VENGEANCE AND JUSTICE: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South by Edward L. Ayers
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VENGEANCE AND JUSTICE: Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century American South

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Opening another window on the dark complexity of Southern history, U. of Virginia historian Ayers skillfully traces patterns of pre- and post-Civil War crime and punishment. The South's notorious violence, he posits, springs from a sense of ""honor"" modeled on English aristocratic culture and (since honor derives from the opinion of others) marked by testiness and flaming temper. (The North, on the other hand, was impelled by ""dignity"" derived from models of English town life--dignity inherent in the individual, maintained by self control and restraint.) Southern honor twined with strands of republican ideology, the capitalist market economy, and evangelical religion in a hortatory snarl--a ""knot of class, race, and crime""--which Ayers dextrously unravels. Focusing on the city of Savannah and two Georgia counties--one in plantation country, another in the north Georgia hills--Ayers describes both particular variations and sweeping changes. For example, the Southern penitentiary system (for whites only in ante-bellum days when masters dealt with slaves) yielded to the postwar convict lease system (black convicts, white lessors). At various times the confluence of cultural and economic forces produced waves of property crime, ""whitecap"" vigilantism, and the astounding outbreak of lynching in the 1880s-90s--a race war between men too young to remember slavery. ""Only culture,"" Ayers writes, ""channels the frustration of poverty and violence."" And cultural ""ghosts"" persist as the honorable ante-bellum Southerners' dueling ritual finds echoes in the urban ghetto in black-on-black macho-man crime. Ayers' explanation of Southern violence, its permutations and its trans-America migrations goes far to explain today's nationwide violence, especially among blacks. It is an elegantly designed study, original and persuasive.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1983
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press