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Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact

Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow

Jennifer Jensen Wallach

Publication Year: 2008

Although historians frequently use memoirs as source material, too often they confine such usage to the anecdotal, and there is little methodological literature regarding the genre's possibilities and limitations. This study articulates an approach to using memoirs as instruments of historical understanding. Jennifer Jensen Wallach applies these principles to a body of memoirs about life in the American South during Jim Crow segregation, including works by Zora Neale Hurston, Willie Morris, Lillian Smith, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Alexander Percy, and Richard Wright.

Wallach argues that the field of autobiography studies, which is currently dominated by literary critics, needs a new theoretical framework that allows historians, too, to benefit from the interpretation of life writing. Her most provocative claim is that, due to the aesthetic power of literary language, skilled creative writers are uniquely positioned to capture the complexities of another time and another place. Through techniques such as metaphor and irony, memoirists collectively give their readers an empathetic understanding of life during the era of segregation. Although these reminiscences bear certain similarities, it becomes clear that the South as it was remembered by each is hardly the same place.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

I would like to express my affection and gratitude to the entire Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts; I feel fortunate to have been trained at a place where I was exposed to so many disciplinary perspectives and diverse points of view. I would particularly like to thank John Bracey ...

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Introduction: Autobiography and the Transformation of Historical Understanding

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pp. 1-12

Because this is a book about life writing, I feel a certain amount of liberty to succumb to the temptation to ground this study of autobiography in an episode from my own life history. As scholars, our personal experiences imprint the work that we produce in myriad subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Scholarly work cannot ...

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1. Subjectivity and the Felt Experience of History

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pp. 13-35

Life writing is unabashedly subjective. Sometimes autobiographers claim to speak for members of their entire race or social class; however, within the group the writer claims to represent, there are always members who resent the imposition, who claim that the autobiographer in question "does not speak for me." ...

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2. Literary Techniques and Historical Understanding

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pp. 36-56

A well-crafted memoir enables the student of history to "refeel" a past moment from a particular point of view. This emotional understanding of a particular historical reality is not merely a cosmetic adornment that adds an element of human interest to our historical understanding. Rather, these emotions are ...

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3. African American Memoirists Remember Jim Crow

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pp. 57-98

Richard Wright's Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) is perhaps the most widely read and certainly the most commentedon memoir of the African American Jim Crow experience.1 Wright portrays life in the Jim Crow South as unremittingly bleak and as characterized by poverty, violence, and anxiety ...

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4. White Memoirists Remember Jim Crow

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pp. 99-135

In North Toward Home (1967), white Mississippian Willie Morris recounts having dinner with several civil rights activists in New York City in 1964.Morris, who had recently moved to New York to take a position at the prestigious Harper's magazine, had made a name for himself as a truly reconstructed southerner ...

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Conclusion: Talking of Another World

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pp. 136-154

Willie Morris's observation that his Mississippi was not the same place inhabited by black civil rights workers or, by extension, by his white neighbors from various political and socioeconomic backgrounds is at the heart of this analysis of literary autobiography. After reading the six memoirs under consideration ...


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pp. 155-162


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pp. 163-170


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pp. 171-176

E-ISBN-13: 9780820337029
E-ISBN-10: 0820337021
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820330693
Print-ISBN-10: 0820330698

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 608691561
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Autobiography -- African American authors.
  • African Americans -- Biography -- History and criticism.
  • Race discrimination -- United States -- Historiography.
  • African Americans -- Segregation -- Historiography.
  • African Americans -- Social conditions -- Historiography.
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