U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bertram Wyatt-Brown: 1932-2012

Recently the historical profession lost yet another eminent scholar.  Bertram Wyatt-Brown, an intellectual historian who focused particularly on the U.S. South, died on November 5.  Paul Murphy passed along Wyatt-Brown’s obituary, which was distributed through several different professional networks, including the H-net “H-South” mailing list.  

From the obituary:

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on March 19th, 1932, he was a son of (Episcopal) Bishop Hunter Wyatt-Brown and Laura Little Wyatt-Brown.  He graduated in 1953 with a BA in English from the University of the South, also known as Sewanee.  After two years as a lieutenant in the U. S. Navy, he entered the Naval Reserve and took a second BA, in History, from King’s College, Cambridge University, finishing in 1957.  It was there that he developed friendships—with poets Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and other writers—about which he would later write. 

From Cambridge, Wyatt-Brown returned to the States to study. There, five years later, on June 30th, 1962, he married Anne Jewett Marbury of Baltimore, daughter of William Luke Marbury and Natalie Jewett Marbury. The next year he completed his Ph. D. in History at the Johns Hopkins University.  His mentor was C. Vann Woodward, though Woodward’s 1961 departure for Yale University as Sterling Professor of History meant this was partly at long distance. 
After finishing graduate school, Wyatt-Brown took the first of the three teaching positions that would occupy half of his career.  Following two years at Colorado State University, Fort Collins (1962-64) and another two years at the University of Colorado, Boulder (1964-66), he spent seventeen years at Case Western Reserve University (1966-1983).  The second half of his career he served at the University of Florida, where he was the Richard J. Milbauer Professor of History for twenty-one years, from 1983-2004.  Although he had successful graduate students while at Case Western, most studied with him at Florida.  Their appreciation and standing are reflected in a festschrift, Southern Character: Essays in Honor of Bertram Wyatt-Brown, edited by Lisa Tendrich Frank and Daniel Kilbride (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011).  It consists of 14 essays by former students, as well as a lead piece by long-time friend and noted historian of southern culture Charles Joyner. 
Professor Wyatt-Brown also held visiting appointments at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Richmond, and the College of William and Mary. Upon returning to Baltimore to live in 2004, he was made a visiting fellow in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins. A recipient of National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship, he served elected terms as president of the Southern Historical Association, the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, and the St. George Tucker Society, this last an interdisciplinary southern studies group.  He was twice a Fellow at the National Humanities Center and once at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center at Princeton University. 
Author or editor of eleven books, he also contributed some hundred articles and many reviews—not only to scholarly journals but to such places as The New York Review of Books. Dr. Wyatt-Brown early focused on American Abolitionists, especially Lewis Tappan, whose evangelical war against slavery was the subject of his first book, published in 1971.  That work led him to consider why antebellum southerners saw the world so differently than did such northerners.  The subsequent investigation led to his best known work, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South.  For this 1982 volume, he became a 1983 history finalist for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The study remains a hallmark of Southern History.  In 2007 Oxford University Press issued a 25th anniversary edition with a new preface.
Much of Professor Wyatt-Brown’s later scholarship treated novelist and philosophical essayist Walker Percy and his talented family of writers and politicians.  Over two centuries, many of the family’s American members creatively tapped, while wrestling with, depression, as did Dr. Wyatt-Brown’s late friend Sylvia Plath.  The fact led Wyatt-Brown to extend his reflections on the roles of psychology and emotions in history, preoccupations underlying much of his work.  He finished his most recent book, “A Warring Nation: Honor, Race, and Humiliation in America’s Wars,” just weeks before his death.  It is to appear from the University of Virginia Press.  

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