U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Michael O’Brien, and Southern Distinctiveness

The following guest post is by Randall Stephens, who teaches at Northumbria University, Newcastle Upon Tyne. It is based on the paper Randall gave at the Southern Intellectual History Circle, which was held last month in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown was an eight-year-old exile.  The future southern historian’s parents sent him far away from their home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Sewanee, Tennessee, in 1940.  There he would live with his grandmother and attend school. Confused by the alien environment and painfully aware of being an outsider, he brooded over his misfortune. He would not, in fact, come to know why he had been sent away until 55 years later. In the mid-1990s his older sister, Laura, informed him that his parents had made the difficult decision because of his father’s vocal support of US intervention in Europe. His parents worried that the anonymous threats they were receiving from Nazi sympathizers in Pennsylvania would go beyond hateful missives and frightening telephone calls. To the horror of the family there was even a threat of kidnapping. The threat may or may not have been all that serious. yet the family didn’t want to take a chance. So with the horrifying Lindbergh case still fresh in the public’s mind, young Bert was packed off to Sewanee. The family went even a step further then shuttling Bert off.  “To escape the truculent phone calls, father reached” a firm conclusion, wrote Bert, looking back decades later. “He would change his patronym, at least enough so that those familiar with Bishop Brown would have difficulty locating him and his family.” [1] 

Bert’s resulting change of fortune and the shocks of his new southern home would undoubtedly play an important role in what he would write about and the themes that would animate his work. He looked back on all of it from the vantage of the late 1990s. The “early experience of being an immigrant from another region infused my understanding of the South,” he reminisced. “Without that sojourn in Sewanee, I could’ve composed neither Southern Honor nor The House of Percy. In fact, Southern Honor was very consciously derived from the perspective that those years had engendered.” The Confederate nostalgia and romance of the cavalier made a deep impression upon him even at a young age. [2] I mostly recall Bert speaking fondly, or with a dose of humor about his days at Sewanee.  Yet that may have masked the pain of exile and the difficulty of adjustment to the new setting. Bert’s amiable and cheerful demeanor, his hearty laugh and his humor belied a darker sensibility.  “For me it was indeed a sharp break from the continuity of Yankeedom that I had up to then experienced,” Bert recalled in 2003. In fact, he figured, his books “many years later had something to do with early and not altogether positive reactions to the new locale.”  He elaborated: “Sewanee was steeped in Episcopalian ritual, Confederate nostalgia, and the seemingly everlasting conventions of Jim Crow and white supremacy throughout the forties and mid-fifties.” [3]

From his first encounter with Sewanee and its environs until Bert emerged from Johns Hopkins a licensed southern historian, he developed some basic ideas about the South that would inform his mature work.  A collection of key themes drove his research and writing from the publication of his first book on a renowned abolitionist—Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War Against Slavery (1969)—to the project he worked on in 2012 and his wife Anne saw to completion after his death—A Warring Nation: Honor, Race, and Humiliation in America and Abroad (UVA Press, 2014).  His research and writing in the early 1980s—picking apart the roots of the South’s martial tradition, its blood sports, and its musky chauvinism—laid the ground work for masculinity studies.  Bert also zeroed in on the tragic and gothic South, as well as a host of men and women, gnarled by death, humiliation, loss, and anxieties.  His books are populated by the chronically depressed, and by tortured writers on the brink of suicide, or novelist who were as much at war with the self as the region they called home.  A scan of the index to Southern Honor reveals something about this cast of characters.  One finds numerous entries for suicide, murder, rape, incest, duals, eye gouging, bear-bating, lynching, and the like.

