For most of his scholarly career, Dr. Wyatt-Brown sought to understand the pre-Civil War South and the social mores of its white citizens. His 1982 book, “Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South,” focused on the idea of personal honor as a primary force underlying — and undermining — Southern life.
The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award and was praised for its originality and psychological insight. It is taught widely in college courses and has inspired later scholars.
“Bertram Wyatt-Brown was one of the boldest and most original historians of the slave South,” Edward L. Ayers, a historian and the president of the University of Richmond, wrote in an e-mail. “His book on Southern honor described the bloody and showy logic that drove that tortured society, shaping a generation of scholarship.”
Dr. Wyatt-Brown began his celebrated book after stumbling upon a 19th-century murder case in Mississippi. Digging through the musty basement of a courthouse in Natchez, Miss., he found records of the 1834 trial of James Foster, who was acquitted of killing his wife after he suspected her of having an affair.
Outraged by the court’s decision, the townspeople took justice into their own hands. They gave Foster 150 lashes on his back, then tarred and feathered him and paraded him through the streets.
Dr. Wyatt-Brown recounted the episode in his book and went on to describe a society in which “the rule of honor” affected every aspect of Southern life, including child-rearing, dueling, social rank and the subjugation of slaves.
“Honor in the Old South applied to all white classes, though with manifestations appropriate to each ranking,” he wrote in the book. “Few could escape it altogether.”
A culture of self-reliance, rugged manhood and patriarchy developed throughout the agrarian South, creating a society vastly different from the more urban and diverse North. The idea of saving face became paramount. Social prestige was passed from one generation to the next through public perceptions more than private deeds.
It wasn’t enough to practice virtue, Dr. Wyatt-Brown noted. The higher value was to be regarded as virtuous by others.
“Since honor gave meaning to lives,” he wrote, “it existed not as a myth but as a vital code.”
By peeling away the myths of gallantry and crinoline, Dr. Wyatt-Brown revealed a society susceptible to hypocrisy, cruelty and a stubborn resistance to change.
“Nowhere is there a more devastating debunking of the myth of Ol’ Dixie as peaceable kingdom than the one presented here by Wyatt-Brown,” book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in his review of “Southern Honor” in The Washington Post, “and it is all the more devastating because his overriding intention is to be fair.”