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For two decades, distinguished historian John Inscoe has introduced students at the University of Georgia to a wide range of individuals’ life stories in a course called “Southern Autobiography as Southern History.” Writing the South through the Self provides the same sweeping overview, offering readings of dozens of the 167 books listed under the heading “Southern Autobiographies and Memoirs” in his bibliography. Its breadth and the richness of its sources and interpretations make this book an important contribution to southern studies and biographical research.
As in his course, Inscoe wants readers to understand that autobiography can be an especially revealing—as well as a very appealing—medium for learning about the South. Autobiographers’ penchant for “storytelling, dramatic turning points, and cathartic or revelatory moments” helps us “to see and understand the region and its people in ways that elude more conventional treatments drawn from more traditional sources” (1).
The main reason for this is that southerners have long been particularly conscious of place. Often this has resulted in lush descriptions of the physical world, whether the intimate landscape of a homeplace or the flora and fauna and topography of the broader region. But southern autobiography is equally full of reflections on “place” in a social sense: where and how an individual fits into—or chafes against—social and racial hierarchies. Southern autobiographers’ “rage to explain,” as Fred Hobson described it in Tell About the South back in 1983, has meant that “southerners—more so than many other Americans—can only make themselves and their identities understood by placing themselves within the broader contexts of households, families, and communities” (2–3). As a result, southern autobiography—to an even greater extent than other kinds of life writing—is never solely about the author. The question of whether or not an autobiographer is “typical” of his or her time [End Page 830] and place is thus not a stumbling block but rather part of the point of writing and reading such narratives.
Inscoe also dispenses with the question of how factual autobiographies are, or indeed can be, given “faulty or selective memories, conscious or subconscious agendas, or overly imaginative enhancements” (9). He agrees with Jennifer Jensen Wallach’s argument in her recent and very compatible book, Closer to the Truth than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow, that “the subjective nature of memoir not only fails to detract from its value as historical source material; it actually enhances it” (10). Rather than exploring theoretical aspects of the genre, however, Inscoe acknowledges that he takes autobiographies more or less “at face value” (9). His approach is “to juxtapose multiple accounts and consider them in relation to each other in order to draw from them broader insights and more complex truths about the South and its past” (5).
He succeeds admirably. Multiplicity here means not only a large number of autobiographies and works by black authors in addition to white ones. It also means a chapter on Appalachian memoirs, and an afterword on books by Native American, Asian, and Latino authors. And it means discussions of many little-known titles, and of works as recent as John Hope Franklin’s Mirror to America (2005) and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle (2005) alongside classics like Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin’s The Making of a Southerner (1947).
In his effort to draw broader insights and discover more complex truths, Inscoe uses autobiography to approach underexplored areas in southern history. One is white southerners’ college experiences, which, for those who went to college, were often “the most consistently transformative” of their young lives (132). Similarly, Inscoe devotes a chapter to white southern autobiographers’ encounters with poverty in the first half of the twentieth century. “For a few of these writers,” he observes, “their ‘racial conversions’ were preceded or accompanied by the discovery that race was not the only factor that divided their society” (76). This discovery of class divisions is an additional element that...