The Shaping of Southern Culture builds upon and extends significantly what the author achieved in Southern Honor , and those who learned from the earlier volume are not going to want to miss the many new intellectual ventures this book takes the reader through.
Among the twelve essays in this volume only five were previously published, one as early as , four in the s.
But this is much more than a collection of essays. It is a compilation of essays that emanate from common concerns and share common methodologies. The author has worked hard at smoothing out the seams between essays and inserting segues that help the reader move from one to the next. Not all, but most of the essays stand together like blocks of marble cut from the same quarry, veins of which can be seen running through several pieces in ways that reveal a single mind at work on a coherent project.
The twelve essays are organized in three parts: one that deals with race and politics, another with religion, and the third with war. Wyatt-Brown is concerned with showing how the ethic of honor undergirded those of white supremacy and Christianity and how these pillars of race and religion, in turn, became supportive to the cause of secession and the will to fight and sacrifice in war. The defense of slavery, he argues, was compelled by commitment to honor and duty and cannot be explained simply by material interests and racial imperatives.
It was the legacy of dishonor and humiliation that came with Confederate defeat, he further argues, that gave rise to the white racist rage that erupted in the s. Throughout these essays it is the honor ethos that gives meaning to the various facets of southern culture. The three essays in part one are all fine stand-alone pieces, but as a group they do not seem as coherent as those in the other two parts of the volume. The first revisits Stanley Elkins's treatment of the male slave experience and considers the relationship of enslavement to honor.
A second essay deals with the role of honor and the fear of enslavement in the rhetoric of the American Revolution. A third takes up Andrew Jackson's career as a case study in the relationship of honor to social and political hierarchy on the Tennessee frontier. The essays in part two all deal with religion, and they add an important dimension to the author's earlier interpretation of southern culture.
Here Wyatt-Brown seeks to show how central Christian religious thought and sentiment were to southern life, and he does so convincingly. For example, he contends in one essay that proslavery arguments drew heavily on biblical literalism, which, though influenced by secular, racial ideas, remained a matter of faith and God's will. The third part deals with war and contains five of the twelve essays, and these take up close to half of the text.
These are the essays I found to be the most impressive, thought provoking, and original. In the arena of military combat, of course, concepts of honor take on heightened importance, and Wyatt-Brown is absolutely masterful at relating war to the code of honor. His lead essay in this section takes up the secession movement as an emotional reaction of "uncontrollable outrage" to the effrontery of northern politicians, their domination of the national government, and the specter of humiliation from the necessity of "submission" to such people.
Secession became the only means of preserving honor and manly dignity. Slavery was the cornerstone of white supremacy and to threaten it was to threaten debasement of the white race. Northern abolitionists for their part considered the southern tendency to fuss over affairs of honor but another sign of aristocratic decadence, and more than one of them welcomed secession as a means of purging the Union of such depraved sentiment.
In opposition to southern notions of "honor, dread of shame, and demand for vindication," northern abolitionists stressed matters of "conscience, guilt, and righteousness" p. In this same essay Wyatt-Brown takes us through the familiar story of Preston Brooks's caning of Senator Charles Sumner which, in Bertram Wyatt-Brown's hands, becomes a parable of the larger conflict between the two ethics of honor versus righteousness.
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The next essay flows nicely into a discussion of the role of this sense of honor and hatred of the enemy in motivating the common soldiers who fought for the Confederacy and the consequent humiliation and anger that came with their defeat. Among the most impressive essays comes in chapter ten, "Death of a Nation," which describes that humiliation of the Confederates who returned home to a defeated land.
Many men feared rebuke from the women at home, who in Wyatt-Brown's view shared the same sense of disgrace, anger, and "emotional depletion" the men experienced.
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With former slaves and their Republican allies attempting to place bottom rails on top, the defeated whites could only see this as the ultimate attempt at humiliating and dishonoring them. They turned to terrorizing former slaves, to whipping and killing the race whose inferiority and control they had fought to maintain, all out of "remorse for their failure to win" that struggle.
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As they sought to restore honor by reasserting mastery over freedmen, white southerners would also attempt to bestow honor on the lost Confederate cause. In this essay and throughout the book, Bertram Wyatt-Brown shows his unparalleled skill as a historian of emotion.
Depression and despair, anger and humiliation, vindictiveness and righteousness are all emotional experiences that are not easy to document or even describe, and for that reason most historians prefer to stick with the more rational and understandable things they see driving history. To experience it I must look at myself through the eyes of whoever makes me feel ashamed. Dishonor was a mimetic construction, for it depended on the imitation of the other as the very precondition for selfhood. Southerners who wanted to avoid such dishonor often sought out an equally mimetic alternative.
They hoped that violence might deliver them from shame Desire, Violence, and Divinity in Modern Southern Fiction , The honor-shame paradigm and the violence that supported it was especially overt in the antebellum South, but it was equally present later on. The South was seen as maintaining honor, even in defeat, and willing to do what needed to be done to align their own sense of honor and worth with the success of the whole nation, particularly the military success. Rather than focus on another armed rebellion within the boarders of the US, southerners instead joined in American campaigns all over the world.
But the high regard in which many white southerners have been brought up to hold the Confederate dead, along with the other aspects of the religion of the Lost Cause, meant that segregationists found it possible to call:.
They hoped that a combination of honor and shame would galvanize white community consensus against integration and discipline southern whites with questionable allegiance to segregation. All of this raises the question of where the churches have been as all of this has been going on. Christians have been in the thick of it for good and ill. Often, unfortunately, for ill. If the mission of Christianity was to expose the culture of violence, southern Christianity failed because it was never sufficiently countercultural ….
One might see this as the result of the South being Christ-haunted , without really being Christ-transformed. One sign pointing up to a pine grove on the ridge read: St. If the negative aspects of the honor-shame paradigm are so present, explaining as they do, at least in part, the violence that has been representative of southern society , particularly in regard to race relations, are there any positives? Do we have any purchase from which to pull ourselves out of this spiritual malaise of constructed violence?
In order to do so in a helpful way though, there needs to be a road map. I believe our roadmap is the gospel itself, and the way it can speak to an honor-shame culture. I will do just that in my next post.
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