Locating the self


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Locating the self southern identity, white masculinity, and the autobiographical "I"
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Watkins, James H
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Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1995.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 199-206).
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by James H. Watkins.
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I am indebted to Anne Goodwyn Jones for providing me with the

direction, example, and inspiration to see this project through from its

inception to its present state. She and the other members of my

dissertation committee, David Leverenz, John Seelye, Malini Schueller,

Bertram Wyatt-Brown, and Carl Bredahl, encouraged me to focus my

research on southern autobiography and helped me look at my subject from

a variety of perspectives. I would also like to thank the members of

the American Literature discussion group, Bill Beverly, Peter Concannon,

Leslie Henson, Lisa Houston, Mary Huffer, Gary MacDonald, Rhonda Morris,

Betsy Nies, David Russell, and Steve Spence, for reading and responding

to two of my chapters. It was through my mother Louise Watkins's

encouragement that I came to love the literature of the South and

through her example that I chose to become a teacher and scholar. Words

cannot express my appreciation for all that my wife Susan has done for

me. Her faith in me "has made all the difference" and her constant

support--emotional and otherwise--allowed me to complete this

dissertation. This is for Susan, Will, and Sam.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS.................................................... ii

ABSTRACT........................................................... iv




American Autobiography: The Dominant Tradition.......... 27
Regional Identity and Southern Difference............... 39
The Interpretation of Southern Autobiography............. 47
The Practice of Southern Autobiography.................. 61
Southern African Americans' Autobiography......... 65
White Southern Women's Autobiography.............. 71

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL "I"............................... 74



"REDNECK" AUTOBIOGRAPHY.......................... 180

REFERENCES..... ...................... ............................. 199

BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .................. ...................... ....... 207

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



James H. Watkins

August 1995

Chairperson: Anne Goodwyn Jones
Major Department: English

Southern white men have long embraced a regional identity that is

marked by "difference" from other forms of American masculinity. A

specific set of cultural assumptions has played a part in constructing

this difference. This dissertation examines the autobiographical

discourse of white male writers in the American South from the Colonial

period to the present and positions that discourse in relation to the

nationally dominant New England tradition of male self-portraiture. The

autobiographers I examine typically eschew autonomous individualism in

favor of community-based honor and a more relational or organic

conception of self and society. They rarely treat their "whiteness" as

transparent, obvious, or universal, and their masculinity is "feminized"

in regionally specific ways. These differences have resulted in their

canonical exclusion.

Chapter One examines the usefulness of contemporary autobiography

theory for this study, arguing that the most helpful are those that

theorize marginal autobiographical identities. Chapter Two explores the

historical conditions and specific cultural assumptions that have led

white southerners to resist nationally dominant models of selfhood and

self-representation. The subsequent chapters recover and analyze this


William Byrd's Histories of the Dividing Line reveals the early

existence of an honor-based model of selfhood in the South. The

nineteenth-century autobiographies of William J. Grayson and Richard

Taylor use relational strategies of self-representation to resist

northern cultural hegemony. However, Mark Twain uses his southern

identity to authorize his critique of the Lost Cause myth and position

himself as a "national" rather than a regional writer. Twentieth-

century autobiographers challenge the constraints of the tradition even

further. During the Southern Renaissance, poet William Alexander Percy

yokes together the discourses of southern identity and artistic selfhood

to allow for more interiority. In the Civil Rights era, Willie Morris

and other southern white liberals write confessional narratives which

inscribe an individual conscience. In the 1970s, "redneck"

autobiographers Harry Crews and Will Campbell deploy their class

identification to authorize their accounts and to expand the definitions

of the South and the southerner.


As critical interest in self-representation has steadily grown

during the last two decades, so too has the canon of American

autobiography. Where the first generation of scholars in the field

restricted their focus to texts that feature the confident "I" of the

"representative" American self, more recent criticism stresses the rich

diversity of autobiographical discourse in the United States. Arguing

that normative definitions of "American autobiography" excluded the life

writing of those whose experiences of selfhood differed from nationally

dominant constructions of white masculinity, feminist and minority

critics have been successful in calling attention to the ways in which

members of marginalized groups have used the autobiographical occasion

to assert their personal and collective identities and to rewrite the

standard histories. Yet, for all the work that has gone into remapping

the cultural, political, and historical terrain of self-representation

in the U.S., precious little critical attention has been given to

regional patterns in American autobiography, and no autobiography by a

white southerner, so far as I am aware, has been accorded canonical


Among the first to offer serious resistance to hegemonic

discourses of American identity, white southerners articulated their

sense of "difference" from the North (and, to a lesser extent, the rest

of the country) well before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter.

1 Two possible exceptions come to mind, and those are Thomas
Jefferson's Autobiography (1821) and William Byrd of Westover's
Histories of the Dividing Line (1728, 1737), both of which I discuss in
Chapter Three of this study.

In addition to embracing a self-consciously regional identity, the

autobiographers I examine reveal more subtle marks of difference as well

that challenge a number of largely unspoken assumptions about the

supposed uniformity of Anglo American male subjectivity. Because, as

Bertram Wyatt-Brown has argued in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in

the Old South, the traditional South placed a greater emphasis than did

the North on such external definitions of selfhood as honor and shame

(rather than the more internally directed grace and guilt), white

southerners' methods of self-portraiture have deviated significantly

from those of their northern counterparts. This is especially true for

privileged white men from the region, who have historically identified

most strongly with the South and played the dominant role in shaping the

discourse of southern identity.

