Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 62-78
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My Twentieth Century
Leaves From a Journal
Anne Firor Scott
Anne Firor Scott is W. K. Boyd Professor of History Emerita at Duke University. In 1970 her book The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 virtually established the modern study of southern women's history, and it has never gone out of print. Since then, Anne Scott has taught at Duke and all over the world, inspiring legions of younger followers to insist on the importance of women in southern history. To honor her eightieth birthday, the Schlesinger Library for the History of Women in America held a symposium in 2001 in which a number of scholars paid tribute and Scott reflected on the highlights of her career. This is what she said.
I am not sure why the number eighty seems so weighty, compared with its predecessor or even with its successor. What are the landmark ages? Being old enough to drive? To vote? Or fifty? One young friend told me gloomily that after fifty it is all downhill. I could only respond that my resumé begins at age fifty. At any rate, eighty is a good time for putting the pieces together, for trying to make sense of eight decades of life.
My title was inspired by the protagonist in Penelope Lively's novel Moon Tiger, who says—apropos of her plan to write a history of the world—"My Victorians are not your Victorians. My seventeenth century is not yours. The voice of . . . Darwin, of whoever you like, speaks in one tone to me, in another to you. The signals of my own past come from the received past. The lives of others slot into my own life." Like this woman, I assume that my twentieth century is not yours and that we can only imperfectly convey our individual life experience to each other. But I also assume that with documents the historian can try to reconstruct a partly shared past—and that we are all primary sources for the social historian.
The documents in this case are thirty-one volumes of a journal begun in the summer of 1939. For the years before the journal I must rely on treacherous memory.
My beginning was decidedly provincial and my geographic frame narrow. Born in a village in southwest Georgia, I grew up from age two in the small, sleepy town of Athens, Georgia, founded in the late eighteenth century to be the home of the state university. When I enrolled there 150 years later, one member of the faculty had taught my grandfather, and his colleagues were nearly all in a nineteenth-century [End Page 62] mold, more like Mr. Chips than like twentieth-century scholars. The most admired of them were classicists.
Retirement was not even a concept. There were no pensions. Faculty members continued to teach until illness or death brought their careers to an end. I am astonished to find myself in 1939 writing, "I enjoy him [the professor of Latin] immensely. But somehow I'm not sure he isn't a prisoner in the ivied walls of the University and the world at large is just a mass of shadows to him." It seems unlikely that I had at that point come upon Plato's cave, but whence came that echo?
Faculty people, along with impecunious members of long established families, a few lawyers, a couple of doctors, and a handful of prosperous businessmen made up the town elite. With few exceptions, these people lived in what was called genteel poverty. Across the river was the mill village about which children on our side of town, or indeed our elders, knew very little. Beyond the town limits were many farm families, mostly poor, and half the population of the county was black.
That vanished world, so clear in my mind's eye, is now totally gone. Soon there will be no one alive who remembers it.
How can I convey to you, who are mostly younger and mostly not southern, what it felt like? The...