A Review of Frank and Kilbride’s “Southern Character: Essays in Honor of Bertram Wyatt-Brown” by James Hill Welborn, III

Southern Character: Essays in Honor of Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Edited by Lisa Tendrich Frank and Daniel Kilbride. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. Pp. vii, 301. $74.95, cloth.

Rarely does a bookImage’s title and cover so fully encompass what lies within than does that of Lisa T. Frank’s and Daniel Kilbride’s edited collection in honor of Bertram Wyatt-Brown. Donning a classic paper-cut profile on its cover, the fifteen essays within its pages pay homage to a stalwart of southern history by extending his scholarly focus on southern character and remembering his personal and professional embodiment of its most revered tenets. A compilation of essays by Wyatt-Brown’s former students and professional friends, this collection spans the spectrum of Wyatt-Brown’s scholarly interests and runs the gamut of southern historical chronology. Beginning with a professional biography and personal memoir of the honoree, then proceeding into various examinations of southern honor and grace, melancholy and dissent, these essays are a credit to their collective mentor and a significant contribution to historical conceptions of southern character across the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

The opening essay by close friend and equally revered southern historian Charles Joyner relates Wyatt-Brown’s personal and professional history, highlighting the diversity of interests and pioneering methods Wyatt-Brown employed to carve out his foundational niche in the profession. Giving due credit to Wyatt-Brown’s formidable Southern Honor, Joyner also praises the scholar’s work on the Tappan and Percy families, showing how Wyatt-Brown’s scholarly arc incorporated “Yankee” evangelical dissenters, honorable southern patriarchs, and literary southern paragons into a variegated portrait of a complex southern character. This opening salvo sets the tone for the collection of essays that follow, as they delve into specific and varied aspects of this southern character. Andrew Frank’s analysis of Muskogee identity formation and Christopher Morris’s examination of whiteness and identity in the personage of South Carolina Regulator Gideon Gibson document southern character at the fringe in the eighteenth century.

Essays by Christopher Olsen on honor, manhood, and politics in Mississippi and by Daniel Stowell on Abraham Lincoln’s evolving sense of southern honor show how political loyalties incorporated competing conceptions of honor into ever-evolving masculine identities that were rooted in specific regional contexts but linked across the sectional divide. Lisa T. Frank’s essay examines female honor and its pivotal role in shaping women’s response to William T. Sherman’s invasion of Georgia and South Carolina, as they consciously linked their own honor to that of their men and the broader Confederacy through the symbolism of the violated hearth and home.

Glen Crothers and Randall Stephens both investigate religious dissenters and their tumultuous existence within southern culture and tense relationship with southern identity. Crothers outlines the largely neglected story of Quakers in their antebellum attempt to reconcile competing northern and southern religious identities, linking their ultimate failure to do so with other religious sectional schisms of the era. Stephens focuses on an equally neglected religious group, the Wesleyan holiness evangelists, and their embattled relationship with the prevailing southern cultural tenets associated with slavery and patriarchy, and the perceived threat they posed to southern social stability before the Civil War.

Several essays pursue a transnational tack, including Daniel Kilbride’s look at northern and southern responses to the European revolutions of 1848, where he observes a striking similarity of reaction despite certain sectional divergence, especially with regard to the relationship between slave labor and free labor in preventing or promoting such social unrest. Stephanie Cole reveals how relationships between white women and both African American and Chinese men forced social elites to strictly define racial categories; these definitions were flatly rejected by these working class men and women who forged their own identities through their interaction.

Finally, several of the essays carry Wyatt-Brown’s scholarly perspectives into the twentieth century. Jeffrey Anderson illustrates the historical significance of voodoo as portrayed in the specific works by Zora Neale Hurston and Robert Tallant, showing that historical judgments concerning voodoo’s place within the southern cultural milieu has as much to do with identity formation as it does with the accuracy of the accounts related. Benjamin Houston’s essay on segregationist Donald Davidson engages in the intellectual history of a moderate segregationist, arguing that Davidson provides a link between white supremacy and the later rise of the conservative right. In direct relation, John Langdale’s essay on Mel Bradford explores the delicate line walked by southern neoconservatives in the 1980s. And essays by Andrew Moore on Southern Baptist and Catholic reactions to civil rights and abortion in the 1960s and 1970s, along with a collaborative essay by Chris Beckman, Steven Noll, and David Tegeder on the evolution of southern political responses to environmental protection initiatives in Florida, tackle recent social, cultural, and political issues prominent in the formation of southern identity and character at the end of the century.

Engaging several wide and disparate bodies of historical literature, ranging from eighteenth century ethnic identity formation to evolving nineteenth century gender and race constructions, from literary and intellectual trends to social and political issues of the twentieth century, these essays all clearly bear the mark of Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s illustrious career as a scholar and a mentor. Their diversity of interests demonstrates not only the influence of his work, but also that of his professional stewardship. In guiding subsequent generations of historians, he assured the perpetuation of the type of keen southern historical inquiry they embody. By all accounts presented here, both the field and its scholars rest on solid ground; and Bertram Wyatt-Brown, as a southern gentleman and scholar, deserves the esteemed honor these essays thus bestow.

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