Bert the historian, in some ways quite unlike his Johns Hopkins mentor C. Vann Woodward, examined the continuity and uniqueness of the region.  He may not have proposed a full blown southern exceptionalism, but perhaps something like it.  Reviewing Southern Honor in the NYRB in 1982 Woodward wrote: “If history is the study of how societies change, this impressive work may well belong in some other category, perhaps some hitherto neglected branch of anthropology. . . .”  Woodward, though, went on to caution that “if historians, because of the moral assumptions of their own culture, ignore or dismiss the realities of an older culture that shaped and determined the behavior of its members from infancy to death and for which they proved willing to die, then the historians are overlooking something that profoundly affected history whether it be properly called history itself or not.” [4] Of course, Bert admitted that his focus on the continuities and distinctiveness of southern history was drawn from his personal experiences, but it was not merely autobiographical.  It described the stark, often grim realities of the Old South, committed as it was to slavery and patriarchy.  In a 2003 edited volume on Woodward’s Origins of the New South, Wyatt-Brown commented on how he and his PhD mentor shared some basic assumptions about the region, though their views about continuity/discontinuity were quite different.  Bert contrasted his own perspective with that of Yale historian Glenda Gilmore, whose “southern experience has apparently taught her the relevance of unexpected transformations.” Putting down roots in Sewanee at a tender age, said Bert, “I was more struck by what seemed the timelessness of southern life than [Gilmore].” [5]

Michael O’Brien, to say the least, had a rather different take on the region.  Surely, when it came to writing about and analyzing southern culture, Michael and Bert were often at opposite poles. They not only differed markedly in their views of the South.  They were also personally, to anyone with eyes to see or ears to hear, quite unlike each other.  I’ll never forget one humorous exchange between the two of them, fraught with tension as it was.  I was a lowly graduate student, tasked with helping Bert organize panels for the SIHC meeting at the University of Richmond in 2002.  It was a large, some said unwieldy, event: The Douglas Southall Freeman and Southern Intellectual History Circle Conference.  One of the panels on the Irish in the South was short a member or two.  Bert fired off an email to Michael asking if he would join the panel.  Perturbed, Michael emailed back something to the effect of: “Just because my surname is ‘O’Brien’ does not mean that I do Irish history.”  Bert was surprised that he took offense at all.  The episode fit a pattern, one that O’Brien commented on in 2013:

Bertram Wyatt–Brown, whom I had begun to know in about 1984, who was working ingeniously at the intersection of intellectual, social, and literary history—“ingeniously” is a polite way of saying that I thought he was mostly talking nonsense—and with whom I had exchanged letters, mostly letters in which we agreed to disagree, and in which he deprecated my polemical violence, not without justice.

In O’Brien’s eyes Wyatt-Brown could seem like an unreconstructed proponent of southern exceptionalism and a hectoring neo-abolitionist.  (O’Brien’s claim to historicism here sounds something like Gordon Wood’s.) To Wyatt-Brown, O’Brien appeared to be surprisingly dismissive of the South’s peculiarities, downplaying its otherness and the brutal realities of a slavocracy.  O’Brien reflected on these differences at the 2013 SIHC.  Said O’Brien in the months after Bert’s death: “He had a quarrel with [the South] and he came to [the] Circle to have it out. . . . For Bert, the South was a prison house of censure, guilt, and cultural claustrophobia, and, though he aspired to be for Southern history what Faulkner was for Southern literature, a bard of this Gothic horror, he was conscious that, in the final analysis, a historian could not compete with a novelist, at least this novelist.” [6]

Bert not only bore the influence of Faulkner but also Walker Percy, William Styron, Flannery O’Connor, and, to a lesser extent, Harry Crews, the Hieronymus Bosch of Southern Gothic. He met the latter at the University of Florida.  In some basic ways Bert’s work was in the interpretive tradition of the “Savage South,” which Fred Hobson argued had been a strong viewpoint since the colonial era. Mark Twain, eviscerator of the savage southerner and the pre-Faulknerian bard of southern failure, loomed large for Bert as well.  In Twain’s Life on the Mississippi the Missouri native laid the blame for the South’s hide-bound honor culture at the feet of Walter Scott.  “Sir Walter,” Twain sneered, “had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war. It seems a little harsh toward a dead man to say that we never should have had any war but for Sir Walter; and yet something of a plausible argument might, perhaps, be made in support of that wild proposition.” The southern system of honor that Twain poked holes in and Bert dedicated his career to expounding on, was all-pervasive, stifling, and set the region apart.

