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Composing Selves

Southern Women and Autobiography

Peggy Whitman Prenshaw

Publication Year: 2011

In Composing Selves, award-winning author Peggy Whitman Prenshaw provides the most comprehensive treatment of autobiographies by women in the American South. This long-anticipated addition to Prenshaw’s study of southern literature spans the twentieth century as she provides an in-depth look at the life-writing of eighteen women authors. Composing Selves travels the wide terrain of female life in the South, analyzing various issues that range from racial consciousness to the deflection of personal achievement. All of the authors presented came of age during the era Prenshaw refers to as the “late southern Victorian period,” which began in 1861 and ended in the 1930s. Belle Kearney’s A Slaveholder’s Daughter (1900) with Elizabeth Spencer’s Landscapes of the Heart and Ellen Douglas’s Truth: Four Stories I Am Finally Old Enough to Tell (both published in 1998) chronologically bookend Prenshaw’s survey. She includes Ellen Glasgow’s The Woman Within, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek, Bernice Kelly Harris’s Southern Savory, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road. The book also examines Katharine DuPre Lumpkin’s The Making of a Southerner and Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. In addition to exploring multiple themes, Prenshaw considers a number of types of autobiographies, such as Helen Keller’s classic The Story of My Life and Anne Walter Fearn’s My Days of Strength. She treats narratives of marital identity, as in Mary Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth, and calls attention to works by women who devoted their lives to social and political movements, like Virginia Durr’s Outside the Magic Circle. Drawing on many notable authors and on Prenshaw’s own life of scholarship, Composing Selves provides an invaluable contribution to the study of southern literature, autobiography, and the work of southern women writers.

Published by: Louisiana State University Press

Series: Southern Literary Studies

Cover, Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Some ideas first proposed in “The True Happenings of My Life: Reading Southern Women’s Autobiographies” in Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, University Press of Virginia, are substantially...

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1. Region, Genre, Gender

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pp. 1-38

In September 1932 Mary Hamilton, a woman from the backwoods of the Mississippi Delta, posted an extraordinary letter to her young friend, Helen Dick Davis, a thirty-two-year-old writer living at the time in the little sawmill town of Philipp, Mississippi...

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2. A Feminist Life Narrative in a Traditionalist Society: Belle Kearney

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pp. 39-66

In many respects Belle Kearney’s A Slaveholder’s Daughter is a rhetorical maze, representing the differing directions and complex strategies one sometimes encounters in southern women’s autobiographies, especially those that aimed in the late nineteenth...

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3. A Distanced Southern Girlhood: Helen Keller and Anne Walter Fearn

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pp. 67-94

The texts by Susan Dabney Smedes, Anna Julia Cooper, Belle Kearney, and others discussed in the preceding chapter are all distinguished by having subjects whose identity as southern women is pointedly expressed not only in the titles of their books but...

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4. Wifehood Narratives: Mary Hamilton and Agnes Grinstead Anderson

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pp. 95-125

One recognizes in the life writings of Helen Keller, Anne Walter Fearn, and Belle Kearney, as well of autobiographers who preceded them, widespread evidence of the ways in which women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century South were socialized...

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5. Belles, Wives, and Public Lives, Part 1: Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair

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pp. 126-149

In the early twentieth-century South, public activists like Belle Kearney or career women like Helen Keller and Anne Walter Fearn were clearly the exceptions among southern white women. Far more typical were the husband-directed, husband-centered...

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6. Belles, Wives, and Public Lives, Part 2: Virginia Foster Durr, Lindy Claiborne Boggs, and Lylah Scarborough Barber

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pp. 150-178

The impetus for Virginia Durr’s Outside the Magic Circle began with a series of interviews in the 1970s. Widely known for her public support of activities to secure voting and other civil rights for fellow southerners who were black, she was sought out by oral...

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7. Testimonial Narratives of Racial Consciousness: Katharine Dupre Lumpkin and Lillian Smith

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pp. 179-211

In preceding chapters the narratives discussed have focused primarily upon the local and the personal; that is, the narrators are revealed through associations with place, family, and work and make modest claims of asserting these lives as representational of region...

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8. Narratives of a Writing Life, Part 1: Ellen Glasgow and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

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pp. 212-233

Autobiographical writings by southern women novelists constitute an especially interesting group of texts, composed as they are by women who have established successful careers as professional writers by the time they come to write a self-reflexive narrative...

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9. Narratives of a Writing Life, Part 2: Zora Neale Hurston and Bernice Kelly Harris

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pp. 234-253

At the same time in 1941 that Rawlings was composing her book at Cross Creek, Florida native Zora Neale Hurston was writing Dust Tracks on a Road in California, where she was the guest of her friend Katharane Edson Mershon. This autobiography...

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10. Modes of Autobiographical Narrative: Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, and Ellen Douglas

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pp. 254-291

Finally, I should like to consider the narratives of three professional writers whose autobiographies represent three rather distinct modes of discourse available to the life writer undertaking to compose a textual self. This is not to propose some...

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Coda: Reflections on a Literary Genre

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pp. 292-294

The composition of a life in written words is a task of self-invention. For women reared in the American South over the three generations following the Civil War, the constraints upon writing a life narrative for a public audience were numerous and often acutely felt...


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pp. 295-300

Works Cited

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pp. 301-314


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pp. 315-331

E-ISBN-13: 9780807137925
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807137918

Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Southern Literary Studies