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Honor and Violence in the Old South [Abridged] [Paperback]

Bertram Wyatt-Brown
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 11, 1986 0195042425 978-0195042429
Hailed as a classic by reviewers and historians, Bertram Wyatt-Brown's Southern Honor now appears in abridged form under the title Honor and Violence in the Old South. Winner of a Phi Alpha Theta Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History, this is the first major reinterpretation of Southern life and custom since W.J. Cash's The Mind of the South. It explores the meaning and expression of the ancient code of honor as whites--both slaveholders and non-slaveholders--applied it to their lives.

Wyatt-Brown argues persuasively that Southern ethical habits and traditions are the basis of regional distinctiveness and helped to perpetuate and justify the South's most cherised peculiarity: the institution of slavery. Using both literature and anthropology in innovative ways, Wyatt-Brown shows how honor affected family loyalty and community defensiveness. He also explains why, though it preceded and outlasted the demise of slavery, honor thrived on race oppression and was manifested in such violent acts as rape, lynching, and slave discipline.

The work begins with a study of Hawthorne's famous story of a tar-and-feathering, "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," and ends with an authentic lynching, an absorbing and chilling example of a public shaming ritual. Between these studies of fictional and historical violence, Wyatt-Brown deals with such wide-ranging topics as childbearing, marital patterns, gentility, legal traditions, duelling, hospitality, slave discipline, lynch-law, and insurrectionary panic--all of which were matters that gave white Southerners a special sense of themselves.

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Editorial Reviews


"An abridgement of his Southern Honor and an articulate treatment of white culture in the Old South. Students find it interesting and provocative."--Daniel Kilbride, Hollins College

From the reviews of Southern Honor: "A work of enormous imagination and enterprise, one that has the audacity to see a vast realm of human experience through a single lens and the authority to make that view seem not merely plausible but incontrovertible...Wyatt-Brown has altered and deepened our understanding of the Southern past--and thus, inevitably, of the American past as well."--Washington Post Book World.

"A good short study. Will consider as recommended reading."--Harvey H. Jackson, Jacksonville State Univ.

"In this abridgement of his prize-winning Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, Wyatt-Brown masterfully dissects the complex social code that bound, and gave meaning to, the lives of white Southerners, rich as well as poor."--Wilson Quarterly

"One of the very best books about the South...A model of what scholarly writing can be: a rather bold thesis rigorously defended with logic and with innumerable supporting citations, each kept brief and deftly fitted into the overall design."--Philadelphia Inquirer

"An enormous academic accomplishment."--Harper's

"Southern Honor, a wide-ranging, innovative, and highly readable analysis of white social relations in the Old South, will make it impossible to ignore honor as a major ideology in southern history....It is a major contribution to our understanding of the ways southern women and men made their ethical choices in times and circumstances not always of their own choosing."--Journal of American History

"An original stimulus to interpretation and a treasury of important and fascinating information."--Journal of Southern History

"A most thorough-going examination of the code of honor of white Southern culture in pre-Civil War times."--Antioch Review

"An important, original book. Along with W.J. Cash's classic study 'The Mind of the South,' this is one of the few serious attempts to recreate the lost world of the South."--The New York Times Book Review

From the Back Cover

The first major reinterpretation of southern life and custom since W.J. Cash's 'The Mind Of The South', this work explore the meaning and expression of the ancient code of honor as whites-both slave holders and nonslaveholders-applied it to their lives.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (December 11, 1986)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195042425
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195042429
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 0.6 x 5.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #731,577 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inherent Violence in the Old South December 5, 2005
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Bertram Wyatt-Brown condensed and abridged his previous tome, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South into a more compact and less verbose study, Honor and Violence in the Old South. Wyatt-Brown's intention is to describe the culture of the pre-Civil War South, how it differed from Northern cultural values, and how such cultural differences were causative agents of the Civil War. Honor is a behavioral construct. It is best described in the negative; it comprises those activities that would prevent individuals, families, and communities from experiencing public humiliation. He also believes that violence is inherent in southern culture; in addition to the violence of slavery, was the violence of duels, gaming rituals, punishment for breaking codes of honor.

Wyatt-Brown is primarily concerned with honor amongst the high brow (or the formerly high brow) of the South. The peasant class may have agreed to codes of honor and participated in ritualized violence, but it was at the instigation of or manipulation by the wealthier members of communities. Rather than writing a narrative, Wyatt-Brown writes a series of essays dealing with specific aspects of honor or violence, such as gambling, sexual honor, family, and gentility.

