For two generations and more the Old South’s upper crust—call them planters, gentry, aristocracy, cavaliers, or simply the ruling class—along with their New South heirs have been rather an embarrassment to historians of the region. Before the 1930s, historians as a rule joined with novelists, poets, and movie makers in treating them with a respect bordering on reverence. Heroes of the Lost Cause shared those favors. W.J. Cash was perhaps the last Southern writer of influence who dared write such a line as “Softly, do you not hear behind that the gallop of Jeb Stuart’s cavalrymen?”
That was in 1941, and by that time historians had already begun their retreat from such rhetoric in the face of charges of romanticism, nostalgia, and myth-making. Besides, it could hardly be denied that the celebrated aristocracy had been slaveholders, fought a war against the Union to defend their property, and then joined the reactionaries to keep the emancipated from enjoying the rights won by the Union victory. How could a historian celebrate a class of this sort—and at a time when civil rights were becoming an issue, segregation was under attack, and reform was much in vogue? How could anyone defy all that to write with any sympathy about slave-holders and their posterity? Quite impossible.
Still, how was one to write about the South without including its most conspicuous and powerful class? A number of expedients appeared. One of them was to write about its opponents—the populists, for example, or the few Southern abolitionists, the numerous Southern wartime Unionists, and after that the occasional liberal or anti-segregationist. A Marxist such as Eugene Genovese could get by with books on slaveholders as critics of capitalism or as paternalistic toward their slaves. Biographers could even choose one of the plantation owners as a subject so long as he was rascal enough. With sufficient irony, even fuller accounts of the class proved acceptable. But on the whole it was safer to write about the planter’s victims—especially black people and women, white as well as black. To go beyond that was to court opprobrium from colleagues and critics.
It was not that these other subjects did not also deserve historical treatment. But what could be said of historians who slighted or ignored a ruling class because they did not approve of it or because it had fallen out of favor? Every society has a ruling class in which power is concentrated, and historians indifferent to power and the people who possess it risk losing their way, if not shirking their duty. But who would be bold enough to defy the taboo and face the consequences?
That Bertram Wyatt-Brown clearly has the strongest claim to have taken a different path and looked closely into the lives of the Southern gentry is evident in his impressive history of the Percy family under review. It was preceded in 1982 by Southern Honor which at first prompted questions about who could …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.