I will argue that the conventional notions of autobiographical

selfhood that were once used to exclude the life writing of women and

minorities from the canon are still being used to misread the

autobiographies of white men from the South, which typically present a

less autonomous, more "relational" narrator than do the autobiographies

of white males from other parts of the country. Sidonie Smith argues

that one reason women's autobiographical writing has historically been

misread and devalued is that (male) critics have subjected it to an

androcentric model of self-representation that has minimal relevance to

female subjectivity:

In privileging the autonomous or metaphysical self as the agent of
its own achievement and in frequently situating that self in an
adversarial stance towards the world, "autobiography" promotes a
conception of the human being that valorizes individual integrity
and separateness and devalues personal and communal
interdependency. (Poetics of Women's Autobiography 38)

Yet, as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and others have shown, the ideology of

social organicism that informed antebellum southerners' defenses of

slavery rejected the bourgeois individualism of northern capitalism on

the grounds that it placed too great an emphasis on autonomy and

separateness at the expense of "communal interdependency."2

Although the previously ignored subject of southern autobiography

is now receiving some critical attention, few published treatments of

the topic to date have problematized the authority of the privileged

southerner's autobiographical "I," questioned the metaphysics of

presence upon which the reception of autobiography rests, or treated the

narrator's southern identity as a textual effect resulting from various

discursive practices rather than an extratextual reality that

"naturally" manifests itself in the narrative. The present study will

do all those things, but in order to do so it will first be necessary to

examine the cultural and historical conditions that allowed for the

emergence and development of a white southern autobiographical

tradition. Such an investigation is predicated upon the assumption that

autobiography (by which I mean generally any form of published self-

representation such as autobiography, memoir, personal narrative, and

"edited" diaries) is accorded a special status in relation to other

literary forms and involves its own rules of transmission and reception.

Consequently, we must begin by examining the ways in which contemporary

theorists have historicized and reconceptualized the practice of life


Although Europeans have engaged in self-representation at least

since Saint Augustine wrote his Confessions in 400 A.D., the term

autobiography is of relatively recent coinage. The OED lists its first

usage in 1797, where the editor of the Monthly Review treats the word as

an oddity; half a century later it appears to be in common circulation,

with Sir Charles Lyell employing the apparently familiar term to

describe the emerging science of geology as "the autobiography of the

2 See Fox-Genovese, "The Anxiety of History: The Southern
Confrontation with Modernity," Southern Cultures (Inaugural Issue) 64-

earth."3 Critics and editors alike are prone to use the appellation

anachronistically: Augustine's Confessions predates the first use of the

term by some 1400 years, but this has not kept some scholars from

treating it as autobiography.4 More recently, Benjamin Franklin died

some seven years before the first documented use of the term, though no

one today refers to his Memoirs (1792) as anything but his

Autobiography. Roy Pascal articulates the conventional view in Truth

and Design in Autobiography (1960), one of the early authoritative

studies of the genre, when he says that Rousseau's Confessions (1782)

marks the inception of "the classical age of autobiography" (39). While

attempts such as Pascal's to place the "birth" of a genre in such

specific terms inevitably lead to challenges from critics who would move

the date forward or backwards (depending on how they define the genre),

an autobiographical tradition appears, nevertheless, to have been well

under way before someone came up with a name that stuck. Some critics

continue to argue over which texts should be listed under the heading of

autobiography, but most scholars in the field agree that its appearance

coincides with the rise of modern capitalism and its attendant ideology

of autonomous individualism.5 As Sidonie Smith notes, literary

3 The anonymous reviewer refers to the term as a neologism,
writing, "It is not very usual in English to employ hybrid words partly
Saxon and partly Greek: yet autobiography would have seemed pedantic."

4 See Robert Elbaz, The Changing Nature of the Self: A Critical
Study of the Autobiographic Discourse (Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987).
Although Elbaz includes a chapter on Augustine's Confessions in his
book, he qualifies its status as autobiography by stating that
ft]he main innovation in the Confessions is the creation of a
narrative sequence of the biographical facts of an individual
human life. With Augustine there appears for the first time a
coherent and cumulative account of biographical data which will
ultimately develop into what is now termed autobiography. (18-19)

5 Noting that the noun individual was first used in the
eighteenth century, Raymond Williams observes that the older adjective
originally meant "indivisible," and asserts that "[t]he development of
the modern meaning from the original meaning is a record in language of
an extraordinary social and political history" (Keywords 133).
Williams, who sees the current conception of the term as a product of

historians who seek to explain the sudden birth of autobiography point

to a cluster of historically specific phenomena at the end of the

eighteenth century, such as:

the new recognition of identity as an earned cultural achievement,
an arena of self-fashioning rather than an ascriptive, natural
donnee; the corollary recognition of identity as simultaneously
unique and yet dependent on social reality and cultural
conventions; an increased willingness to challenge the
authority of traditional modes of inquiry and to promote the
hermeneutical responsibility and authority of the speaking
subject; the transformation of conceptions of historiography.
(Poetics of Women's Autobiography 26)

Once these cultural changes occurred, a discourse of autonomous

individualism was made possible, out of which grew the practice of self-

representation we now call autobiography. Despite the many ways in

which dominant conceptions of selfhood have changed since the late

eighteenth century, the popularity of self-written life stories and

personal remembrances remains strong and is, according to Peter

Glassman, "a characteristic manifestation of contemporary culture's

extreme curiosity about 'selves' and our radical interest in the life of

particularized human individuation" (quoted in Stone, 11). A casual

survey of the New York Times Book Review Nonfiction Bestseller list

suggests that the popularity of the autobiography shows no signs of

waning anytime soon.6

the Enlightenment, argues:
The emergence of notions of individuality, in the modern
sense, can be related to the break-up of the medieval social,
economic, and religious order. (when] there was a new stress
on a man's personal existence over and above his place in a rigid
hierarchical society. .But it was not until [the late
seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries] that a new mode of
analysis, in logic and in mathematics, postulated the individual
as the substantial entity (cf. Liebniz's monads), from which all
other categories were derived. The political thought of the
Enlightenment mainly followed this model. (135)

6 Of the ten books listed for the week of November 28, 1993, no
fewer than six are autobiographies, ranging from Howard Stern's Private
Parts in the number two slot to William Shatner's Star Trek Memories in
the ninth position. One southerner, Maya Angelou, makes the list with
Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now.

