The Primal Code

Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

by Bertram Wyatt-Brown
Oxford University Press, 597 pp., $29.95

By viewing the past from the present, historians know full well (or they should) the risks they run of distorting the vision of what they describe. The greater the contrast between present and past, the greater the risks of distortion. The dangers are further intensified when the moral foundations of the present order rest, even remotely, on the ruins of the old order being described.

The modern American perspective on the pre-modern South is susceptible to all these fallacies. One reason is that the old order is a great deal more remote from the present culturally than it is temporally, even when we grant that some features of it extend into our own time. Another is the prominent place in the current American credo occupied by the dramatic legend of repudiation and destruction of the old order in the South. Given these conditions it is little wonder that paradox, irony, scorn, and the attribution of guilt have figured prominently in the modern picture of the pre-modern South. How could modern ethics otherwise view a vaunted “code of honor” that legitimized oppression, slavery, racism, violence, and all manner of practices now held abhorrent? Surely the Southern defenders of the code were inveterate liars or hopeless victims of self-delusion, just as the abolitionists said.

On the assumption that “we need a better strategy to reach the heart of the past,” Bertram Wyatt-Brown undertakes in Southern Honor the admittedly difficult task of attempting to divest himself of modernism in order to explore the Old South on its own terms. But his is not a sophisticated exercise in nostalgia or apologetics.

This historian enters the wilderness of the South’s past with the borrowed license of an anthropologist. His purpose is to understand and explain rather than to expose and deplore what he finds—be it cannibalism, incest, valor, parricide, heroism, human sacrifice, or whatever. He does not plunge through the wilderness intent on tracking a thesis or stalking a theme. Instead he settles in with the natives to share their loneliness and their obsessions, their convivialities and satisfactions, their alcoholic stupors, their fears, and their murderous rages—the grace along with the horror. National events, politics, wars, and foreign affairs are distant rumbles. Chronology figures little here, and so does the process of change. Famous public figures enter only to illustrate a point. Tidewater gentility remains remote. The peculiar institution and blacks are present but never the center of attention. This is white—largely plain-white—history. But through the daily lives of these people move the real game and object of the quest, a creature of archaic origins called “honor.”

Archaic it was, for it preceded slavery and long antedated settlement of the South itself. The primitive origins were pagan as well as Stoic-Christian (not readily distinguishable) and evolved through many forms. Not merely Janus-faced, “honor had always had many faces,” and most of them were brought along from the Old World to show how men and women should behave. References to the Germanic tribes of Tacitus…

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