Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography

Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography

Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography

Writing the South through the Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography

Excerpt

I have long believed that autobiographers are, or can be, among the most astute chroniclers of the South. Much of what makes their self-portraits so accessible—indeed, so memorable—is that they tend to privilege storytelling, dramatic turning points, and cathartic or revelatory moments, all of which are packed with meaning, insight, and feeling, sometimes well beyond anything intended by their authors. As Flannery O’Connor once noted, “The Southerner knows he can do more justice to reality by telling a story than he can by discussing problems or proposing abstractions…. It’s actually his way of reasoning and dealing with experience.”

Autobiographers then, as both historians and storytellers, have much to tell us about what it has meant to be southern, whether black or white, male or female, rich or poor, at various times and from various locales, all of which allows us to see and understand the region and its people in ways that elude more conventional treatments drawn from more traditional sources. By allowing us to view the South through a multiplicity of contexts and voices and time periods, autobiography and memoir comprise what I believe are among the most moving and vividly expressed forms of historical documentation.

Part of the power of southern autobiography, in particular, lies in the fact that southerners, far more consciously than most Americans, have long seen themselves and their world in terms of place—whether the South as a whole, or some specific part of it. Louis Rubin once asked, “Isn’t it significant that the imagination of the Midwestern writer—I think of Dreiser, Hemingway, Fitzgerald—has so often been directed outward, while that of the southern writer has generally insisted upon finding its direction within the community?” While Rubin was thinking primarily of novelists, his observation holds . . .

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