If the general reader's appetite for autobiographies in this

country has remained strong over the last two centuries, the last ten to

fifteen years have witnessed a virtual boom in critical and theoretical

approaches to self-representation.7 Initially regarded by late-

eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century critics as little more than

another species of biography, scholarship in the field remained

extremely sparse until the middle of the twentieth century, when critics

began looking beyond the bios of autobiography and interrogating the

relationship between the autos and araphe, that is, how the

autobiographical "self" comes into being in writing, and, more recently,

how the writing of an autobiographical self may subvert culturally

dominant ideologies of selfhood.' Yet today many scholars, especially

those influenced by the formalism of the New Criticism, continue to see

autobiography as a poor relation--Tom Wolfe has referred to it as a "Low

Rent art"--to more canonically privileged genres such as fiction and

7 See James Olney, "Autobiography and the Cultural Moment: A
Thematic, Historical, and Bibliographical Introduction," Autobiography:
Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. Olney (Princeton: Princeton UP,
1980) 3-27; William C. Spengemann, Appendix, "The Study of
Autobiography: A Bibliographic Essay, Forms of Autobiography: Episodes
in the History of a Literary Genre (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980); and
Sidonie Smith "Autobiography Criticism and the Problematics of Gender"
in A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of
Self-Representation (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987) 3-19, for surveys of
the shifts in theoretical concerns in autobiography studies.

8 See Robert Folkenflik, "Introduction: The Institution of
Autobiography," The Culture of Autobiocraphy: Constructions of Self-
Representation, ed. Folkenflik (Stanford, CA: Stanford U P, 1993) 1-20,
for an instructive survey of the institutional history of autobiography,
including its criticism. Folkenflik cites Friedrich Schlegel's and
Samuel Johnson's remarks on autobiography to argue that the genre was
seen exclusively as a form of biography until the middle of this
century. Noting that "the criticism and theory of autobiography have
lagged several centuries behind the practice," he argues that it has
been "philosophically inclined critics" who have been primarily
responsible for the current theoretical interest in the genre, while
"none of the New Critics shows up as a writer of critically or
theoretically important essays on autobiography" (9-10).


poetry.9 Generally recognized as the first critically sophisticated

treatment of the subject, Georges Gusdorf's seminal essay, "Conditions

and Limits of Autobiography" (1956), historicizes the practice of

autobiography.10 Gusdorf observes that what may seem like a universal

or natural enterprise, the writing of one's life, "asserts itself only

in recent centuries and only upon a small part of the map of the world"


In addition to arguing for the historical and cultural specificity

of the genre, Gusdorf anticipated the major theoretical issue that would

come to dominate autobiography studies during the seventies and eighties

by pointing out the "impossibility" of translating a life into writing.

Impatient with those who would read autobiography simply in order to

learn the facts of a writer's life, Gusdorf calls attention to the

inherent discrepancy between the purported aim of autobiography, "which

is simply to retrace the history of a life," and its larger ideological

or cultural work, which is "directed toward a kind of apologetics or

theodicy of the individual being" (39). Instead of being merely

another, perhaps more personal form of biography, he argues,

autobiography is characterized by its "creative" rather than its purely

biographical content and should be viewed not as a historical document

9 See Albert Stone, Autobiographical Occasions and Original Acts:
Versions of American Identity from Henry Adams to Nate Shaw
(Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982), who discusses Wolfe's remarks
and its implications in his analysis of the school of "New Journalism"
or "personal reportage" that emerged in the sixties and was practiced by
Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and others. For Wolfe, the
novel is the aesthetic standard against which all other prose forms are
measured. While journalists are now free to employ novelistic
"techniques," Wolfe argues, they must borrow from "less prestigious
media like autobiography" to ground their observations in an empirical
"reality" (Stone 274).

0 William C. Spengemann argues otherwise, saying that Francis
Hart's "Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography" (1970) marks the
inception of the theoretical interpretation of autobiography in English,
since Gusdorf's essay, originally written in French, remained
untranslated into English until 1980. Many American critics cited
"Conditions" before its translation, though, and judging by the
frequency of citation in the works I have read, Gusdorf remains by far
the more influential of the two.

but as an artistic achievement: "Every autobiography is a work of art

and at the same time a work of enlightenment; it does not show us the

individual seen from outside in his visible actions but the person in

his inner privacy. (45). Even though Gusdorf displays an apparent

faith in the transparency of language, we should avoid dismissing his

belief in the autobiographer's ability to share his/her most subjective

thoughts as critically naive. While he may be faulted for embracing

what we might now call an outmoded understanding of literature in which

a text becomes "artistic" to the extent that it reveals the "genius" of

the creator, he grants the author no transcendent powers of self-

knowledge. For Gusdorf, the "inner privacy" revealed in autobiography

is no fixed reality, but rather a version of the autobiographer "not as

he was, not as he is, but as he believes and wishes himself to have

been." He takes care to point out at the end of his essay that

althoughh every man is the first witness of himself the
testimony that he thus produces constitutes no ultimate,
conclusive authority--not only because objective scrutiny will
always discover inaccuracies but much more because there is never
an end to this dialogue of a life with itself in search of its own
absolute. (48)

