The "honorable men" who ruled the Old South had a language all their own, one comprised of many apparently outlandish features yet revealing much about the lives of masters and the nature of slavery. When we examine Jefferson Davis's explanation as to why he was wearing women's clothing when caught by Union soldiers, or when we consider the story of Virginian statesman John Randolph, who stood on his doorstep declaring to an unwanted dinner guest that he was "not at home," we see that conveying empirical truths was not the goal of their speech. Kenneth Greenberg so skillfully demonstrates, the language of honor embraced a complex system of phrases, gestures, and behaviors that centered on deep-rooted values: asserting authority and maintaining respect. How these values were encoded in such acts as nose-pulling, outright lying, dueling, and gift-giving is a matter that Greenberg takes up in a fascinating and original way.
The author looks at a range of situations when the words and gestures of honor came into play, and he re-creates the contexts and associations that once made them comprehensible. We understand, for example, the insult a navy lieutenant leveled at President Andrew Jackson when he pulls his nose, once we understand how a gentleman valued his face, especially his nose, as the symbol of his public image. Greenberg probes the lieutenant's motivations by explaining what it meant to perceive oneself as dishonored and how such a perception seemed comparable to being treated as a slave. When John Randolph lavished gifts on his friends and enemies as he calmly faced the prospect of death in a duel with Secretary of State Henry Clay, his generosity had a paternalistic meaning echoed by the master-slave relationship and reflected in the pro-slavery argument. These acts, together with the way a gentleman chose to lend money, drink with strangers, go hunting, and die, all formed a language of control, a vision of what it meant to live as a courageous free man. In reconstructing the language of honor in the Old South, Greenberg reconstructs the world.
"A surprisingly sprightly little volume that serves as a window into a world long gone. . . . Greenberg . . . is our tour guide in this forbidding, forgotten territory. He's knowledgeable and good-natured. He has an eye for detail, and just as important, an ear for nuance."--David M. Shribman, The Boston Globe
"[Greenberg] writes with agreeable clarity, and in five short chapters, his easy, freewheeling style carries us a remarkably long way."--Ian McIntyre, The [London] Times
"Many of Greenberg's observations offer revealing contextualizations. Particularly interesting are chapters on death and on the duel."--Publishers Weekly
"A piercing--and decidedly offbeat--look into the mind of the Old South. . . . Charged with ideas, this is a cheerfully speculative and valuable addition to the library of the Civil War."--Kirkus Reviews
"This is a valuable book. . . . Vivid and persuasive. . . . Given the engaging quality of Greenberg's writing, coupled with his notable ability to tell a story, the book should receive a wide audience among historians and an appreciative one among students of the nineteenth-century American South."--Dickson D. Bruce, Jr., American Historical Review
"This collection of intriguing essays is a worthy addition to the literature. . . [Greenberg] offers telling reflections on these subjects that sharpen the reader's appreciation for how different the world of slavery and honor was from our own. . . . We should acknowledge the vitality and versatility of the author's exemplary handling of a topic too long dwelling in the historical shadows."--Bertram Wyatt-Brown, American Journal of Sociology
Table of Contents:
List of Illustrations
1 The Nose, the Lie, and the Duel 3
2 Masks and Slavery 24
3 Gifts, Strangers, Duels, and Humanitarianism 51
4 Death 87
5 Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling 115
Hardcover published in 1996