Book Review: Honor & Slavery

Honor & Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing As A Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, The Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, Gambling In The South, by Kenneth S. Greensberg

The lengthy and somewhat clumsy subtitle of this book adequately introduces the subjects of interest of this short but deeply interesting book. As a child I grew up in the South as an outsider, and though I have a similarly fierce view of honor to that of my old neighbors, throughout my life I have often been in the disadvantageous person of being a man of honor and integrity who others tried continually and mistakenly to unmask, and a man whose fierce defense of my own honor and whose willingness to graciously extend honor to those whom I viewed as peers has not been matched with reciprocal interest. This book, in dealing with the centrality of questions of mastery to honor in the South, and the relationship of slavery to death, in that a slave has no honor because he prefers life to honor, while a gentleman is willing to suffer death before any dishonor [1], is a book that is both helpful to explain my plight as an honorable man who tends to fall on the wrong side of boundaries of other people who consider themselves to be people of honor, and also provides some of the reasons why my sense of honor is fairly consistently misunderstood by those whose sense of honor is Southern, as opposed to my own form of honor.

The book itself contains five chapters that combine total slightly under 150 pages of easy-to-read material. That the material is easy to understand does not make it in the least unimportant, as it is vital to understand the honor of Southerners both to understand the context of the Civil War as well as the continuing difference between North and South. The first chapter deals with the nose, the lie, and the duel, explaining how pulling on someone’s nose was an attack on their exterior appearance, amounted to calling someone a liar, and often led to either a firm denial that a nose was pulled or led to negotiations for a duel. The second chapter dealt with masks and slavery, showing that it was not ungentlemanly in the South to wear masks or even women’s clothing, but that being unmasked was dishonorable, and the fact that slaves were continually thought to be deceptive meant that they had no honor in the eyes of the master class. The third chapter deals with gifts, strangers, duels, and humanitarianism, revealing that for Southerners their generosity and hospitality was always local–to the circle of kin, of others they respected as equals, and did not extend to strangers or to humanity at large. Every gift given to a proud Southern gentleman carried with it the threat of degradation, and so reciprocal gifts were necessary for all gentleman involved in an interaction to maintain face. Likewise, no face was lost in showing dishonor to strangers, and so there was no motivation to be kind to those who one did not know and were not a part of one’s circle of equals. The fourth chapter deals with death, and how an honorable gentleman faced it unflinchingly and with a total absence of servility. The fifth and final chapter deals with baseball, hunting, and gambling, showing that the willingness to risk combined with the desire to master made hunting and gambling acceptable forms of interest for a Southern gentlemen who could deal death to an honorable foe but would run from no man, and hence would not play an egalitarian game like baseball.

Like a few other books I have read [2], this book helps demonstrate the gulf that lies between me and many people whose sense of dignity and honor is a southern kind. As someone who resents mastery and is often considered an outsider or a stranger, rather than an equal and a peer, I have tended to find a great deal of trouble in my own life as a result of a mutual unwillingness to accept the status the other wishes–I will not be dominated, and others refuse to respect me and honor me as an equal, and the result has been a long and complicated and fierce sort of duel of words and behaviors that mark conflict within a highly ritualized form. By pointing to the importance of honor in very deep and fundamental ways to everything that was done, and not done, by Southern antebellum gentlemen, and by pointing to the fact that they held a view of honor that was not necessarily reciprocal, and was combined with a large amount of arrogance and a desire to dominate others, makes the Southern gentleman a particularly unpleasant kind of fellow, whether in his time or ours. The excellent research of this book, as well as its focus on a wide variety of seemingly disparate behavior that has a common root makes this a worthwhile book to read for anyone who wants to understand the fundamental importance of honor to the behavior of the Southern gentleman and those who aspire the same sort of honor and mastery that was held by that class in the time before the Civil War.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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