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Bertram Wyatt-Brown, acclaimed historian

Colleges and UniversitiesAuthorsJohns Hopkins UniversityEthics

Dr. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, an acclaimed and influential professor of American history who wrote widely on Southern history and culture and whose book on honor in the antebellum South was a 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist, died Monday of pulmonary fibrosis at Roland Park Place. He was 80.

"Bert was a seminal figure in American history. His book 'Southern Honor' is one of the landmarks. No one doing graduate work in history can't, because of him, appreciate how honor permeated the Old Southern life," said Dr. Jean Harvey Baker, a noted Baltimore historian and author who teaches American history at Goucher College.

"It is the definitive study. It still is," said Dr. Baker.

"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," said Dr. Peter Carmichael, professor of Civil War history at Gettysburg College and director of the Civil War Institute, also in Gettysburg, Pa.

"Bert's book, 'Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South,' shows the depth of his engagement with the material, intellectual powers, creativity and beautiful writing," said Dr. Carmichael. "He understood the Old South in all of its beauty and ugliness."

The son of an Episcopal bishop who earlier had been rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Baltimore and a homemaker, Bertam Wyatt-Brown was born and raised in Harrisburg, Pa.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown attended the Sewanee Military Academy and graduated in 1949 from St. James School in Hagerstown. He earned his bachelor's degree in English in 1953 from Sewanee: The University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn.

He served in the Navy from 1953 to 1955, where he attained the rank of lieutenant. After leaving the Navy, he earned a second bachelor's degree in history in 1957 from King's College in Cambridge, England.

He entered the Johns Hopkins University, where he was profoundly influenced by the late Dr. C. Vann Woodward, who is considered to be one of the most important scholars of the American South and race relations.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown earned his Ph.D. in 1963, and began his teaching career a year earlier at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He was on the faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder from 1964 to 1966.

He taught history at Case Western Reserve University from 1966 to 1983, when he joined the faculty of the University of Florida, where he was the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History from 1983 to 2004.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown and his wife of 50 years, the former Anne Jewett Marbury, a retired English teacher, moved to a home on Stony Run Lane in 2004.

"I don't think Baltimoreans fully appreciated or realized that they had a superstar in their midst," said Dr. Baker.

After returning to Baltimore, he was named a visiting fellow in the history department at the Johns Hopkins University.

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," that was published in 1982 by Oxford University Press. It was a history finalist a year later for both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award.

Oxford University Press recently published a 25th anniversary edition with a new preface written by Dr. Wyatt-Brown.

David Herbert Brown, in The New York Times, noted that Dr. 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."

Dr. Wyatt-Brown's first book was "Lewis Tappan and the Evangelical War against Slavery," published in 1971.

It was his fascination with the origins of Southern character in the days before the Civil War that resulted in other 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."

"Bert earned a high reputation among historians of the United States, and especially of the South, his interests running to the minds, sensibilities, of his subjects — first abolitionists (the Tappan brothers), then slave holders and their distinctive sense of 'honor,' and finally the life work of the remarkable modern-South novelist Walker Percy," said Robert J. Brugger, a Baltimore author and historian who is a regional editor at Johns Hopkins University Press.

Shortly before his death, he had completed the manuscript for "A Warring Nation: Honor, Race, and Humiliation in America's Wars," which is under contract to the University of Virginia Press.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown was held in high regard by his graduate and doctoral students.

"He was the kind of guy graduate students adored. He spent lots of time and energy with them," said Dr. Baker.

"Bert was a good teacher and quite a remarkable man. He focused so much attention and was an effective mentor for his students. In fact, shortly before his death, he was trying to get a job for one of his students," said Luke Marbury, his brother-in-law, who lives in Baltimore.

"I think his affection for people may be the reason he became an historian. Bert was the kind of person if he'd been sent to hell for a week and when he returned, he'd tell you about all of the interesting people he had met," said Mr. Marbury.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown was a member and former president of the Southern Historical Society, which feted him last year at the meeting in Baltimore. He was also a member of the American Historical Association, Organization of American Historians, the Western Reserve Historical Association and the 14 W. Hamilton Street Club.

Dr. Wyatt-Brown, who had lived for the last two years at Roland Park Place, enjoyed travel, reading, and singing in church choirs.

He was a communicant of the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, St. Paul Street and University Parkway, where funeral services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Friday.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Wyatt-Brown is survived by a daughter, Natalie Ingraham Wyatt-Brown of St. Paul, Minn.; and two grandchildren. Another daughter, Laura Matthews Wyatt-Brown, died in 1971.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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