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Autobiography
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Southern autobiographers exhibit a historical consciousness typical of southern literature. They value religious or moral interpretations of the world, are loyal to family, friends, and community, and unavoidably confront a heritage of slavery and racial struggle. Largely because of the irony and tragedy of southern history, the regional autobiographers are conscious of human imperfection, social injustice, and the existence of evil in the world. At the same time, they are storytellers who in a casual, literary way reveal the individual context of regional history and the distinctiveness of southern culture while preserving and continuing the dialogue between region and nation.

Until the 19th century, southern autobiography could not be distinguished from the established form of English spiritual autobiography. Southern autobiographers, including Thomas Jefferson, were prominent public officials who equated their professions with their identity and function in American history. As sectional conflict became more pronounced and serious, autobiography became more popular, and ordinary southerners more frequently wrote their autobiographies. Antebellum plantation mistresses silently recorded their life stories in their diaries, and escaped slaves wrote narratives detailing their journeys from South to North. Among antebellum diaries, Mary Chesnut's Civil War (edited by C. Vann Woodward, 1982) most elaborately details antebellum southern cultural life, landscape, social events, political controversy, and domestic relations. It is, as well, a moral critique by a southern aristocrat experiencing the social tumult and disruption of civil war. The diary exemplifies the cultural ambivalence of a South in crisis, a questioning of traditional social and moral behavior, of patriarchy and the slave system, and of the ever-apparent disparities between the myth of the leisured southern lady and the reality of her everyday life.

Chesnut's portrait of the antebellum South is enhanced by a reading of the hundreds of slave narratives that established the literary form for black autobiography in America. Most significant among them are the narratives of William Wells Brown (1847), Henry Bibb (1849), James W C. Pennington (1849), Sojourner Truth (1850), Solomon Northup (1853), Samuel Ringgold Ward (1855), Booker T. Washington (1911), and the three-volume autobiography of Frederick Douglass (1845, 1855, 1881). The cultural foundation for the narratives was laid within the slave community, where the religion of the quarters provided a moral framework for criticizing the slave system. Each author condemns the institution of slavery for its inherent evil nature and its racism. At the same time, the narratives portray the heroic struggle of black families who battled forced separation, sale, and migration to maintain strong kinship networks. Committed to the betterment of the South and the advancement of their race, slave narrators present the evils of the slave system, not of its perpetrators. The slaves' unique heritage, their existence in bondage, their fusion of African and evangelical religion, and the strength of the slave community represent their vital contribution to southern autobiography.

More recent southern autobiographers are guided by a historical consciousness that fuses identity and community. They are acutely conscious of southern cultural distinctiveness, as created and maintained through individual lives. Five autobiographical masterworks exemplify the character of modern southern autobiography: Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), William Alexander Percy's Lanterns on the Levee (1941), Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin's The Making of a Southerner (1946), Willie Morris's North Toward Home (1967), and Will Campbell's Brother to a Dragonfly (1977).

Richard Wright's autobiography condemns racism while describing the author's quest for human dignity and achievement as a writer. Family history and racial struggle provide the foundation for Wright's rebellious spirit, his distrust of authority, tradition, and the white world. Like antebellum slave narrators, Wright found it necessary to gain an education and then leave the South in order to escape danger and achieve his goals. He nevertheless retains a loyalty to the South and a sense of place that guide the development of his life. Nostalgically, he recalls the Mississippi landscape, the "yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi River and the verdant bluffs of Natchez," "the drenching hospitality in the pervading smell of sweet magnolias," and "the aura of limitless freedom distilled from the rolling sweep of tall, green grass swaying and glinting in the summer sun." Wright left the South in order to understand it more clearly; and he wrote Black Boy so that others would join him in the struggle against racism.

William Alexander Percy and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, both of whom are descendants of slaveholders, wrestle with the assumptions behind racial inequality and sectional conflict, while placing their life histories within the context of southern history. Born in 1885 and 1897, respectively, each inherited some of the values and lifestyles that characterized the Old South. Both define their lives by describing a shared heritage: the settlement of the South, the importation of slaves, Reconstruction, the development and demise of the sharecropping system, the Depression, World War I, and the civil rights movement that emerged at the turn of the century. Percy's Lanterns on the Levee is the sensitive exposition of a southern aristocrat who feared the rule of the masses and was determined to confront the criticism of northern liberals in order to defend the cultural traditions of the Old South. Writing during a time when the nation viewed the South as poor, backward, and disease ridden, Percy describes an idyllic southern childhood, including his early exposure to religion, turtle soup, and crawfishing along the Mississippi River. Impressionistically, he outlines his life with Delta landscapes and history, friends and relations, cultural traditions, and his favorite stories. He discusses his confrontations with northern liberals when he attended Harvard, when he served in the army during World War I, and when northern journalists criticized as racist his decisions as chairman of the Greenville, Miss., Flood Relief Committee, after the disastrous flood of 1927. Thoughtfully and carefully, he rationalizes and attempts to justify white supremacy, manifesting a patience and tolerance for slow change that is absent from more recent southern autobiography.