As recently as 1985, Paul John Eakin restated the problem of

authority and referentiality in autobiography in almost exactly the same

terms, saying that "Autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an

evolving content in an intricate process of self-discovery and self-

creation" (Fictions in Autobiography 3-4).i The problem remains,

however, that no matter how one defines the "truth" of autobiography, it

1 Although Gusdorf edges toward a post-structural model of
selfhood in his essay, his conception of autobiography rests upon an
implicit belief in a unified self that has a transcendent "truth" which
may or may achieve expression in symbolic form. But as Nancy K. Miller
has remarked, recent theoretical developments have problematized such a
If there is anyone more dead than the author of fiction, who
classically was said to authorize his text by inscribing his
intentions for future generations, it would have to be the author
of autobiography. For of the three defining terms of
autobiography--the self, the life, the writing--only the writing
has survived the poststructuralist and postmodern housecleaning of
antiquated beliefs. (10)

is difficult--if not impossible--to reject the notion that it makes a

special kind of claim for authenticity and veracity. As Barrett J.

Mandel observes, ". readers turn to autobiography for the kind of

satisfaction one derives from reading something true rather than

fabular" (55). If Mandel is to be faulted for his dependence upon a

truth-functional model of discourse, his unwillingness to pretend that

fiction and autobiography are one and the same is shared by scholars who

subscribe to more theoretically informed understandings of language and


Although Gusdorf's work may be seen as compromised by the same

apparent faith in the referentiality of language that undergirds

Mandel's argument, the former's initial foray into autobiography theory

is responsible for opening up the field as a subject worthy of serious

theoretical consideration. By pointing out the division between the

self who speaks and the self who is described in autobiography, Gusdorf

defined the autobiographical enterprise by its inherent contradictions.

Moreover, by calling attention to the essential fictiveness of the

autobiographical self, he anticipated the concerns of an entire

generation of scholars who would continue his work. But, as Mandel's

concerns suggest, Gusdorf (perhaps unwittingly) raises more questions

than he answers, not the least of which is the particularly thorny

problem of how to distinguish autobiography from other modes of writing.

Few critics are more concerned with determining the conditions of

autobiography than Philippe Lejeune, who begins his highly influential

book, On Autobiography, by questioning the very possibility of defining

the genre (due to the difficulty in distinguishing it from the novel, or

"fiction," on the one hand, and from biography, or "fact," on the

other). Apparently undaunted, however, he goes on to call it a

"retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his

own existence. where the focus is his individual life, in particular the

story of his personality" (4). Lejeune then qualifies his unnecessarily


rigid definition by adding, "The text must be mainly a narrative .

The perspective is mainly retrospective. The subject must be

primarily individual life, the genesis of the personality, social

or political history can also be part of the narrative" (5). Despite

his remark that ". a certain latitude is left to the classifier in

the examination of particular cases" of autobiography, Lejeune's set of

definitional constraints still imposes a model of self-representation

that privileges an autonomous model of selfhood since it assumes a

necessary distinction between one's "individual life" and the part of

one's life spent with others, a distinction not universally recognized.

Feminist critics were the first to object that an understanding of

autobiography limited to a paradigm of autonomous individualism is

inherently androcentric because it excludes more relational modes of

identity typically employed by women autobiographers. As we saw

earlier, Sidonie Smith has argued that the dominant paradigm of

individuality may "derive from a decidedly male resolution of the

tension between individuation and dependency." Citing the work of Nancy

Chodorow, Smith notes that

the configuration of identity and the process of
individuation differ for men and women to the extent that the
relationship of the male and female child to the mother during the
pre-Oedipal stage differs. Because of the nature of the
daughter's pre-Oedipal attachment to the mother, "feminine
personality," suggests Chodorow, "comes to be based less on
repression of inner objects, and fixed and firms splits in the
ego, and more on retention and continuity of external
relationships". Thus, [the female's] experience of self is
characterized by "more flexible and permeable ego boundaries."
(Poetics of Women's Autobiography 12)

The representation of what Chodorow calls the "feminine personality"

would require a discursive strategy markedly different from the one

implied in Lejeune's and Gusdorf's conceptions of autobiography, a

strategy that might blur rather than sharpen divisions between subject

and object, public and private, individual and communal. Such an

autobiographical subject might not recognize a "genesis of the

personality" that is completely separate from other personalities and


might be unable to tell its story without effacing the singularity of

the autobiographical "I" in the same stroke of the pen.12

In any case, Lejeune switches tactics and acknowledges the

ultimate futility in defining the genre through such means."1 Shifting

his attention away from formal features such as subject matter or

narrative sequence, he argues that autobiography distinguishes itself

through its reception: "In order for there to be autobiography (and

personal literature in general), the author, the narrator, and the

protagonist must be identical" (4). In fact, for Lejeune the single

most important condition in determining whether or not a text is an

autobiography is the reader's assumption that the author, narrator, and

protagonist are indeed one and the same, an identification that is

established by what he calls the "autobiographical pact." This pact

between the author and reader may be accomplished in either or both of

two basic manners:

12 For representative contemporary readings of women's
autobiographies see Smith, Poetics; Shari Benstock, ed., The Private
Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiography (Chapel Hill: U of
North Carolina P, 1988); and Felicity A. Nussbaum, The Autobiographical
Subject: Gender and Ideology in Eighteenth-Century England (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins, 1989).

