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614 Mississippi Quarterly Composing Selves: Southern Women and Autobiography. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011. 331 pp. $45.00. IN THIS EXPANSIVE YET TAUT ANALYSIS OF A DIVERSE COLLECTION OF autobiographical narratives (“life stories”), Peggy Whitman Prenshaw elegantly wrangles the composed selves of a concatenation of women who grew up in the South in the “late Southern Victorian period”—i.e., between the end of the Civil War and the 1930s. Fiction writers, political activists, loyal wives, dutiful daughters—these nineteen Southern women facilitate Prenshaw’s nuanced examination of the complex intersections—in their lives and in their books—of region; gender; class; race; and the subtle, intricate operations of memory, reliability, and subjectivity. Prenshaw asserts that her varied subjects, born and bred with the limitations and expectations of Southern womanhood, stride into risky terrain in their presumption to tell their own stories. As women and as Southerners, her authors generally create “relational” personae, framing their stories and their evolving identities within their relationships with family, community, and (in several instances) the larger world. And yet, Prenshaw argues, however oblique and mediated their narrative stance, these female Southerners, by the very act of writing their own lives, exhibit “the considerable skill and courage necessary to a realization of the self on the printed page” (294). The women Prenshaw presents in Composing Lives share a Southern provenance that is fundamental in their coming of age as women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Prenshaw, a scholar of Southern literature, is particularly insightful in her explication of the distinctive and powerful intersection of gender and region, and its profound influence on the South’s daughters. Prenshaw explains the cultural, social, and economic implications of the South’s development from the defeated antebellum Old South to the New South of the new century, and the “divided ideals, even contradictions” of this vexed transition, which, she suggests, parallel the “divided impulses” of the women who are the subjects of her study (7, 8). Consistent in their appropriation of the regional archetypes that determine their younger lives—the indomitable patriarchy, the “Southern belle” myth’s demand for female grace, beauty, and dedication to others—these women 615 Book Reviews nonetheless grow into very diverse lives; and the structure of Composing Lives underscores their similarities and differences. Beginning with the older generation of women who came of age just after the Civil War (suffragist, temperance reformer, and Mississippi state senator Belle Kearney; activist Alabaman Helen Keller; Anne Walter Fearn, a physician in China), Prenshaw then considers the “wifehood narratives” of Mary Hamilton, an uneducated, hard-working wife and mother from the rugged Mississippi Delta, and Agnes Grinstead Anderson, whose Approaching the Magic Hour recounts her undeviating devotion to painterWalterAnderson,amanwhosedazzlingartistictalentcontrasted with his dramatic shortcomings as a husband and father. A grouping of women who left the South of their childhoods to follow their accomplished husbands into a more public life includes Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair, Virginia Foster Durr, Lindy Claiborne Boggs, and Lylah Scarborough Barber. InherdiscussionofthemoreideologicalautobiographiesofKatharine Dupre Lumpkin and Lillian Smith, who wrote to indict a system of racial injustice, Prenshaw foregrounds the awareness of and sensitivity to race and racism that (sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly) pervades these books by women who were formed by a society grappling with the long legacy of slavery. In the later chapters, Prenshaw deftly examines the personal stories of accomplished fiction writers (Ellen Glasgow, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Zora Neale Hurston, Bernice Kelly Harris, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Spencer, and Ellen Douglas), whose life writings demonstrate the literary sophistication, narrative facility, and keen observations of successful novelists. In her analysis of the writers’ lives—relayed in books such as Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road—Prenshaw most compellingly articulates a central theme of Composing Selves: the mutability of memory, subjectivity, and readers’ expectations and assumptions when reading autobiographical writing. As she concludes, “I have come to view autobiography not just as a literary form but as something of a literary ‘venue,’ a site of negotiation among the principal agents—memory, unfolding identity, and the demands of inscribed narrative, that is, sequence, causality, and coherence” (294). In skillfully negotiating...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 614-616
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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