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Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw (review)
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Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography, by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. 331 pp. $45.00.

In Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography, Peggy Whitman Prenshaw undertakes a survey of life narratives written by women who grew up in the South in the period between the end of the Civil War and the 1930s. Part of its considerable merit is the wide expanse of its canvas. Prenshaw examines not only relatively well-known works by literary writers (including, most prominently, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Spencer, Ellen Glasgow, Lillian Smith, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings), but also writings by women active in public life and what she calls the "wifehood narratives" of Mary Hamilton and Agnes Grinstead Anderson—obscure women whose texts "are centered upon the wifehood of the authors" and "in many respects . . . may be fairly described as the biographies of husbands" (p. 96). Arguing that there is "little actionable difference among the elastic terminologies employed by current genre theorists," Prenshaw avoids the thorny attempts to demarcate categories of life writing and wisely observes that all such writing must be predicated on "a good faith effort on the part of the autobiographer to tell her or his personal truth," despite the fact that "human truths are always glimpsed through interpretive filtering" (pp. 26, 25).

Drawing upon historians of southern culture such as Anne Firor Scott and Daniel Joseph Singal, Prenshaw situates her chosen texts within a narrative in which southern women, constrained by their culture's traditional roles of wife, mother, and (white) lady, work to achieve self-actualization and political power through discreet and canny strategies that rarely challenge male power directly but operate more often within culturally approved activities such as the memorialization of the Confederate dead or the temperance movement. Indeed, Prenshaw suggests, long after women's suffrage was achieved, that southern women continued to find such strategies of dissembling effective. For Lindy Claiborne Boggs, for instance, who [End Page 239] succeeded her husband in Congress and achieved a considerable record in her own right until her retirement in 1990, "the cultural mores attaching to her gender, social class, race, region, and historical era have proved empowering resources" (p. 172). In short, there are always constraints, but at least some virtuosic women can turn these to their advantage.

What makes Composing Selves both more interesting and more conflicted than this paradigm of constraint and opportunistic subversion would suggest is the deep tension between the paradigm's implicit assumption—that such constraints are almost always oppressive, working to prevent or stunt the development of a free self—and Prenshaw's own frequent endorsement of the idea that these works display what Paul John Eakin calls a "relational self" (p. 28). Sometimes, Prenshaw invites us to discern pathos in how these women's lives were circumscribed and courage in undertaking the difficult project of writing about themselves at all. More often, however, Prenshaw reveals how consistently these women maintain "that the main thread of the life story does not run deeply into the self but outward into a network of relations through which the self is revealed," and she does not dismiss such self-understanding as false consciousness (p. 27). Writing of Eakin's challenge to the "solitary, autonomous image of the self," Prenshaw suggests that if we take such a conception seriously, we come to understand that autobiography is not only "the genre most at war with itself, always contending with the transformation of self into artifice," but also that "for all its limitations, it may be the genre most expressive of the multiplicity of selves that complicate human identity" (pp. 29, 294). However, such an understanding renders the dichotomy between an oppressive culture and a female self striving to achieve its fulfillment much more vexed. For all that Prenshaw emphasizes "evidence of tension between stereotypes and actual lives" in the texts that she reads, one consequence of understanding the autobiographical self as "relational" is surely that stereotypes, too, help to constitute the self and are not something foreign to it (p. 14).

Undoubtedly valuable in demonstrating the variety of southern women's autobiographical writing and...