As William C. Spengemann has noted, most prescriptive
definitions of autobiography relate directly to individual critics'
practical aims:
the definition [of autobiography] stipulated in each case
is primarily a function of the use to be made of the works it
designates. .Those who wish to extract from autobiography
information about the author's life and times will regard the
genre as comprising only works that contain this sort of
information, while those that feel that our essential being is
unconscious usually extend the definition to cover many forms of
symbolic expression. Similarly, those who wish to demonstrate the
artistry of autobiography have no difficulty including poems and
novels in the genre. And, of course, those who maintain that
writing refers primarily or solely to itself will find all writing
to be autobiographical by definition. (185-86)
Continuing Spengemann's line of reasoning, those who would
pronounce "The End of Autobiography," as does Michael Sprinker in the
subtitle of his essay "Fictions of the Self," select texts that
explicitly unravel the unity of the "I" who speaks. In Sprinker's case,
he chooses to examine (alongside Vico's autobiography) Pynchon's
Gravity's Rainbow, and Nietzsche's Will to Power in order to present his


1. Implicitly, at the level of the author-narrator connection,
in the case of the autobiographical pact; the latter can
take two forms: (a) the use of titles leaving no doubt about
the fact that the first person refers to the name of the
author (Story of My Life, Autobiography, etc.); (b) initial
section of the text where the narrator enters into a
contract vis-a-vis the reader by acting as if he were the
author, in such a way that the reader has no doubt that the
"I" refers to the name shown on the cover, even though the
name is not repeated in the text.

2. In an obvious way, at the level of the name that the
narrator-protagonist is given in the narrative itself, and
which is the same as that of the author on the cover. (14)14

While all this attention Lejeune gives to the pact may seem at

first glance an overly meticulous treatment of a rather simple

observation, his point is that autobiography does not distinguish itself

from other types of writing in its form--after all, much fiction is

written in first person and the autobiographer is free to make use of

most of the literary devices available to the writer of fiction--so much

as in certain expectations held by the reader. Although differences in

interpretation inevitably arise between individual readers, because of

the contract implied in the Pact they all read autobiography with at

least the qualified assumption that the speaker and author are one and

the same and that it is the author's own experiences and perceptions

that are supposedly being depicted, no matter how inaccurate the account

may indeed be: "if the identity [of the protagonist] is not stated

positively (as in fiction), the reader will establish resemblances, in

spite of the author; if it is positively stated (as in autobiography),

the reader will want to look for differences. ." This approach,

drawing from reception theory and the work of Emile Benveniste and Hans

Robert Jauss, resolves the problems inherent in Mandel's insistence that

"readers turn to autobiography" in order to find something "true rather

than fabular," primarily because it shifts the emphasis away from the

14 In addition, as Robert B. Stepto and William L. Andrews have
shown in the example of the slave narrative, this contract between the
author and reader may be augmented by an authenticating statement, often
by a second party whose credibility is beyond reproach, attesting to the
author's identity and the truthfulness of the account.

text itself to the specific relationship between text and reader, a

relationship circumscribed by a horizon of expectations that are brought

into play by the pact. In this sense, the implicit arrangement between

the author and reader grounds the "truth" of the account in contractual-

-that is, ethical or legal--rather than epistemological or ontological


Elizabeth Bruss agrees with Lejeune to a certain point, saying

that there is "no intrinsically autobiographical form" (10), but she

goes on to caution that the unique contractual relationship between the

reader of autobiography and the text is established through a much more

sophisticated and elusive process than the mere placement of a name on

the title page. To more fully understand that relationship, she argues,

one must take notice of the specific ways a text is embedded in larger

systems of cultural signification: "Like other genres, [autobiography]

is defined only within and by means of these systems, in terms of the

way it resembles or departs from other potential acts" (7). Thus, for

Bruss, a particular illocutionary act (defined as "an association

between a piece of language and certain contexts, conditions, and

intentions" [5])--such as the promise to tell the truth of one's life,

for instance--does not always hold the same significance for the speaker

and listener. Depending upon the social and historical circumstances of

the utterance, such a promise may be received by the reader as an

obligatory, formulaic statement, not to be trusted. In another

historical or cultural situation, such a claim may be taken as

provocative, clearly ironic, or hopelessly naive. In addition,

narrative structure and other formal features can signify particular

generic characteristics to one audience, only to be appropriated by

another genre a generation later. For instance, she argues that first

person description, with its highly nuanced attention to physical detail

and perspective, served to remind eighteenth-century readers that they

were reading autobiography. But as the genre emerged more distinctly,

this signalling device became effacedd" when it was later borrowed by

writers of the bourgeois novel, who sought to lend a sense of immediacy

or "realism" to their texts (9). Nevertheless, Bruss maintains that

through all the changes it has undergone since its inception,

autobiography has continued to occur within three "constitutive rules":

Rule 1. An autobiographer takes on a dual role. He is the
source of the subject matter and the source for the
structure to be found in the text .

Rule 2. Information and events reported in connection with the
autobiographer are asserted to have been, to be, or to
have potential for being the case .

Rule 3. Whether or not what has been reported can be
discredited, whether or not it can be reformulated in
some more generally acceptable way from another point
of view, the autobiographer purports to believe in
what he asserts. (11)

Bruss takes care to point out that even though "[a]ny and all of

these rules may be and occasionally are broken," what remains important

in constituting a text as autobiography "is that the author purport to

have met these requirements, and that the audience understand him to be

responsible for meeting or failing to meet them." Rule 1, then,

emphasizes the reader's expectations of the extent to which the

autobiographer authorizes not only the "content" of the narrative, but

also the "form" of the text, as well. In this sense, the manner in

which a writer chooses to arrange the story of his/her life reveals as

much about the author's identity as any action recounted in the text:

"even conventional choices reflect his individual identity, perhaps as a

man [or woman] with little need or talent for originality" (13).

