Properties of Blood, I.6: In Defense of Honor, Part B
The Sense of Honor
I could not love thee, dear, so much,
Loved I not honor more.
Richard Lovelace’s poem “To Lucasta” used to be one of those poems that everyone had to commit to memory, and these last two lines constituted the most oft-quoted reference to the principle of honor in English literature. Lovelace was a young man of good family, whose loyalty to his king and church first sent him to war, later put him in prison, and ultimately plunged him into poverty. He had left Oxford with an M.A. and was about to serve under Lord Goring in the so-called Bishop’s War that was a prelude to the English Civil War. The argument of the brief poem is simple: He must abandon this chaste lady and go to war in order to deserve her love. Students today must find it difficult to understand either term, love or honor, now that “love” means sex and “honor” is a primitive justification for murder invoked by Muslims. Still men have killed for honor as well as for love, and these violent affairs have frequently engaged the willing participation of educated men.
Dueling had been common in Europe and in the Northeastern United States in the early 19th century, but by the time of the War Between the States, in which both Colonel Cash and Colonel Shannon served, dueling and feuding were regarded as a distinctly Southern phenomenon, a survival of Medieval barbarism into a world dominated by industrial capitalism and political liberalism. The northern states were shocked by the persistence of dueling in the South. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain affects a Connecticut Yankee disdain for customs he had been brought up to respect, and he blames Walter Scott for retarding progress in the South, where:
“The genuine and wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization; and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works; mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.”
As a Confederate deserter who got rich by fooling and flattering Yankees, Sam Clemens had his personal reasons for ridiculing the South. He must not have read much Scott, because, if he had, he would have realized how inaccurate and unfair was his characterization of Scott’s imagination. Had Twain read Scott’s long “Essay on Chivalry,” he would have agreed with the cold-eyed and dispassionate historical account of the abuses encouraged by the unwise unwholesome blending of spiritual justification with military ambition. Twain also must have known that the fashion for dueling predated Walter Scott by many generations, and that the custom flourished in countries less influenced by Scott than Britain and the United States-—France, Italy, Spain, Austria, and Russia. But he was right that there was something a bit pre-modern, even Medieval in the Southern cult of honor. Karl Schurz, who had left Germany after the failure of the leftist uprisings of 1848, had reached a similar conclusion about Southern culture over two decades previously. In 1860, Schurz warned slaveowners that they were a dying breed:
“This is the world of the 19th century. The last remnants of feudalism in the old world are fast disappearing… Look around you, see how lonesome you are in this wide world of ours…and in this appalling solitude you stand alone against a hopeful world, alone against a great century, fighting your hopeless fight—hopeless as the struggle of the Indians agains the onward march of civilization.”
Perhaps the term “feudalism” is excessive and romantic,
but it is a useful codeword that suggests that to a great extent class relations in the South (as in the Mediterranean world) remained personal, rather than abstract, and that a respect for order and tradition was being maintained in Mississippi, when it was being lost in Massachusetts and had never really existed in the northern parts of Ohio and Illinois.
Karl Marx, reporting on the War Between the States, strongly disagreed with any interpretation of Southern society in feudal terms. The sectional conflict that erupted into war in early 1861 was between two systems of bourgeois capitalism, and Southerners who claimed to be paternalistic or put on Medieval airs were deluding themselves. Marx regarded the war as important, because once the industrial bourgeoisie of the North subjugated the less progressive slaveowners in the South, it could inaugurate the next phase of the revolution that was leading, inexorably, to a global state in which all distinctions of class, wealth, religion, and nationality would disappear, a situation more or less realized today in the international order controlled to a great extent by the United States and its satellites.
Despite the accuracy of Marx’s prophecy, Schurz had a better understanding of the South than than Marx, who failed to grasp the social and cultural implications of the South’s economic system—a mistake not made by his disciple Eugene Genovese.
It was not the South per se to which Schurz and Marx objected but all institutions and traditions that stood in the way of global revolution. Some were peculiar, such as slavery was to the South and a dwindling number of places or the Catholic Church in the Estates of the Church that were being attacked, during the same period, by revolutionary Kingdom of Italy; and some were universal, such as the “patriarchal family” and the sense of honor. Although the object of this discussion is not to analyze, much less defend Southern peculiarities, the hatred that the “Southern way of life” inspired—and continues to inspire—make it an appropriate place to begin the exploration of honor.
What made Southerners so willing and even eager to fight for their own honor and the honor of their families and kinfolks? A commonly accepted interpretation is that there is a “strain of violence” in the Southern character, an irrational arrogance created by slavery, patriarchal family structures, and alcoholism. This is, more or less, the argument put forward by Bertram Wyatt Brown in Southern Honor, a highly praised book that has influenced most subsequent discussion of dueling in the South.
Brown blames the cult of honor on several causes: patriarchy and slavery, primarily, that encouraged an overbearing sense of self-importance and sensitivity to slights. When this sensitivity was exacerbated by excessive whiskey-drinking, the results were explosive. The argument is attractive to progressive minds that believe that every day in every way things are getting better and better, so long as superstition (that is religion), provincialism (that is, attachment to place), and patriarchy (that is, respect for women and the commandment instructing us to honor our parents), but it is divorced from all anthropological and historical context. It is not just Southerners who were keen on defending their honor. To name only a few parallels: Medieval and Renaissance Europeans, Comanche Indians, Frenchmen in the 18th and 19th centuries, and American military officers from all sections of the country.
The pages of English literature are dotted with references to honor and to duels fought in honor’s defense. Thackeray’s’ Rawdon Crawley (Vanity Fair) was a duelist, as were his Barry Lyndon and George Washington (The Virginians). Dickens has a comical duel—The Great Winglebury Duel, and much of the story of Nicholas Nickleby turns on the evil Mulberry Hawk’s desire for revenge on Nicholas and the duel in which he kills Lord Verisopht. Conrad’s novella “The Duelists” (made into a 1977 film) is one of his masterpieces. As a soldier, Ben Jonson is said to have killed a man in single combat in the Netherlands, and, when he was imprisoned for his part in Eastward Ho! and in danger of losing his ears, his mother sent him the poison by which he might avoid the disgrace.The Russians are, perhaps, preeminent, in the literature of dueling. It is enough to mention Eugene Onegin, whose author Alexander Pushkin, died in a non-fictional encounter.
In several plays Shakespeare portrays men who were bent on defending their honor: Bolingbroke in Richard II, his son Henry V, Hamlet (his fencing match with Laertes is fought in dead earnest by his antagonist), most of the younger male characters in Romeo and Juliet. Now, were Shakespeare and Marcel Proust (who fought a duel at the end of the 19th century) slave-holding savages raised to be drunken bullies in patriarchal plantations? Perhaps Brown has and other critics of Southern violence have asked the wrong question. It is not Southerners who are unique or unusual in defending their honors but modern men who have entirely rejected honor and the duty to defend it.