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Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography (review)

From: Eudora Welty Review
Volume 4, Spring 2012
pp. 153-157 | 10.1353/ewr.2012.0015

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Peggy Whitman Prenshaw’s Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography is the recipient of the 2011 Jules and Frances Landry Award, presented by Louisiana State University Press to recognize a significant contribution to the field of southern studies. The book, broad in scope and meticulously researched, is more than deserving of this recognition. Long in the making, Prenshaw’s study has arrived in time to benefit from the current interest in all forms of self-writing: diaries, journals, daybooks, letters, memoirs—even oral histories, interviews, and conversations. For all that they reveal, Prenshaw does not include these “fragmented, discontinuous ‘lower’ forms”; rather, her focus is the more formal autobiography, the book-length text intended for publication. “The diary may offer immediacy and less censorship by author or editor,” Prenshaw observes, “but the published narrative gives us a writerly text, the autobiographer’s art, and it places the life story in an expressive public context” (27).

Southern women who have undertaken the task of autobiography have been keenly aware of the risks of self-assertion within the public context, and Prenshaw is fully attuned to the tensions between societal expectations and the lives that southern women have defined in their self-texts. Prenshaw’s goal—one achieved throughout—is to illuminate “the ways in which regionality, gender, and genre are experienced, enacted, and thus made visible in a variety of life writings by southern women” (4). Confining her focus to writers who came of age in the late southern Victorian period, Prenshaw begins with Belle Kearney’s A Slaveholder’s Daughter, published in 1900, and concludes with texts by Elizabeth Spencer and Ellen Douglas that both appeared in 1998. Along the way, she treats texts by public figures, including Helen Keller, and by some of the region’s most celebrated creative writers.

Prenshaw’s descriptions and carefully chosen quotations enable a reader to see a text through her eyes, and her connections are always provocative. For example, she links Keller’s The Story of My Life (1903) and Midstream: My Later Life (1929) to physician Anne Walter Fearn’s My Days of Strength (1939). Both writers suggest some of the ways in which “southern women during this period developed self narratives that decenter the self, composing stories of agency and courage but still deflecting acceptance and recognition of their personal power” (67). Fearn, who practiced in China, is unique among southern women autobiographers in focusing almost solely on her work—in placing highest value on “the self as it is realized and expressed in action, not contemplation” (94). What Prenshaw discerns, however, is an “interior self” that “keeps sending out sounds of its presence like Jane Eyre’s nemesis imprisoned in the attic” (87).

Prenshaw finds a certain degree of indirection and elusiveness in the autobiographies of southern women, but equally important is the larger pattern that she delineates: the presentation of a “relational self that emerges indirectly from the narrator’s account of others” (27). Unlike Patricia Meyer Spacks, Prenshaw does not regard this figure as a “self in hiding.” Instead, she contends that “‘relationality’ may be a more accurate description of one’s lived life than ‘introspection,’ especially if the life is that of a woman deeply implicated in family” (167). Even Ellen Glasgow and Zora Neale Hurston, writers who stress their sense of aloneness, still reify and valorize the self through its engagement with others.

One of Prenshaw’s goals is to steer readers away from narrow or condescending reactions to women whose lives were marked by the gender norms of another era. Writing about the “wifehood narratives” of Mary Hamilton and Agnes Grinstead Anderson, Prenshaw shows how such texts, which might be dismissed as “biographies of husbands,” invariably “exceed the story the writer sets out to tell, especially when that storyteller aims at self-effacement” (96, 124). Both Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth: The Autobiography of Mary Hamilton (written in the early 1930s, published in 1992) and Anderson’s Approaching the Magic Hour: Memories of Walter Inglis Anderson (1989) are collaborative works, prompted in each case by an editor who helped to shape the final book. Both writers were part of a “female sphere in the...

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