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Biography
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.

Almost 40 years ago, in his own study of Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud warned that biographers, for personal reasons, often choose heroes for their subjects. Out of their own "special affection," Freud wrote, "they then devote themselves to a work of idealization." Intolerant of anything in their subject's inner or outer life that smacks of human weakness or imperfection, biographers "then give us a cold, strange, ideal form instead of a man to whom we could feel distinctly related." Freud might have added that because the majority of biographers have been white men, so are the subjects of most biographies, South and North.

Two of the best examples of this kind of deification in southern biography are Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee, both of whom have been the subjects of numerous biographies. The "Sage of Monticello" was truly an eloquent, erudite scholar and a brilliant statesman, but his chief biographers—James Parton, Douglas Southall Freeman, Merrill Peterson, and Dumas Malone—have glorified his accomplishments, minimized or denied his flaws, and canonized his name so that a demigod, not a man, emerges from the pages of their biographies. Not until 1974 and the appearance of Fawn Brodie's eye-opening psychobiography, Thomas Jefferson An Intimate History (1974), did someone finally put flesh and bone on Jefferson. Brodie's Jefferson was ambivalent about love and power, slavery and revolution. Brodie's Jefferson was extremely virile and passionate and at the same time compulsively controlled. Most controversial of all, Brodie insisted that rumors of Jefferson's longtime love affair with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, were indeed true. The vehemence with which Jefferson's white male biographers, particularly Peterson and Malone, have leaped to their subject's defense in this sensitive matter is evidence of a continued refusal to admit that Jefferson had even a particle of human frailty.

Jefferson's sanctified image has been matched only by that of Robert E. Lee. Of the two Virginians, Lee is the one who, for most southerners, evokes the lump in the throat, the tearful faraway gaze. This is partly because Lee's biographers have purposely created and perpetuated the Lee myth: the man of flawless character; the perfect son, husband, and father; the noble officer torn between love for Union and loyalty to Virginia; the gallant general and brilliant militarist defeated only by overwhelming odds. He exemplified all that was best in the Old South, in the vanquished Confederacy. For the white South, Lee was a saint.

Thomas Connelly, in The Marble Man: Robert E. Lee and His Image in American Society (1977), traces the fascinating history behind the creation of the Lee legend. During and immediately after the Civil War, Lee was only one of several celebrated Confederate military leaders. Others, like Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, Joe Johnston, and Pierre T. Beauregard, were rivals for southern popularity. Lee even received criticism from his earliest biographers for his alleged mistakes at Gettysburg. But in the mid-1870s, shortly after Lee died, a group of Virginians led by General Jubal Early, one of Lee's corps commanders, took control of the Southern Historical Society and its influential papers. For personal reasons, their image of the Civil War centered upon Lee and the Virginia military theater. So they decided to raise Lee far above the other war heroes, silence any critics, and downplay or discredit the exploits of other Confederate generals. Connelly shows how every subsequent biography of Lee, including Douglas Southall Freeman's prizewinning four-volume work, has taken its cues from these far-from-disinterested Virginia men.

Connelly suggests that none of Lee's biographers tells much about the inner man or the drives that shaped his life. Like Freeman, they paint a superficial portrait of Lee, leaving out his humanity, giving readers a man more marble than flesh. The real Lee, the essential Lee, says Connelly, has been buried under the hero symbol. And though his own book is a history of Lee biographies, not a biography of Lee, Connelly's "Epilogue" raises the kind of questions about Lee—his troubled marriage, his ambivalence over slavery and secession, his morbidity and haunting sense of failure, his parochial vision of war"that should provide the meat for a new biography.

Jefferson was a statesman, Lee a military leader; politics and the military were traditional avenues to male power. Not surprisingly then, much of southern biography focuses on politicians and generals. Southerners, active in the American Revolution, dominated presidential politics for the first quarter of a century of the new nation and dominated federal politics until secession in 1861. So there has been no dearth of biographies about southern statesmen like George Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe—all from Virginia—John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson. Civil War leaders Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens have also had their biographers, although in the case of these two political foes, early biographies were acts of justification with the biographers carrying old fights into print. Southern fire-eaters like Robert Barnwell Rhett, William Lowndes Yancey, Edmund Ruffin, and James Henry Hammond have received less attention, although several new biographies have appeared, among them Drew Gilpin Faust's James Henry Hammond and the Old South (1982) and Betty L. Mitchell's Edmund Ruffin: A Biography (1981). And, of course, Robert E. Lee's comrades in arms—Longstreet, Jackson, Jeb Stuart, Beauregard, Johnston—have all been the subjects of essentially military biographies.

