THIS MASSIVE STUDY will be of principal interest to students of the American South and its complex, frequently bizarre history, but it will be a great shame if it becomes the sole property of the specialists. Southern Honor is a work of enormous imagination and enterprise, one that has the audacity to see a vast realm of human experience through a single lens and the authority to make that view seem not merely plausible but incontrovertible. Its central argument is that for its white inhabitants the "old" South was governed by an obsession with the abstract concept of "honor"; it gives concrete weight to that abstraction by grounding it firmly in the ethics and behavior of the period.

There is nothing new, of course, about the association between the old South and "honor." Sentimental novels and films are filled with references to the "sacred honor" of their characters and the region they inhabit; as young Dabney rides into the distance, his weeping Evangeline left behind on the veranda of the big house, it's her "honor" and Ol' Dixie's that he's off to defend. But what exactly is "honor" as Southerners understood and attempted to practice it? Was it merely an elaborate smokescreen designed to distract attention from the region's transgressions, chief among them slavery, or was it a system of social and moral control?

Wyatt-Brown believes it was the latter, and the case he makes for that contention is utterly convincing. To begin with, he argues that the South was under the thumb of an essentially primitive fear of community opinion: "Honor, not conscience, shame, not guilt, were the psychological underpinnings of Southern culture." Although Wyatt-Brown does not employ the term, the South was "other-directed" as defined by David Riesman; as Wyatt-Brown puts it, "The internal man and the external realities of his existence are united in such a way that he knows no other good or evil except that which the collective group designates. He reflects society as society reflects him." What he and society both seek is honor:

"Honor is first the inner conviction of self-worth. Seemingly, that sense of personal completeness would comply with modern notions of individuality: all men are created equal. . . . But he is not yet modern man, who is fully equipped with independent judgment, ready to experiment, reform, innovate. (So at least we like to imagine modern attributes.) The second aspect of honor is the claim of that self-assessment before the public. . . . The third element is the assessment of the claim by the public, a judgment based upon the behavior of the claimant. In other words, honor is reputation."

It is Wyatt-Brown's conviction that "the determination of men to have power, prestige and self-esteem and to immortalize these acquisitions through their progeny was the key to the South's development." The emphasis must be on men, for the social hierarchy of the "pre-modern" South was rigidly, fanatically patriarchal. In substantial measure, the Southern male's code of honor was what we now define and/or dismiss as "machismo": a heavy emphasis on "personal bravery," an obsession with family reputation and a zeal to defend it with violence if necessary, an overblown fantasy of female virtue, a zeal for bonds whether of blood or of oath. These "primal" concepts of male honor were somewhat tempered by the "sociability, learning and piety" that characterized Southern pretensions of "gentility," but they were the essential ingredients of a code of behavior:

"Honor, for all its variations -- from primal valor to Christian graciousness, from bloody deed to 'right reason' -- provided a means to restrict human choices, to point a way out of chaos. Thus it helped Southern whites to make life somewhat more predictable than it would have been otherwise. It established signposts of appropriate conduct. It staved off the danger of self-love and vainglory and in the circles of the genteel, it elevated moderation and learnedness to virtues of self-disciplined community service. Since honor gave meaning to lives, it existed not as a myth but as a vital code."

But though Wyatt-Brown justifiably asserts that honor cannot be speedily dismissed as a wholly negative influence upon Southern life, the evidence that he so brilliantly sets forth makes plain that its beneficial aspects were singularly slight. His subtle, meticulous depiction of the lives of Southern males from boyhood to young adulthood is especially revealing. Raised as boys with the expectation that they would demonstrate virility, and given ample license to do so in violence, defiance of authority and general excess, they came to maturity filled with inflated self-importance yet, in actuality, fated for narrow lives in a constricted world: "The slave economy, traditional values and the intrusions of family all conspired to leave the ordinary youth with a single alternative: farm . . . or starve." Wyatt-Brown discerns a "layer of unrecognized self-hatred . . . in the failed sons of the plantation South," and a similar undercurrent of virulent hostility in the relations between the sexes:

"The encounter of antebellum Southern male and female was intense, competitive and almost antagonistic. Intense, because all exchanges were, in a society that placed so much value upon personal contact and close relationships. Competitive, since independence was a social goal that women, despite the contrary requirement of subordination, shared with men. The struggle, however, had to be subterranean and devious, for men alone were given the privilege of expressing their feelings openly. Antagonisms grew out of the conflict, but also out of the misogyny that arose from male fear of female power."

Wyatt-Brown is not engaging in currently fashionable feminist rhetoric; here as elsewhere, he refuses to judge the South of the 18th and 19th centuries by the moral and social standards of the 20th. Although he mentions occasional instances of "bravery in women," his fundamental view is that women were oppressed and, more to the point, that they acquiesced in their oppression. They were expected to defer to their husbands and to their standards of honor; if that deference was sometimes feigned, as the deference of slave to master or yeoman to planter might also be, it nonetheless existed and had an immeasureable effect on the texture of private and public life. All bowed before the Southern male and his quest for "power, honor and respect."

As Wyatt-Brown portrays it, the life of the old South was dreary and joyless, with dominant characteristics that he lists as "the lack of privacy, the hostility toward those who wished to be alone to read or think, the overabundance of alcohol to nurse self-pitying male egos, the scarcity of lending libraries, books and literary societies, the low state of education, the distances between people of similar intellectual interests, the temptations of hunting, fishing and just aimless wandering in search of company." Nowhere is there a more devastating debunking of the myth of Ol' Dixie as peaceable kingdom than the one presented here by Wyatt-Brown, and it is all the more devastating because his overriding intention is to be fair.

In his concluding chapters, Wyatt-Brown presents a characteristically careful analysis of how the "tyranny of the community" was manifested in "legal and extralegal" means by which "white masculine values" were enforced. Employing a number of case studies, he examines the imposition of community values through popular justice and concludes: "Common law and lynch law were ethically compatible. The first enabled the legal profession to represent traditional order, and the second conferred upon ordinary men the prerogative of ensuring that community values held ultimate sovereignty. The consequence was a fragile social equilibrium."

Although a certain patience with the behavioral and psychological sciences is helpful to a reading of this and other arguments advanced in Southern Honor, it is not absolutely necessary. Wyatt-Brown permits himself some forays into the labyrinthine passages of the Southern psyche, but his principal instrument is historical evidence rather than psychological speculation. His publisher has compared Southern Honor to W.J. Cash's magisterial The Mind of the South, and the comparison is apt. Employing a beautifully woven fabric of traditional story-telling and contemporary social science, Bertram Wyatt-Brown has altered and deepened our understanding of the Southern past -- and thus, inevitably, of the American past as well.