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Joan Givner, ed. Katherine Anne Porter: Conversations. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987. 197 pp. pb. $9.95.
M. Thomas Inge, ed. Truman Capote: Conversations. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1987. 374 pp. pb. $14.95.
Erskine Caldwell. With All My Might. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1987. 332 pp. $19.95.
Judith Ruderman. William Styron. New York: Ungar, 1987. 160 pp. $16.95.
Mark Lucas. The Southern Vision of Andrew Lytle. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. $22.50.

Each of these books, in ways peculiar to its form, contributes to the labyrinthine context of Southern literature; some are more interesting and useful than others. Ironically, perhaps the least useful of the genres treated here are the conversations, because of the factors that control their content. The nature of the questions asked, the willingness of the author to answer truthfully, and, finally, any preconceptions of the editor all shape the book; these individual factors are not always compatible. Moreover, a better title for the Mississippi series might be Interviews rather than Conversations because they are structured as such and not the informal sessions implied by the word conversation. Another problem with the genre is the necessary repetition; interviewers tend to ask the same questions, and the editor can cut the repetition out only at the risk of cutting out the variations in reply that authors give on different occasions. Some of the repetition in both Givner's Conversations with Katherine Anne Porter and Inge's Conversations with Truman Capote is tolerable because it allows the reader to observe the incredible mythomania from which both Porter and Capote suffered. This mythomania, at least in Porter's case, seems to be cultural, part of the labyrinth of Southern context mentioned above, in this case, the common myth of those disinherited by history. The rationale to Porter may have been that if her immediate family was not in the position she describes, it ought to have been, by rights. Therefore, why not pretend that the unfortunate events of history did not happen? On the other hand, is it not reasonable to expect that people who value the psychological truth in fiction more than the mundane facts of life will not rearrange the facts about their own lives to suit themselves? Porter's obsession with providing herself the right background that led her to fabricate verifiable items like books and family acres, and Capote's repeated testimony to his own genius remind one of William Faulkner's claim that while in the Canadian Air Force he flew through a hangar upside down, when in reality he had not even soloed at the time. Although it would be surprising (and alarming) to discover this kind of untruth in a historian, it has little to do with the work of a novelist and is thus interesting more as insight into human nature than revelation of character defects. More useful is what each has to say about writing, and Capote is best here. A young writer would do well to read what he says about his dedication to his craft, especially his discussion of the technique of the nonfiction novel. There is a difference in quality between the conversations with Porter and with Capote. I suspect that interviewers asked Capote more substantive questions because he was a man. In addition to [End Page 642] having better topics to work with, he was more willing to commit himself at the risk of offending than Porter was. Both of these books were so sloppily proofread that one has to wonder about the copyediting process at the University Press of Mississippi.

It is worth wading through the clumsy prose of Erskine Caldwell's autobiography With All My Might for some insight into the life of a writer who could produce more than fifty books and numerous screenplays. At its best, in recounting the early years, the book is lively enough to bear juxtaposition with Harry Crews' stunning A Childhood: Autobiography of a Place as testimony to a Southern rural upbringing. At its worst, in recounting the later years it seems to be simply a strung-together series of diary entries. The final picture that emerges is that of a...

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