By John Inscoe
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011
$59.95 [Cloth] $19.95 [Paper]
Dr. Jay Langdale (Ph.D., Florida) is an assistant professor of history at Andrew College in Cuthbert, Georgia.
“Autobiography,” William Dean Howell once noted, “is the most democratic province in the republic of letters.” This has arguably proven nowhere more truthful than in the American South where men and women of a broad cross-section of ethnicities, classes and dispositions have, for various reasons, chosen to tell about the region by essentially telling the story of themselves. Over the last several decades, literary scholars including Fred Hobson, Louis Rubin and Bill Berry have, in recognition of this circumstance, authored studies on the breadth and depth of southern autobiography. In Writing the South Through The Self: Explorations in Southern Autobiography, John Inscoe, the Albert Saye Professor History Professor of History at the University of Georgia, aims to add to this literature.
Inscoe begins his highly readable study with some autobiographical reflections of his own which pertain to his development of an interest in the subject at hand and which include his astute observations on the value of southern autobiography in the history classroom. Of particular note, Inscoe expresses his intention to take his subjects’ “words and memories and interpretations at face value” (9). This, he readily admits, goes against the often illuminating trends towards theoretically based “psychological, historical and literary” approaches which inform most current studies of autobiography (9). Among other things, Inscoe’s methodological perspective both inherently questions the historians’ “noble dream” of objectivity and expressly conveys a needful reclamation by historians of autobiography which remains among the most subjective forms of historical evidence.
After committing the opening chapter to a fuller consideration of pedagogical approaches to southern autobiography, Inscoe follows with six more self-contained chapters on a variety of themes through which autobiography indelibly deepens understanding of the southern experience. Chapters two and three deal consecutively with autobiographical representations of identity in mixed race southern adolescents and with autobiographical accounts of white poverty as viewed through, among others, Jimmy Carter, Ralph McGill and Harry Crews. Chapter four deals marvelously with autobiographical perspectives on the near ubiquitous experience of southern rail travel and the manner in which those on board experiences often conveyed larger truths about the social and psychological consequences of what Inscoe aptly describes as “this very public form of segregation”(100). The final two chapters of Writing the South Through The Self notably focus on white southern autobiographies. In “I’m Better Than This Sorry Place,” the author focuses exclusively on how white southerners, including Willie Morris, Katharine Lumpkin and Eli Evans, both challenged and affirmed aspects of their southern identity as college students. In the book’s final chapter, Inscoe explores the oft-neglected narratives of white southerners in Appalachia which, Inscoe persuasively argues, remain among the most profound reflections on the power of place to shape “one’s sense of self” (161). From start to finish, the book incessantly enlarges the reader’s sense of wonder at the sheer volume of southern autobiographies, but this is nowhere more astounding than in his explication, in an afterword, of more than a half dozen life stories from Native Americans, Asians and Latinos in what has increasingly become much more a multicultural than a merely bi-racial southern literary landscape.
The book’s afterword as well as its exhaustive bibliography of southern autobiographies beckons the reader to further consider Inscoe’s central question as to what, in the final analysis, “makes a life inherently southern”? (xi) In this regard, Inscoe’s study is a worthy twenty-first century successor to Fred Hobson’s 1983 study Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain. At the same time, the self-reflexive postmodernist title and tone of Writing the South Through The Self brings to mind the ever-present concerns over the relative impact that globalization will finally visit on the persistence of regional identities in the United States. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the south, which has, for better or worse, often been the lone holdout against larger trends in American history, may as yet continue to be so in terms of a sense of self which, among other things, remains indelibly rooted in a sense of place.