It is little wonder, then, that reviewing Southern Honor for the Florida Historical Quarterly in 1984 O’Brien concluded that the book was “a failure.” “These objections arise immediately, though not alone. Its exposition has a vagueness about chronology almost comic.”  Strangely enough O’Brien found the ethic of honor as alive in the present as it was  in the past, even though, as he said, the word itself was seldom used. He also concluded: “I cannot see that modern society is any less authoritarian,” O’Brien remarked, “than the Old South that Wyatt-Brown finds so bleak and reprehensible.”  (To me that seems a rhetorical bridge too far.  It was, after all, the slave South that O’Brien was talking about here.)  O’Brien was right that Bert made too great a distinction between the evangelicalism of the north and the blood religion of the South.  Donald Mathews, Christine Heyrman, and Charles Irons have all shown that the religion of the heart was alive and well below the Mason Dixon Line, though looking quite different from the reformist, perfectionist, Arminian varieties in the North.  In the end, O’Brien reserved his harshest criticism for what he thought was Wyatt-Brown’s unrelentingly depressing portrait of the South.  “His Old South is an unrelievedly miserable place,” O’Brien huffed, “miserable for slaves, miserable for women, miserable for young men, miserable for old men. The gloom is so deep that his epitome for this culture is a murder, brutally committed and brutally punished. Such a vision, while powerful, is too narrow to be persuasive.” [7]

Here is the crux of the matter.  Wyatt-Brown and O’Brien developed sharply different pictures of the South.  Wyatt-Brown viewed the region as cohesive and drawn together by deep ideological and cultural values.  Richard King notes that O’Brien came to see the South as not “possessing a fixed identity as such, the South was a continually changing set of relationships, a complex network, a cluster of traditions that interacted over time, even an ‘ever-changing same.’” [8] Where O’Brien saw a region that was alive with intellectual activity and literary pursuits, linked to contemporary developments in Europe, Wyatt-Brown argued that literary and intellectual life in the section was hobbled, meager, and deficient.  As Wyatt-Brown observed in his Hearts of Darkness: “untrammeled Romanticism seemed to have a stifling effect on southern intellectual sensibility.” King, on a related note, says that “the intellectual and artistic legacy of the ante-bellum South was not nearly so impressive as the tradition of New England Puritanism.”  Comparing the antebellum North and South, Bert also concluded: “After all, at the same moment in history, the northern intelligentsia flourished—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville” and others were exploring new realms of human consciousness. [9]  Was this a denigration of the South?  Did Bert ignore or downplay an otherwise rich, intellectual tradition?

O’Brien answered emphatically, Yes.  He would later sum up Wyatt-Brown’s work on the South as almost exclusively the product of Bert’s personal story.  Said O’Brien in 2013: “I felt that Bert’s writing and criticism was . . . a quarrel with himself, a way of dealing with that warfare between North and South, Harrisburg and Sewanee, out of which he fashioned his books.” [10]  In essence O’Brien disagreed sharply with him about the South’s history and its place in the nation as a whole.  O’Brien’s own books and articles, in many ways, played off Wyatt-Brown’s work.

Little was as contentious a subject for these two as the legacy or intellectual utility of W. J. Cash’s The Mind of the South (1941).  In the early 1990s O’Brien even resorted to a dose of shaming.  Wyatt-Brown stood nearly alone, O’Brien thought, as a Cash disciple.  “So the corpse is riddled,” wrote O’Brien of Cash in typically witty fashion, “and it would require a necromancer to piece together the shattered bones, torn sinews, and spilled blood.” In an essay on the influential volume, O’Brien admitted that it had been a “primer for students of the region for more than two generations . . .”  Still when it came to understanding the South, said O’Brien, “The Mind of the South has immeasurably inhibited the study of the mind of the South.” [11] Interestingly, O’Brien was equally critical of Cash’s bitter, gloomy outlook as he was of what he thought to be Wyatt-Brown’s pervasive, negative tone in Southern Honor.  O’Brien was pulled back into the Cash nexus in 1994 when he reviewed the LSU Press volume W.J. Cash and the Minds of the South for the Journal of Southern History.  He concluded with a flourish: “Suddenly, Cash’s view of southern history is shrunken to a white male fantasy, which does not bode well for his survival. Perhaps not even Wake Forest will have the conviction to summon a centenary gathering.” [12]  One can almost see O’Brien dusting his hands off over the grave of Cash’s book.