Unlike Percy, Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin altered her racial attitudes as southern society changed and the incongruities of the old life, particularly between racism and Christian doctrine, became apparent to her. Her vivid descriptions of family and community portray southern culture in its most basic sense: a living record of voices and lives. Lumpkin struggles to overcome her bondage to slavery, transmitted to her through several generations of relatives and through acquaintances who taught her to accept the inequality between white and black. She represents well a changing South, and ultimately rejects racial inequality and discrimination, as well as "the entire peculiar set of ways which it allegedly justified."

Willie Morris's autobiography, North Toward Home, best illustrates how 20th-century southerners become acutely conscious of regional identity and southern ethnicity when they travel to the North. A Mississippi childhood shapes and informs the autobiography, as Morris describes his travels from Mississippi to Texas to New York. In New York he is stereotyped by northerners, black and white, who assume that he is backward, uneducated, unsophisticated, and racist. Thrust back upon himself and his past, he befriends other southerners up North: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and William Styron. His conversations with them enable him to define his cultural identity and to formulate a clear definition of southern temperament, intellect, and imagination:

. . .easygoing conversation; the casual talk and the telling of stories, in the Southern verbal jam-session way; the sense of family and the past and people out of the past; the congenial social manner and mischievous laughter; the fondness of especial detail and the suspicion of more grandiose generalizations about human existence; the love of the American language in its accuracy and vividness and simplicity; the obsession with the sensual experience of America in all its extravagance and diversity; the love of animals and sports, of the outdoors and sour mash; the distrust in the face of provocation of certain manifestations of Eastern intellectualism. . .and a pointed tension just below the surface of things, usually controlled but always there.

Morris's autobiography provides evidence for the persistence of southern regional distinctiveness and the sense of place that defines southern lives.

Will Campbell's Brother to a Dragonfly exemplifies the interconnectedness a southerner perceives between self, family, morality, and community. Like Lillian Hellman's outstanding autobiography, Pentimento (1973), Campbell's autobiography views the author through a portrait of another. The lives of Will and Joe Campbell intertwine within the context of Mississippi social history. In the Campbell family, each brother's identity is assigned and unquestioned. Joe is the worker; Will is the preacher. Through tales of mischief, Will recalls their childhood: his nearly burning down an outhouse or fooling the WPA when they tested southern schoolchildren for hookworm. As youngsters, the brothers are intimate friends, but their lives diverge during adulthood after Will attends Yale and receives what Joe calls his "bachelor's of sophistication." When desegregation and civil rights become Will's mission during the 1950s, the brothers find themselves on opposite sides of racial issues. Joe increasingly adopts the role of the dragonfly—grasping for stability and security where there is none, becoming addicted to sedatives and amphetamines, and finally committing suicide. Brother to a Dragonfly describes two responses to the historical changes that affected 20th-century southern life: the Depression, World War II, integration, and the civil rights movement. Will and Joe Campbell's lives are "bound inextricably together . . . sometimes in a nearness approaching, surpassing illness. And sometimes so far apart that neither could hear the cry of the other."

Regardless of their race or social class, southern autobiographers define their lives within the shared context of southern history and culture. They present a realistic portrait of the South, while assessing and interpreting their relationship to the region, constructing a meaning through autobiography. One of the best-known recent autobiographies, Theodore Rosengarten's All God's Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw (1974), was a landmark in using oral history to tell the life story of Alabama sharecropper Ned Cobb; it conveyed the experience of one who lived through the dramatic changes of the 20th-century South yet would not have written a traditional autobiography. Despite their individual diversity, the authors of autobiographies portray a shared regional identity and cultural past, which have created the rich southern literary imagination. They indicate that South and North differ, in their landscapes, interaction patterns, traditions, and social conventions. Southern autobiographers differ from American autobiographers in general because of their historical consciousness. They stress the importance of family and community to identity and art, combining introspection, parable, and social critique to convey the cultural history of the South.

Ruth A. Banes
University of South Florida

Ruth A. Banes, in Perspectives on the American South, vol. 3, ed. James C. Cobb and Charles Reagan Wilson (1985); Cleanth Brooks, Journal of Southern History (February 1960); Will Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (1977); Harry Crews, A Childhood: Biography of a Place (1978); Frederick Douglass, Life of an American Slave (1845); Ellen Glasgow, The Woman Within (1954); Lillian Hellman, Three (1979); Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942); Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, The Making of a Southerner (1946); Willie Morris, North Toward Home (1967); William Alexander Percy, Lanterns on the Levee (1941); John Shelton Reed, One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture (1982); Charles P. Roland, Journal of Southern History (February 1982); Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream (1949); C. Vann Woodward, The Burden of Southern History (1960), ed., Mary Chesnut's Civil War (1981); Richard Wright, Black Boy (1937).