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Bertram Wyatt-Brown dies at 80; historian examined Southern honor

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, an American history professor who wrote widely on Southern history and culture and whose book on honor in the antebellum South was a 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist, died Nov. 5 of pulmonary fibrosis in Baltimore. He was 80.

Wyatt-Brown studied at Johns Hopkins University under C. Vann Woodward, considered one of the most important scholars of the American South and race relations.

After earning his doctorate from Johns Hopkins in 1963, Wyatt-Brown began a teaching career, with positions at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland from 1966 to 1983 and the University of Florida from 1983 to 2004. He then returned to Johns Hopkins as a visiting fellow.

His study of the role of honor in all classes of society in the antebellum South resulted in his critically acclaimed book "Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South," published in 1982 by Oxford University Press. It was a history finalist the next year for both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

Historian David Herbert Donald, reviewing the book in the New York Times, noted that Wyatt-Brown "has studied Southerners much as an anthropologist would an aboriginal tribe."

"He has looked for patterns in such intimate relationships as marriage and child rearing and in public behavior from extending hospitality to strangers to participating in lynch mobs," he wrote.

Book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote in the Washington Post in 1982, "Nowhere is there a more devastating debunking of the myth of Ol' Dixie as peaceable kingdom than the one presented here by Wyatt-Brown, and it is all the more devastating because his overriding intention is to be fair."

Peter Carmichael, a professor of Civil War history at Gettysburg College and director of the Civil War Institute in Gettysburg, Pa., said this month, "Every historian hopes that his books will stand the test of time; few do. But Bert's will, and he made contributions that are still part of the discussion and will continue to be so.... He understood the Old South in all of its beauty and ugliness."

Bertram Wyatt-Brown was born March 19, 1932, in Harrisburg, Pa., the son of Hunter Wyatt-Brown, an Episcopal bishop, and his homemaker wife, Laura, who were both from Alabama.

Wyatt-Brown earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1953 from the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn. He served in the Navy from 1953 to 1955, where he attained the rank of lieutenant. He then earned a second bachelor's degree in history in 1957 from King's College in Cambridge, England, before enrolling at Johns Hopkins.

His fascination with the origins of Southern character in the days before the Civil War resulted in his books dealing with the subject, such as "Yankee Saints and Southern Sinners," "Honor and Violence in the Old South" and "The American People in the Antebellum South."

Wyatt-Brown is survived by his wife of 50 years, Anne, along with a daughter, Natalie Ingraham Wyatt-Brown of St. Paul, Minn.; and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Laura Matthews Wyatt-Brown, died in 1971.

Rasmussen writes for the Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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