True, Cash is no longer an authority on southern-ness.  His racism, his rusty ideas about a region populated by bloodthirsty God botherers no longer holds.  But just because Cash’s treatment was riddled with alarmist hyperboles does not mean that there is no longer any truth to the distinctiveness thesis.  I still find something powerful about the reality of southerness, of the region’s particularity. [13]  I think Bert was largely right about the antebellum South.  It is hard not to see how slavery, patriarchy, and the ethics of honor colored the region.  Yet there are other, persistent features that I think continue to confirm Bert’s view of Dixie.

So in conclusion I’d like to say a little about a subject that Bert and Michael had little interest in and spent hardly any time writing about.  It is something that still marks the region off from other parts of the US and the western industrialized world in general.  Having worked some with religious historian Samuel Hill while I was a PhD student at Florida, I suppose that I came to think of the South’s religiosity as one of its most distinctive features.  A Baptist and Methodist evangelical stronghold by the middle of the 19th century, the South would remain a bulwark of conservative Christianity through the 20th century and into the present.  Some of the features have become even more pronounced since the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention nearly 40 years ago.  That denomination, the largest protestant body in the US, claims 16 million members.  Pentecostalism, as well, has historically had its greatest strength in the South.  The movement’s largest denominations—the International Pentecostal Holiness Church, the Assemblies of God, the Church of God in Christ, and the Church of God (Cleveland)—are headquartered in the former Confederacy or the border south.  The nation’s most prominent and influential evangelists also have hailed from this section of the country.  The region gave the nation its first born-again president 40 years ago.  And now the South claims the greatest proportion of megachurches in the US.

The South’s pronounced religiosity—documented strongly by a 2008 Pew survey of 35,000 Americans—says something basic about the region’s distinctiveness.  A glance at census records from the 19th century would reveal as much.  While you would find plenty of Tuckers, Smiths, Shaws, and Taylors in southern states, you’d be hard pressed to locate De Lucas, Costas, Giordanos, Freiburgs, or Kowalskis. And though Judaism has long had a presence in the South, it never thrived as it did in the urban north.  Catholicism, too, remained isolated to certain quarters.  That relative homogeneity lent itself to the evangelical surge and the creation of the Bible Belt.  Pew reports that “more than eight-in-ten people in Mississippi (82%) say religion is very important in their lives, making the Magnolia State the most religious according to this measure.” [14]  Fewer than four in ten of those polled in Vermont, harvesting their organic crops or brewing their organic-certified beer, claimed religion was important in their lives.

Back in 2009 Sam Hill commented, with some caveats, that the “southern population is more attracted to personal, individualistic, experiential modes of religious experience than are their fellow countrymen north of the Mason-Dixon.  At least since 1825 or so, the South’s pattern has been more ‘populist,’ less formal, more explicit, more expressive, more overtly warm, ‘evangelical’ in one usage of that rather complex—and rich—term.” [15]

Surely the post WWII South was beginning to shed its distinctive features.  In the last decades of the 20th century one could talk as assuredly about sunbelt cultural or social patterns as of southern ones.  Yet the region’s persistent religious culture and the strength of a certain brand of hot protestantism, I think, continues to shape it like no other region in the US and perhaps like no other region in the West.  In fact, it may be that the honor code Bert saw as coloring so much in the antebellum era may have its analog today in southern evangelicalism.


[1] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “Sewanee—How to Make a Yankee Southern,” in American Places: Encounters with History, ed. William E Leuchtenburg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 384-385.

[2] Ibid., 386, 387.

[3] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “C. Vann Woodward and the Confessions of a ‘Contuitarian,’” in Origins of the New South Fifty Years Later: The Continuing Influence of a Historical Classic, eds., John B. Boles and Bethany L. Johnson (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 296.

[4] C. Vann Woodward, “The Primal Code,” www.nybooks.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/articles/1982/11/18/the-primal-code/, November 18, 1982 (Accessed on 1/29/2016).

[5] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, “C. Vann Woodward and the Confessions of a ‘Contuitarian,’” in Origins of the New South Fifty Years Later: The Continuing Influence of a Historical Classic, eds., John B. Boles and Bethany L. Johnson (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 295.

[6] Michael O’Brien, “A Retrospective on the Southern Intellectual History Circle, 1988–2013,” https://s-usih.org/2014/01/a-retrospective-on-the-southern-intellectual-circle-1988-2013.html, January 29, 2014  (Accessed on 1/15/2016).