Regarding the second constitutive rule, Bruss stipulates that, for

modern readers, the autobiographer makes a claim (usually implied rather

than explicitly stated) for the "truth-value" of the events reported in

the narrative, "whether the report treats of private experiences or

publicly observable occasions" (11). Since the reader is not required

to accept the veracity of the account, autobiography can be said to

distinguish itself from fiction through the reader's conscious or


unconscious evaluation of the author's sincerity (in matters of "private

experience") on the one hand, and his/her ability to "check up" on the

more easily verifiable elements of the narrative, on the other. Bruss's

third and final rule would appear to be aimed at clearly duplicitous

autobiographies, since it stresses the author's claim to speak the

truth, (as, for example, in the case of Gertrude Stein's Autobiography

of Alice B. Toklas).

Bruss is helpful in much the same way as Lejeune in determining

what distinguishes autobiography from other kinds of writing, but her

willingness to recognize the importance of illocutionary differences

within the category of autobiography is especially useful to a study

such as the present one (which is based upon the assumption that all

autobiographies are not alike), since the consideration of specific

variables at play in each autobiographical occasion would allow us to

see how particular writers negotiated multiple, often conflicting,

subject positions in order to articulate their experiences of selfhood.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the representation of southern

identity takes place only within a larger cultural narrative involving,

among other things, such historically resonant issues as sectional

conflict and race relations. And, lest we grow weary of establishing

precisely how the autobiographical differs from other discursive forms,

we should remember that this is no mere exercise in normative

definition. My interest in southern autobiography stems from a

recognition of the particular type of relationship established between

the reader and the autobiography, one that creates the illusion of

relatively direct access to the "I" who speaks compared to the more

displaced and more obviously "unreliable" narrator of the

autobiographical novel.

Not all critics share Bruss's and Lejeune's certainty that

autobiography can be distinguished from other discursive modes. Most

notably, Paul de Man has called into question the assumptions underlying


such a position. But upon reading de Man's "Autobiography as De-

facement" (1979) one wonders, initially, if his objections stem from

legitimate questions about the impossibility of establishing the

historical boundaries and formal characteristics of self-representation

as separate and distinct from other forms of writing, or whether his

concerns have more to do with impossibility of maintaining any generic


By making autobiography into a genre, one elevates it above the
literary status of mere reportage, chronicle, or memoir and gives
it a place, albeit a modest one, among the canonical hierarchies
of major literary genres. This does not go without some
embarrassment, since compared to tragedy, or epic, or lyric
poetry, autobiography always looks slightly disreputable and self-
indulgent in a way that may be symptomatic of its incompatibility
with the monumental dignity of aesthetic values. (919)

Let us give de Man the benefit of the doubt and assume, for the moment,

that he is invoking phrases like "the monumental dignity of aesthetic

values" with some degree of irony. One still suspects that his interest

in autobiography has more to do with his qualms about traditional

systems of generic classification than with the act of self-


Luckily, he sets aside his reservations about the relative

aesthetic value of autobiography and moves into more provocative

territory. Addressing the question so important to Lejeune, he declares

that "the distinction between autobiography and fiction is not an

either/or polarity but [rather] it is undecidable" (921). Noting that

autobiographypy seems to depend on actual and potentially verifiable

events in a less ambivalent way than fiction does," and that "[i]t seems

to belong to a simpler mode of referentiality, of representation, of

diegesis," he rightly claims that such perceptions are merely illusory,

the product of the alignment of the proper name of the author, narrator,

and protagonist (920). But where Lejeune sees this alignment as the

single most important factor in distinguishing fiction from

autobiography, de Man argues that such an alignment differs only in

degree, and not in kind, from works of fiction or poetry, concluding

that "autobiography, then, is not a genre or a mode, but a figure of

reading that occurs, to some degree in all texts" (920). For de Man,

reading autobiography involves one in a "specular structure" that brings

the reading and speaking subjects together in a reciprocally

constitutive act "in which they determine each other by mutual reflexive

substitution" (921). At the risk of oversimplifying de Man's point, the

reader (mis)recognizes his/her own subjectivity in the act of

(mis)recognizing the subjectivity of the author/other, much as one

recognizes oneself looking back from a mirror image. He goes on to add:

This specular structure is interiorized in a text in which the
author declares himself the subject of his own understanding, but
this merely makes explicit the wider claim to authorship that
takes place whenever a text is stated to be by someone .
Which amounts to saying that any book with a readable title-page
is, to some extent, autobiographical. (921-22)

For critics like myself who are not so eager as de Man to give up the

notion that autobiography comprises a distinct category of writing, the

insistence that some element of the autobiographical occurs in all acts

of writing and reading may seem like mere sophistry. One is immediately

reminded of Spengemann's comment that ". those who maintain that

writing refers primarily or solely to itself will find all writing to

be autobiographical by definition" (we can only assume that the remark

was directed towards those who share de Man's views).15 De Man's claim

that all reading and writing is autobiographical is also undermined by

the ease with which he invokes such generic categories as "tragedy,"

"epic," and "lyric poetry," as if each were a completely unique species

of writing, uncontaminated by other literary modes. In fact, as Paul

Bove has recently suggested, to put the term "genre" to such uses

15 Spengemann's The Forms of Autobiography appeared only one year
after De Man's "Autobiography as Defacement," so it is difficult to say
whether Spengemann had read the de Man piece. However, Spengemann does
cite de Man's Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of
Contemporary Criticism as a "useful" study on the "problems of selfhood
in modern literature and criticism" (244) and, unless I am mistaken,
both critics were on the faculty at Yale at that time.

requires "the consideration of literature apart from the specifics of

history and culture. (50).