The usual subjects for southern biography have been white and male, and they have come, almost exclusively, from the upper classes. Those men not blessed with wealth and/or family position at birth, like Washington, Lee, and Hammond, had the good sense to marry wives who had been. But politics sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, so biographers have studied the lives of important rednecks like populist rebel Tom Watson, "Kingfish" Huey Long (who liked to masquerade as a redneck despite his respectable yeoman background), and rock-and-roll sensation Elvis Presley. C. Vann Woodward's Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel (1938) and T. Harry Williams's Pulitzer Prize-winning Huey Long (1969) are fine examples of this kind of southern biography.

Whether biographers are discussing Jefferson's paradoxical feelings about slavery, Rufffin's unapologetic defense of the peculiar institution, or Watson's vicious race baiting, race itself has been a constant theme in southern biography. But distressingly few biographies have been written about blacks. Those that do exist have usually treated men working in one way or another toward black liberation and racial justice. Thus, in Stephen B. Oates's The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion (1935), readers witness the re-creation of the dramatic but short life of a black revolutionary, a slave convinced he is God's violent instrument for the salvation of his people. Benjamin Quarles and Nathan Huggins, biographers of runaway slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reveal a man just as dedicated to black freedom but convinced, at first, that this freedom could be won through nonviolence. Booker T. Washington's biographers, Louis Harlan and Bernard Weisberger, demonstrated his commitment to racial self-improvement through accommodation to segregation. And finally, Oates's recent Let the Trumpet Sound: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (1982) vividly connects the line of history that exists among these four black leaders. Like Turner, King was nurtured by his family and encouraged to feel he was somebody special, a Moses for his people. Like Washington, he was committed to improvement for his race, but unlike the great founder of Tuskegee, he was not satisfied with segregated "racial uplift" programs. With Douglass, he believed in peaceful means to conquer racism and thus embraced Gandhian techniques of nonviolent resistance in order to combat racial oppression and social injustice.

If few biographies exist on southern black men, there are fewer still on black women. Southern white women have fared better with the recent emphasis on women's history, but not much. Biographies of southern white women, like those of white men, usually deal with the concept of honor, because, as historian Bertram Wyatt Brown argues in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1983), honor was the psychological and social linchpin of the antebellum South. For southern white men, honor required "both riches and a body of menials"; for white women, honor required sexual innocence and a childlike meekness. This "cult of true womanhood" touched women North and South, but southern men made a fetish out of extolling the purity and excellence of southern womanhood and, by extension, southern civilization. Biographers of southern women have shown how their subjects accept, reject, or modify this feminine domestic ideal.

Gerda Lerner's The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina (1970) recounts the lives of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, daughters of a South Carolina planter, who refused to accept meekly the South's peculiar institution of slavery and moved to the North to become the first salaried female abolitionists and the first American women to speak in public. These two women, who were the epitome of piety and purity—both were Quakers—violated the sacred canons of southern honor to perform what they believed was God's own work.

Elizabeth Muhlenfeld's portrait of Mary Boykin Chesnut reveals a South Carolina woman much like the Grimke sisters in class background and wealth. She, too, hated slavery, calling it a "monstrous institution," not out of any sympathy for the slaves, but because of the plight of white women whose honor depended on ignoring evidence of miscegenation in their own families. Unlike the Grimke sisters, Chesnut never left the South, and she became an ardent Confederate. Yet she, too, spurned the southern feminine ideal. In antebellum days this educated, intelligent, but childless woman often felt like a useless ornament; in the postwar period, she took charge of the family plantation.

Nancy Milford's biography Zelda (1970), the tragic story of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, gives the reader a 20th-century twist on the 19th-century feminine ideal of southern white womanhood. Zelda Sayre, a Montgomery, Ala., belle who lived life in the fast lane, rejected the innocent passivity of the "true woman" to boldly embrace the modern "New Woman": the flapper who used her good looks and sexual allure to get what she wanted from men. But this new brand of femininity was equally perverse, even schizophrenic, and Zelda finally succumbed.

Hero worship—or heroine worship—may be a kind of secular religion in America, South and North. Individuals like Washington, Jefferson, and Lee have taken on an almost Christlike aura, and to suggest that such men, such symbols of sectional and national righteousness, had blemishes and complex motivations like other human beings frequently raises more than a few hackles. But to deify human beings, no matter how accomplished and worthy, sacrifices truth to illusion in biography. To limit southern biography to great white men would sacrifice the richness, variety, and wholeness of southern history. Fortunately the many fine, probing biographies of southerners, male and female, black and white, that have appeared in recent times promise to make Freud's warnings increasingly unnecessary by giving readers life-size, not larger-than-life, subjects to whom they can feel more than "distantly related."

Betty L. Mitchell
Southeastern Massachusetts University