- "Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact": Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow
Published in 2008, the centennial year of Richard Wright's birth, it is perhaps fitting that Jennifer Jensen Wallach's monograph "Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact": Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow is largely influenced and inspired by Wallach's childhood introduction to and understanding of life in the Jim Crow South via her reading of Wright's autobiography Black Boy. Composed of four main chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion), "Closer to the Truth" asks how autobiography shapes our understanding of history and examines the marginal role autobiographies have played as source material for historians and the historical rationale for their mostly limited uses. Wallach's interdisciplinary approach encourages historians to venture beyond anecdotal usages of life writing toward a more comprehensive engagement with autobiography as source material. Her contention is that the inclusion of multiple and often disparate voices commenting on a particular moment, event, or place would help to convey the complexity of the time, and thus provide a more nuanced historical view than the master narratives historians have tended to favor at the expense of displacing individual voices.
Positioned somewhere between literature and history, Wallach sees the autobiography as "a distinct thing in and of itself . . . not merely a peculiar kind of novel or first-person history" (5) and contends that it is the very subjective nature of life writing that makes it valuable as a historical source. She argues that literary autobiographies—those composed by the skilled creative writer rather than by writers of more formulaic and commercial autobiographies—can aid historians in capturing the felt experiences of individuals from a particular historical moment. The inclusion of multiple first-hand narratives complicates a monolithic understanding of an era or event, further complicating our understanding of history. Additionally, Wallach argues that autobiographies are a unique form of source material for historians because they provide an "emotional understanding of a particular historical reality" that cannot be captured as well by other sources of historical evidence.
In her overview of the field of autobiography studies, Wallach shows that the autobiography was largely viewed as historical writing prior to history's professionalization in the nineteenth century, which reduced the autobiography to "the status of mere sources" (6). Wallach argues that this more commonly accepted anecdotal approach to the inclusion of autobiography and the treatment of it as mere source material necessarily fails to capture the complexity of the memoirist's experience. Using the example of Richard Wright's transition from one who cannot dissemble in his interactions with whites to one who eventually learns to deploy irony with his white employers in the South, Wallach shows just how much historians miss in terms [End Page 532] of rendering the evolution of an individual's perspective when they use autobiography as anecdote. She argues that historians should analyze autobiographies in their entirety and further suggests that doing so, and taking a more comprehensive and rigorous approach to their treatments of autobiography, would provide historians with more nuanced understandings of the past. Her readings of six autobiographies detailing the authors' Jim Crow experiences are meant to demonstrate the value of taking such an approach.
Two chapters in this book discuss six autobiographies (three by black authors and three by white authors) that describe the Jim Crow South. The chapters are divided by race, with one chapter dedicated to analyzing the autobiographies of African American authors (Richard Wright's Black Boy, Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Colored People) and the other dedicated to the autobiographies of white American authors (Willie Morris's North Toward Home, Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream, and William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee). Though each of the individual readings she provides are interesting, Wallach fails to account for her selection of these six autobiographies in favor of other available narratives that also memorialize experiences in the Jim Crow era. She never explains...