Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Robert F. Williams and the Promise of Southern Biography. (Essay)

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Robert F. Williams and the Promise of Southern Biography. (Essay)

Article excerpt

I come from a family of preachers, teachers, and farmers, not academics, and most members of my extended clan don't seem to have any clear sense of what a college professor actually does on, say, Tuesdays. Don't worry. I'm not about to spill the beans. My late Uncle Dewey Tyson, however, may have already suspected something. When I told him that I was moving to Wisconsin to be a historian, Uncle Dewey grinned and said, "Well, son, write when you get work." And so I did. Exiled to the land of frozen lakes and fearful assistant professors, I passed the cold winter nights writing the biography of one of the fieriest southerners who ever told a tale.

Only a day or two after the University of North Carolina Press released Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power, I opened my Sunday newspaper and discovered that professor Stanley Fish had denounced the entire genre of biography. His essay, "Just Published: Minutiae without Meaning," was not a specific reference to Radio Free Dixie, or naturally I would have been forced to challenge Professor Fish to a bloody affair of honor. But nonetheless I have been lurking in the shadows, plotting and sulking like one of William Faulkner's vindictive barn-burners. My only regret with respect to Professor Fish's imminently flammable gin house is that the number of serious students of southern culture does not quite match the readership of the Sunday New York Times.

Professor Fish is among those who regard the life of the mind as a kind of broken kaleidoscope filled with floating fragments of text. Biographers are illusionists, in Fish's assessment, "who can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their story for the story of their announced subject." In our postmodern age, Fish asserts, "master narratives" are dead. The compulsive efforts of biographers to pile up the particulars of a human life amount to "little more than a collection of random incidents" in "a universe of accident and chance." What Fish objects to most vehemently is how biographers build collages of fact to provide historical context for their subjects; historical facts "unattached to a master narrative," Fish says, "don't mean anything in particular, or can mean anything at all." Lacking any moorings for our stories, Fish argues, we should abandon causes and effects and embrace "contingency." Fish laments that so many people read biographies while their time, in his words, "might be better spent on more edifying spectacles like politics and professional wrestling." (1)

Flannery O'Connor once observed that integrity is often merely a function of what we are unable to do, and I confess that my ability to resist the siren song of poststructuralist fashion was always firmly rooted in my own incapacities. (2) I had rather eat a horse blanket than read most of the stuff that came out of the English department at Duke University during Dr. Fish's heyday. I grew up immersed in southern traditions of storytelling and insurgency, where we sometimes killed the master but always kept the narrative, thank you very much. Hamstrung by my benighted upbringing, I was almost finished with my Ph.D. at Duke before I realized that it was bad to offer "linear" explanations of things. (You know, linear, like when 1862 comes right after 1861.)

Not completely oblivious, however, I did manage to figure out during the early years of my graduate education that biography was not quite respectable scholarship. I don't recall that anyone ever told me that biography was disreputable. It just seeped into my lungs with the dust of the Boyd Seminar Room. As my friend and fellow biographer Steve Kantrowitz reminisced of his own graduate school miseducation: "Biographies were big, fat, unlearned things written by nonscholars who had not discerned the difference between an index card and a telling fact." (3) Like Steve, I was not writing a biography, and during the dissertation years even reading them remained my secret sin. …

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