Bertram Wyatt-Brown, historian who illuminated ‘Southern honor,’ dies at 80

Courtesy of University of Florida - Bertram Wyatt-Brown, historian of the South and author of the influential "Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South" dies at 80.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, a leading historian whose influential book “Southern Honor” illuminated the ethics and fear of shame that defined the moral code of the old South, died Nov. 5 at his home in Baltimore. He was 80 and had pulmonary fibrosis.

His wife, Anne Wyatt-Brown, confirmed his death.

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.”

Bertram Brown III was born March 19, 1932, in Harrisburg, Pa. Both of his parents were from Alabama.

His father, an Episcopal bishop, received threats from Nazi sympathizers in Pennsylvania for preaching against the rise of Adolf Hitler before the United States entered World War II. He sought to protect his son’s identity by giving him the hyphenated last name of Wyatt-Brown.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown graduated from a boarding school in Hagerstown, Md., then received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 from Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee.

After two years in the Navy, he continued his studies in England at King’s College of the University of Cambridge. In Cambridge, he became friends with the poet Ted Hughes.

In February 1956, while distributing a publication containing some of Hughes’s poems, Dr. Wyatt-Brown ran into the writer Sylvia Plath, who was the roommate of his then-girlfriend. He invited her to a party that night and introduced her to Hughes.

The two were immediately attracted to each other and, in a famous moment in literary history, Plath bit Hughes on the cheek and drew blood. They were married within months and had two children. Plath committed suicide in 1963 at age 30.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown, meanwhile, completed a second bachelor’s degree, in history, at King’s College in 1957. He then entered graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, where studied with the pre-eminent historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward.

After receiving a Ph.D. in 1963, Dr. Wyatt-Brown taught at Colorado colleges before going to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland from 1966 to 1983.

He was on the faculty of the University of Florida from 1983 to 2004, received prestigious fellowships and was a visiting professor at several colleges, including the University of Richmond and the College of William & Mary. Since 2004, he had lived in Baltimore, where he was a visiting fellow in history at Johns Hopkins.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Anne Jewett Marbury of Baltimore; a daughter, Natalie Wyatt-Brown of St. Paul, Minn.; and two grandchildren. A daughter, Laura Wyatt-Brown, died in 1971 of a congenital disease.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown wrote or edited more than 10 books, including two studies of the Percy clan of Mississippi and Louisiana, the family of novelist Walker Percy. His wife said that “30 hours before he died” he completed final revisions on a new book, “A Warring Nation: Honor, Race, and Humiliation in America’s Wars,” to be published by the University of Virginia Press.

The concepts of honor and humiliation continued to fascinate Dr. Wyatt-Brown throughout his career. He revisited those themes in scholarly essays and books, including “Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners” (1985) and “The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s-1880s” (2001).

“The ethic of honor was designed to prevent unjustified violence, unpredictability, and anarchy,” Dr. Wyatt-Brown wrote in ”Southern Honor.” “Occasionally it led to that very nightmare.”