HONOR AND SLAVERY by Kenneth S. Greenberg


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 A piercing--and decidedly offbeat--look into the mind of the Old South. ``This book,'' writes historian Greenberg, ``is a work of translation. It is a reconstruction and interpretation of a `dead language' ''--the sometimes courtly, often evasive language of the cavaliers and landed gentry who guided the Confederacy into revolt. That language, he notes, was not always spoken; in the entertaining essay that opens his book, for instance, he writes of the strange Southern custom of nose-pulling; the essay draws in discussions of the South's dislike for the New England showman P.T. Barnum; the social history of practical jokes; and the Southern nobility's perception of self. Greenberg handles his arguments deftly, full as they are of odd digressions, to show that the Old South was a world of master and slave far removed in manner from our own, one with a unique code of custom and communication. Without an understanding of just how different it was, Greenberg suggests, much early Southern history will seem incomprehensible to the modern student. Thus, when relating the story of how at the end of the Civil War Jefferson Davis tried unsuccessfully to flee advancing Northern troops by dressing as a woman--a story subsequently enshrined by none other than P.T. Barnum, who ``understood that people would pay to see a re-creation of the humiliation of the Confederate leader''--Greenberg takes us through a leisurely dissection of the concepts of honor, power, and social masking, observing that to unmask a man of honor was a grievous and unforgivable insult. While this does little to explain Davis's choice of garb, it does shed light on the lingering sense of outrage over the war's conclusion in some Southern circles. Charged with ideas, this is a cheerfully speculative and valuable addition to the library of the Civil War.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-691-02734-X
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1996


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