In addition, de Man's assertion that "any book with a

readable title-page is, to some extent autobiographical" is valid only

to the extent that we accept his premise that the "specular"

relationship between author and reader is intrinsically

autobiographical. De Man criticizes Lejeune's thesis--"that the

identity of autobiography is not only representational and cognitive but

contractual, grounded not in tropes but in speech acts" (de Man 922)--

for being grounded in faith rather than argument, but the same charge

can be levied against de Man's claim that the "specular moment" in which

the reader and author are mutually constituted is essentially an

autobiographical encounter. In reality, only two of the three

constituent terms in the word autobiography are involved in such an

occasion. The reading subject "recognizes" in the writing (araphe) a

"self" (autos) who speaks, but nowhere in de Man's account does the bios

figure into the moment of reciprocal recognition. In other words, the

effect of the "specular moment" he describes would be more properly

attributed to the autograph--or in Derridean terms, the sianature--than

to autobiography.

Even if one ultimately rejects de Man's claim that reading

autobiography entails no uniquely exclusive relationship between reader

and text, his assertion that the authorial presence appears to be more

explicit in autobiography than in other types of literature is generally

accepted by most scholars in the field. For de Man, the apparent

immediacy of the autobiographical "I" who speaks results in calling

attention to the utter absence of any representational capacity in

language and, thus, makes obvious the essential fictiveness of the self:

The interest of autobiography, then, is not that it reveals
reliable self-knowledge--it does not--but that it
demonstrates in a striking way the impossibility of closure
and of totalization (that is the impossibility of coming
into being) of all textual systems made up of tropological
substitutions. (922)


An unsympathetic reader may reply to this argument that autobiography's

supposed demonstration of the "impossibility of closure" in all

discursive systems is nothing more than the recitation of deconstructive

articles of faith, and in this sense adds nothing new to the study of

autobiography. Certainly such a response is at the heart of Lejeune's

reply to Roland Barthes' claim that "'In the field of the subject, there

is no referent.'" Conceding a certain linguistic validity to Barthes'

position, Lejeune counters by writing:

We indeed know all this; we are not so dumb, but once this
precaution has been taken, we go on as if we did not know it.
SIn spite of the fact that autobiography is impossible, this in
no way prevents it from existing" (132).

As Miller has recently pointed out, de Man's and Lejeune's positions may

not be as mutually exclusive as either would have liked to believe,

"since both end up displacing the problem of definition from the writing

of autobiography to its reading--in other words, to autobiography's

effects" (92). And though Lejeune is cited more frequently than de Man

by autobiography scholars today, primarily because he has written so

extensively on the topic of self-representation, the latter's interest

in the function of the speaking subject is shared by many recent

contributors in the field.

Another critique of Lejeune aims at his politics--or more

precisely, his desire to construct an "abstract" theory of autobiography

that purports to be ahistorical. Like de Man, Michael Ryan seizes on

Lejeune's reliance upon the pact as the sole means by which we can

distinguish autobiography from other forms of writing and suggests that

his contractual understanding of autobiography, which is based on the

inviolability of the proper name, requires the assumption of "the unique

identity of the author in the autobiographical text" ("Self-Evidence"

5). Since Lejeune takes "identity as an 'immediately perceived fact';

it either 'is or is not,'" his entire "theory of autobiography is

founded on the principle of self-evidence" and can be critiqued from

either a deconstructionist or Marxist view as implicitly "idealist" or

"ideological," respectively." The "abstract formalism" of Lejeune's

theory makes it ideologically suspect from the very beginning, according

to Ryan, since theoreticalcl abstractions such as 'autobiographer,'

'autobiographical subject,' and 'reader' efface history and

differentiality through an idealizing sublation" (11). Lejeune's

putative belief in the "self-evident" nature of identity further

confirms Ryan's suspicions, since the "authenticity" of the

autobiographical subject can only be verified by civil law (via birth

certificate) and the publication contract. Though Lejeune wishes to see

such a basis of verification as universally applicable to all

autobiographers, and therefore neutral and impartial, Ryan argues,

[t]he norm of validity for Lejeune is the bourgeois civil code, a
non-differential, empiricist legal system which sanctions existing
social hierarchies--male over female, white over black, properties
over propertyless, etc. Under Lejeune's rule, for example,
an illegal alien in America would never be seen as an "authentic"
autobiographer, since his name does not appear in the registry
book. Similarly, by choosing the proper name as his norm, Lejeune
automatically excludes women--unless they renounce their fathers'
or their husbands' names--from the feast of legality. (10)

Thus, contrary to what Lejeune argues in regard to the pact, "[t]he

concept of a private, autobiographical truth which can be exchanged

through contract is, like the bourgeois notion of private property,

historically produced, socially constructed, and coequal with, not

anterior to, contractual rhetoric" (13).

Those who do not lean as far to the left as Ryan may be tempted to

dismiss as irrelevant the charge that Lejeune's theory is essentially

"reactionary."17 We can see the value of both scholars' thinking if we

In a critical move similar to de Man's, Ryan deconstructs the
ontological suppositions that inform Lejeune's understanding of
identity: "Ideal identity arises out of an effaced differentiality, and,
therefore, that which is its condition of possibility also makes the
desire of identity ultimately impossible" (8). Because this part of his
critique so closely resembles de Man's (which was published only six
months before Ryan's), I will pass over it.

17 Ryan employs what he calls a Marxist-deconstructive method in
his reading of Lejeune, but he makes it clear that his use of

consider for a moment the continuing popular appeal of collaborative, or

"as-told-to," autobiographies (two of which, Black Elk Speaks and The

Autobiography of Malcolm X, are now firmly enshrined in the canon of

American autobiography). Their value as commodities can only be

explained by recourse to the pact, since even when another author's name

appears below the autobiographical subject's, readers remain attracted

to these narratives because of their belief that the accounts will grant

them privileged access to the autobiographical subject. While Ryan

would surely agree, his analysis of the economic underpinnings of the

bourgeois notion of identity makes it equally clear that, at least in

this specific instance, the "truth" of one's life can be reduced to a

matter of ownership.

