper’s frontier, in particular, was a place where traditional values were most vulnerable to confidence...