He is especially concerned with ethics and morality that sets the South apart from the rest of the country. By perpetuating their differences, they felt psychologically alienated and therefore set themselves up for separating politically from the rest of the country. The Civil War therefore is more about honor and the shame and humiliation that would result from outsiders dictating ethics and morality upon their communities.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
If you have worked for a company based in the south vs one from the North, or if you grew up in the South, and work "up North" now, you will viscerally feel the legacy of the Southern honor system in your life.

I often wondered why I reacted so negatively to certain slights or offenses that did not seem to bother my peers. Conversely, I seemed waffle less on deciding the course of action needed for teaming or subcontracting arrangements. I thrive best in the presence of fast-moving small business owners ("my tribe"), and do much less well in matrixed corporate organizations.

Through the course of my career as a transplanted South Caroline low lander, I often saw patterns of strained behavior in my relationships with supervisors, that repeated themselves again and again. Which, of course, despite differences in corporate culture, really trace themselves back to me, and my internal value system.

Clearly I am a Southerner! The old adage of "don't bring shame to the family name" has been one I've used (somewhat facetiously) a lot. Reading this book brought to light analogies from the days of the Civil War that apply to today's dealing in the boardroom. A great and thought-provoking read. It allowed me to better understand "the other side".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book January 4, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
At first I thought this book might be too academic, but it's entirely accessible to a lay-reader and provides some excellent insights into a subject I have trouble understanding, namely, how a culture that values freedom could tolerate slavery. I recommend this book for everyone.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Relevant outside the South, too April 2, 2009
The antebellum honor system investigated by Bertram Wyatt-Brown still existed, vestigially, as recently as 40 or 50 years ago. Southerners grew up learning some of the attitudes of their ancestors, but only a rare few still took them seriously enough to act them out -- although those few made the news with gruesome crimes.

We in the newspaper business did not call them honor killings, though, because the essential factor no longer applied: The broad society didn't believe any more.

This is perhaps the most valuable insight in "Honor and Violence in the Old South," that "to make one's way . . . In the antebellum South, one had to adopt the principles held sacred by the community." In a shame culture, honor is ratified by public opinion. In a guilt culture, honorable feelings arise from feeling oneself guiltless.

In various retellings of prewar incidents, including a long chapter about a wife-killing in Mississippi in 1834, Wyatt-Brown shows how even leading figures who were disdainful of aspects of honor culture (dueling, for example) were forced to play along.

The relevance to 21st century situations, especially in southwest Asia, will be obvious.

Wyatt-Brown says "it was the threat of honor lost, no less than slavery, that led them to secession and war," a point I agree with insofar as it relates to my slave-owning ancestors. But it is harder to see how that explains why the small farmers of the South, who had neither slaves nor much honor, went off to war and fought to the last. Community feeling also was important

That said, everything Wyatt-Brown says about attitudes toward public honor matches exactly what I remember from my southern boyhood.

I cannot agree, however, that "the ethic of honor had Indo-European origins.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The process of dispensing honor American style November 1, 2010
updated 1/18/13

Although at the end of this book, "Honor and Violence in the Old South," by Bertram Wyatt-Brown, the reader will think that he knows exactly what honor is. Yet, when the dust finally settles, the truth is that he is left only with a wisp of an idea that honor is some mysterious human quality that lies on a plane outside morality and above human virtue. What exactly is the true nature of this mysterious quality called honor, really is never quite revealed in this treatise. It is only hinted at in multiple ways.

The process of dispensing honor American style

The basic moral theme of Anglo-American culture (at least from the discovery of the Americas up to the 1830s if we are to believe this author) was that of establishing a firm basis for the sovereignty of a primeval white tribal society. It was this sovereign race-based tribal community -- through the coercive dispensing and distribution of public honor and dishonor, via its own "primal code" -- that created and delimited the boundaries of what eventually evolved into the existing white community.

Long before there was a morally based religion, or law per se, there was "common" and "proto-law" based only on the sacred code of white tribal honor. It was this sacred tribal code that defined the rules of the societal game, the psychology and roles of individuals, and indeed defined everything that was meaningful to those within the culture. The "tribal code" was the highest cosmic law and was enforced by the coercive dispensing of honor (and dishonor) upon the subjects of the community. Even the Bible was made subordinate to the tribal code.
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Southern Honorby Bertram Wyatt-Brown

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