MAXWELL:  THE SOUTHERN EXPERIENCE

8/16/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

SOUTHERN SELVES

From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kaye Gibbons, a Collection of Autobiographical Writing

Edited and with an introduction by James H. Watkins

Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

For me, an African-American born in the South, the title alone _ Southern Selves: From Mark Twain and Eudora Welty to Maya Angelou and Kay Gibbons, a Collection of Autobiographical Writing _ suggests more than a simple literary portrait of the nation’s most intriguing region.

It also suggests a cultural, historical and personal journey.

Even more, the title _ accompanied by a hauntingly surreal photograph on the cover featuring innocent, yet prideful, Southern white children _ suggests a bittersweet passage into the psyche of the American South, a place where two centuries of white-male domination have shaped the conflicting essences of the region’s inhabitants.

On the literary side, Southern Selves, an anthology of work by 31 authors, reveals that the South is more than the home of great novelists, short story writers and, to a lesser extent, poets and playwrights. It also has a rich tradition in the memoir _ the “I” voice that attempts to capture not only the self but a world, a sense of place that makes writers who they are.

“Place,” wrote Eudora Welty, “absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it and the growth of experience inside it.”

James H. Watkins, editor of Southern Selves, said that the author’s “personal identity is intimately intertwined with both the physical and cultural landscape . . . with its rhythms of speech, its patterns of social interaction, its history _ even its cuisine.” In effect, he writes, Southern Selves alerts the reader to the “subtle links that are drawn between the lay of the land and the manners of the people who inhabit that land.”

A scholar with an apolitical approach to the region where he was born, Watkins selected a wide variety of authors who write authentically and without inhibition. The reader sees the South in all of its racism, sexism, vulnerability and nobility.

Willie Morris, for example, confronts the natural hatred of blacks that defined the world of his early years, his experiences are typical of those of most of the other white authors in the book. After describing how he unaccountably beat a young black boy and his subsequent remorse, he writes:

“My own alternating affections and cruelties were inexplicable to me, but the main thing is that they were largely assumed and only rarely questioned. The broader reality was that the Negroes in the town were there: They were ours, to do with as we wished. I grew up with this consciousness of some tangible possession, it was rooted so deeply in me by the whole moral atmosphere of the place that my own ambivalence _ which would take mysterious shapes as I grew older _ was secondary and of little account . . . .

“Another assumption was that you would never call a Negro woman a “lady’ or address her as “ma’am,’ or say “sir’ to a Negro man. You learned as a matter of course that there were certain negative practices and conditions inherently associated with being a nigger.”

Because of such strict and often violent enforcement of the racial status quo, black writers have rejected being “kept” in their “places.” As result, Watkins writes, “No group has had more at stake in resisting “place’ in the South than African-Americans, whose literature has its primary sources in the slave narrative. The basic plot pattern of oppression, acquisition of literacy, then flight to the North that can be found in the writings of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs has been mirrored in the lives of so many other Southern-born blacks that its narrative structure can be traced in most of the classic writings _ fiction as well as non-fiction _ by African-Americans.”

Here, for example, is what Jacobs, who lived from 1813-1897, writes in Life of a Slave Girl (1861): “I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered among the slaves of America. I would rather drudge out my life on a cotton plantation, till the grave opened to give me rest, than to live with the unprincipled master and a jealous mistress. The felon’s home in a penitentiary is preferable.”

Like African-Americans, white female autobiographers and memoirists feel disconnected from the inner core of their homeland. They reject gender assumptions and lash out at the strict roles white men demand of them. Like blacks, many white female writers also feel as if they are aliens in their own backyards. For these gifted writers, patriarchy and the “Southern belle” tradition are affronts to their sense of self. Many of them, from suffragist Belle Kearney to literary iconoclast Evelyn Scott, antisegregationists Lillian Smith and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, each born into financial wealth, expose the private pain of being desexualized icons of white Southern culture.

Watkins also offers a handful of white liberal writers, such as Lillian Smith and Ralph McGill, who spin the confessional motif “in which painful memories of past sins are recounted as acts of expiation.”

For anyone who loves the South or who wants to learn about the forces that shaped its most important writers, Southern Selves will become an instant page-turner. The “I” in the essays will give the sensitive reader vicarious experiences that should bring new and deeper insights, for example, into the decadence and beauty of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

The “I” also should help the reader understand Richard Wright’s contempt for America in general and the South in particular. After secretly discovering the liberating magic of the written word, Wright sees the South in all of its inhumanity and oppressiveness and decides to escape to the North. Witness his disillusionment in “American Hunger,” a chapter from Black Boy:

“I was building up in me a dream which the entire educational system of the South had been rigged to stifle. I was feeling the very thing that the state of Mississippi had spent millions of dollars to make sure that I would never feel; I was becoming aware of the thing that Jim Crow laws had been drafted and passed to keep out of my consciousness; I was acting on impulses that Southern senators in the nation’s capital had striven to keep out of Negro life; I was beginning to dream the dreams that the state had said were wrong, that the schools had said were taboo.”

If the reader wants a genuine view of the South and its tortured psyche, Southern Selves is a treasure. It shows both sides of the tracks, gender distinction and subregional character. Those who have romanticized the South, however, will perhaps come away chastened and defensive.

No matter. Watkins, a professor of Southern and 19th century American literature at Berry College in Rome, Ga., has produced a tour de force that will enrich our knowledge of Dixie.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the Times.