[7] Michael O’Brien review of Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South in the Florida Historical Quarterly 62:3 (January 1984): 380, 381.

[8] Richard King, “Knowing Movement, Wanting Order,” unpublished paper (2016).

[9] Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Hearts of Darkness: Wellspring of a Southern Literary Tradition (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 36.

[10] Michael O’Brien, “A Retrospective on the Southern Intellectual History Circle, 1988–2013,” https://s-usih.org/2014/01/a-retrospective-on-the-southern-intellectual-circle-1988-2013.html, January 29, 2014  (Accessed on 1/15/2016).

[11] Michael O’Brien, Rethinking the South: Essays in Intellectual History (1988, reprint; Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 179, 180, 184-185.

[12] Review of Paul D. Escott, ed., W.J. Cash and the Minds of the South in the Journal of Southern History 60:2 (May 1994): 432.

[13] Orville Vernon Burton, “The South as ‘Other,’ the Southerner as Stranger,” Journal of Southern History 79 (February 2013): 7-50.

[14] “Mississippi: Tops in Religiosity” www.pewresearch.org/daily-number/mississippi-tops-in-religiosity/, January 6, 2009 (Accessed on 1/29/2016).

[15] Sam Hill, “Tell About the South: Why Are They So Religious?” http://jsr.fsu.edu/Volume12/Sam%20Hill%20Lecture.html (April 2009), (Accessed on 1/29/2016).

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this, as an historian of manhood I am deeply indebted to Wyatt-Brown. He studied manhood before historians even knew that manhood was a thing.

  2. It’s a really interesting feature of his work, the masculinity stuff. I’d be interested to read more about how his work was a kind of precursor to later developments in the field.

  3. Working as much on the history of the modern South as I do, I definitely enjoyed this piece. Brown and O’Brien are both important influences on my own work. Thanks so much for this.

  4. I used to use that Major Problems volume when teaching the South. I’m sure you remember Randall that it started with a “continuity” (Cash) versus “change” (Woodward) deal. Southerner history admits one or the other. It seems we have the same argument here in a somewhat different register. Plus ca change? What do you make of this in light of the New Southern Studies (see Houston Baker and others), or for that matter the idea of a Southern imaginary? The imaginary suggests a continuity, but it also insists, to my mind anyway, that change and continuity are encompassed by an imagined “South.” I’m thinking here too about black Southern experiences. I’ve always loved Ralph Ellison’s wry and darkly comic joke from a piece he wrote for Time magazine around 1970 about what America would be like without black people. To paraphrase: If there’s a Yale accent, it was doubtlessly introduced there by John C. Calhoun, who probably got it from his mammy. I don’t recall what the two men, O”Brien and Wyatt-Brown, thought about the latest directions–imaginaries, global South, New Southern Studies, etc. in light of their efforts to identify the region. You get into religion at the end of the piece, so I’m curious what you make of these kinds of developments.

  5. Thanks Robert. Much appreciated. Was great to meet some people there at SIHC that I only knew from their work, like Bob Brinkmeyer (who I gather is also at USC) and others.

    Peter, I’ve just read a little bit of the new southern studies, so I’m certainly no expert. I guess I think there is a “there” there when it comes to the South, esp in the 19th century. My training and work in history pulls me that way. Still, I definitely can see the imagined and constructed aspects of the region in pop culture, fiction, film, commodity culture, etc.

    I’ve had some interesting talks with my colleague, Brian Ward, about new southern studies and its critics. He was one of the editors of a recent series of books on the subject, one being Creating Citizenship in the 19th cen South. O’Brien has an essay in it titled “Pace as Everywhere: On Globalizing the American South.” Here’s part of what he says, and it is classic O’Brien-as-contrarian:

    “Why are the New Southern Studies so interested in invading the topic of the American nation-state? The postmodernist theoretical position is clear enough, but the cultural politics are more elusive. There is much talk of boredom, that the old themes are hackneyed to the point of tedium. There is some talk of repudiating the New England paradigm for understanding American culture, not by substituting a southern paradigm or gaining coequal status in the making of paradigms but by abandoning the national cultural paradigm, in toto. This can look suspiciously like taking your ball and going home when you are losing a game. But, it may be more of a statement that the game has grown tedious, that it is time to stop playing baseball and start playing . . . well, what?”

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