Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Radicalizing Reunion: Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life" and Reconciliation Romance

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Radicalizing Reunion: Helen Keller's "The Story of My Life" and Reconciliation Romance

Article excerpt

The 1903 Doubleday, Page, and Co. edition of Helen Keller's The Story of My Life contains several photographs of Keller with prominent Americans. (1) The last photograph in the book is a picture of Helen Keller and Mark Twain, arguably the most famous American of his time. This image reinforces Keller's status as a cultural icon, and it complements her efforts to fashion herself as a national hero in The Story of My Life (hereafter Story). In this narrative, Keller follows the Franklinian pattern, portraying herself as a self-made individual who, through industry and self-reliance, conquered personal hardship and became a national celebrity. In so doing, she invites her readers to consider her work a distinctly "American" text, which exhibits models of selfhood established in the nation's autobiographical traditions.

Yet, while Story shows Keller to be a prototypical American, it also reveals her peculiarly southern roots, which Keller continually plays up. In the first chapter, she claims that her paternal grandmother was a "granddaughter of Alexander Spotswood, an early colonial governor of Virginia," and "second cousin to Robert E. Lee" (13). Here, Keller links herself not only to the patrician class of antebellum Virginians but also to the Confederacy. She sustains this connection by informing readers that her father "was a captain in the Confederate Army" (13). If Keller wants her readers to recognize her as a paradigmatic American, then why does she associate herself with the rebel South? It is no surprise that Keller provides information about her father's past; he figures prominently in her memories of growing up in Alabama. However, her inclusion of Lee, a distant relative, in the Keller family genealogy seems a conscious and symbolic statement. (2) By observing conventions of American autobiography while linking herself to the Confederate South, Keller asks her readers to consider her a representative American and a child of the South. As American and southerner, she has a powerful double identity, which affords her special insight into the "culture of conciliation that characterized the North-South relationship in the Gilded Age years" (Silber 2).

After 1865, many white northerners and southerners, eager to ease sectional tensions, wrote novels and plays that dramatized North-South reunion. Providing an imaginary space for negotiating "the reunion process" and redefining American nationalism, these reconciliation romances were important products of the culture of conciliation (Silber 3). (3) Set in the South during Reconstruction, reconciliation romances featured marriages between Union veterans and southern women or between Confederate veterans and northern women that symbolized national reunion after the Civil War. These texts also romanticized the lifestyle of the planter class and "perpetuated much of the sentimentality ... of the old Southern myth," which portrayed the antebellum South as a pastoral paradise destroyed by war and Yankee occupation (105). Although northern writers established the conventions of the genre in the 1860s, some southerners tried their hands at writing reconciliation romances after Reconstruction. In fact, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Virginia-born novelist Thomas Nelson Page became one of America's most celebrated authors of reunion fiction (110-113).

Both northerners and southerners used this fiction to work through the social problems of Gilded Age America, and reconciliation romances often reflected the dominant cultural values of the time. According to Nina Silber, many of these texts promoted an ideology of reunion tailored to the interests of propertied white males. Affirming traditional class, race, and gender hierarchies, novels and plays of reunion often endorsed the social marginalization of the poor, African Americans, and women. By idealizing antebellum plantation culture, writers of reunion fiction expressed their sympathy with aristocratic southern values, suggesting that "reconciliation remained the province of the social elite" (Silber 106). …

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