The Southern Literary Journal 35.2 (2003) 133-137
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Two Good Lives Were Writing
Lorraine Hale Robinson
Bernice Kelly Harris: A Good Life Was Writing. By Valerie Raleigh Yow. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. 360pp. $39.95.
The Road from Pompey's Head: The Life and Work of Hamilton Basso. By Inez Hollander Lake. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1999. 303 pp. $29.95.
In many ways, the worlds of Bernice Kelly Harris and Hamilton Basso could not be more different. Separated by the obvious distinction of gender, Harris and Basso also differ in the physical size of their worlds: Harris lived out most of her writing days in the small town of Seaboard, North Carolina; Basso traveled the world. Harris's out-of-town jaunts took her to Raleigh, Basso's to Tahiti. But the two writers were, in certain respects, remarkably similar. Both were southerners who could see realistically aspects of the American South that were either mythologized or sentimentalized or demonized by other writers. Both shared a fascination for people: as journalist Roy Parker, Jr. remarked of Harris, "Everything and every person held a mystery or a story," and Basso himself commented, "It's people I'm interested in—people alone." Basso and Harris experienced significant recurring periods of depression and doubt about their craft. Both writers struggled with the tension between their "selves" as writers and as persons. And both viewed the southern landscape (physical and human) as kaleidoscopic and rich in its variety, far exceeding the southern stereotypes of moonshine, magnolias, and madness.
Valerie Raleigh Yow's biography of Harris introduces her readers in a relaxed, informal, and anecdotal way to her subject. Bernice Harris was born in Wake County, South Carolina, but spent her adult life in the eastern North Carolina town of Seaboard. There she taught English and coached drama as well as wrote both fiction and drama. Her novel Purslane (U of North Carolina P, 1939), an episodic work based on Harris's childhood [End Page 133] memories of her home, family, and community, won the 1939 Mayflower Cup. In 1966, Harris received the North Carolina Award for Literature. Yow's interest was piqued by the "conventionality" of Harris's existence (there are some echoes of Emily Dickinson's life here), coupled with her joyous, vibrant creative output. Regarding herself as "biographer as artist under oath," Yow has scrupulously provided markers such as "perhaps" or "possibly" or "maybe" when she has had to extrapolate. Her approach is multi-faceted: she states that she is writing biography and history ("the way an individual life reveals the intersection of culture, historical moment, and the particular") and psychology (individual emotional expression as related to "culturally approved feelings")—all of these as related to Harris's gender in the locus of Harris's time. Given the sweeping breadth of her intent, for Yow to have succeeded even partially would be an accomplishment. However, Yow succeeds on each of these fronts, leading the reader to infer the general—Every Woman—from a close examination of the particular.
Harris's life is presented—a life in which the writing craft is central, but the book paints a picture of a "typical" southern wife whose personal vivacity is fed most satisfyingly by her dedication to her craft. Early and late chapters focus on Harris's personal life, especially her development as a writer under the influence of Frederick Koch at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her later twin personal struggles with the issue of racial equality and with severely straitened financial means. The "inner" chapters generally bear the title of one of her works or present the reader with what is happening to Harris via her oeuvre. (Yow's detailed plot summaries are helpful since many of the works are out of print.) Trained as a teacher and influenced by "Proff" Koch (founder in 1918 of the Carolina Playmakers), Harris became immediately and deeply enthralled with the process of making stories "come true" on stage. Koch's theory and practice of the folk play (in the...