The current critical attention to linking the issues of identity

and autobiography has occurred, not so much because scholars remain

interested in demonstrating the essential fictionality of

autobiographical "selves," but because they are increasingly concerned

with the relationship between what we think of as self-representation

and issues of subjectivity. Whether one is speaking of identity in

relation to gender, race, class, or nationality, any attempt to

historicize a particular individual being's experience of selfhood

necessarily involves the assumption that the "self" is at least

partially constructed within specific social, political, and economic

constraints, all of which yield themselves to various modes of analysis

loosely banded together under the heading of "cultural studies" or

ideology criticism. The present study seeks to explore some of the

deconstruction is for purely political ends, as when he writes,
Marxism and deconstruction can collaborate in the present
historical struggle against the institutions (economic, political,
ethical, etc.) which are sustained by the system of rationality
which deconstruction so successfully undermines--
"phallogocentrism." It is in the undoing of the ideological glue
which holds the capitalist economy together that deconstruction
can be most radically useful. (15)
It goes without saying that Ryan wants the reader to see his critique of
Lejeune's "Pacte" as just such a "radically useful" action.


ways in which a particular kind of subjectivity--in this case, white

southern American masculinity--is represented within the conventions of

autobiographical discourse. But in order to enter into an extended

analysis of the ideological dimensions of self-representation and white

southern masculinity, it would be to our advantage to look to what

others have said on the subject of identity and autobiography.

One of the aims of the present study is to join an ongoing

dialogue among critics who are drawn to autobiography studies primarily

because self-representation affords them, so they believe, a relatively

unobstructed view of the ways in which individuals construct, revise,

reveal, and conceal their conceptions of who they are. Despite the

recent theoretical challenges to traditional notions of selfhood and

representation such as those discussed, which have destabilized the

apparent correspondence between the autobiographical "I" and the real-

life person whose name appears after "by" on the title page, the vast

majority of contemporary criticism in the field of self-representation

organizes itself according to particular categories of "identity" in

which individual autobiographers can be grouped. Each of us has

his/her own motives for investigating the relationship between

"individual" and group identities, though there are considerable

differences in the degree to which each critic acknowledges those

motives." In addition to--or, perhaps, arising from--the scholar's

particular stakes in his/her critical agenda, each category of

autobiography scholarship--be it "American," "women's," "African

American," "working class," or "southern"--is marked by its own sets of

concerns and methodological approaches. Initial studies under the

heading of "American Autobiography" were written by white male scholars

and generally sought to discern diachronic patterns of self-

representation among what turned out to be only white male

8 By "individual," I mean the experience of personal selfhood.


autobiographers. More recently, critics in this branch of the field

such as Albert E. Stone and James Olney have concerned themselves less

with pressing the case for a dominant autobiographical tradition than

with arguing for the richness and diversity of life writing as it is

practiced in the U.S. On the other hand, women and minority critics who

study autobiography are less interested in showing continuities between

their respective groups and the dominant culture than in identifying the

distinctive discursive qualities of those groups and in rescuing their

autobiographers from the margins where they have been historically

consigned by white male critics. But whether the focus is on national,

gender, ethnic, or, more recently, sexual identity, they all give

primacy to the autos of autobiography, since each shares the assumption

that the particular identity position in which they choose to locate

their autobiographers (and in which the autobiographers frequently

choose to locate themselves) profoundly affects those writers'

conceptions and experiences of selfhood. Pointing to this trend as

early as 1980, James Olney observes:

In the hands of [some] critics, autobiography has become the
focalizing literature for various "studies" that otherwise have
little by way of a defining center to them. I have in mind such
"studies" as American Studies, Black Studies, Women's Studies, and
African Studies. According to the argument of these critics, (who
are becoming more numerous every day), autobiography--the story of
a distinctive culture written in individual characters and from
within--offers a privileged access to an experience (the American
experience, the black experience, the female experience, the
African experience) that no other variety of writing can offer. (13)

While Olney may overstate the case by implying that Women's

Studies and African-American Studies departments in various universities

and colleges across the nation would have little else in the way of an

"organizing center" if it were not for autobiography, it is equally

certain that the relative health and vigor of autobiography studies in

the United States can be directly attributed to the current trend

towards "multiculturalism" in the academy, which Henry Louis Gates has

recently described as "concerned with the representation, not of


difference as such, but of cultural identities" ("Beyond the Culture

Wars" 6).

Perhaps because scholars interested in southern literature have

long had a self-consciously "southern"--and therefore conveniently

identifiable (though by no means heterogeneous)--group of fiction

writers and poets whose work has served as an "organizing center,"

critics in this field have not been as quick as those in other areas to

plunder the region's autobiographical treasures. However unsettling the

prospect of seeing the banner of "southernness" raised alongside the

more marginalized identities in the forefront of the so-called "culture

wars," one should remember that long before the Twelve Southerners

proclaimed their resistance to the dominant paradigm of "progressivism"

and "industrialism," southerners were engaging in "identity politics" by

strategically deploying their perceptions of difference from the rest of

the nation. To better understand how white men from the South have been

able to position themselves discursively in opposition to prevailing

notions of white masculinity in America (as well as to national and

regional conceptions of "femininity" and "Blackness"), we must take

advantage of the progress that has already been made in exploring the

relationship between self-representation and the construction of

cultural identities.


In an address to an audience of scholars gathered at a 1989

conference on southern autobiography, southern literary critic Lewis P.

Simpson stated that

achievement in the formal mode of autobiography, in the
artistically conceived and deliberately structured self-biography,
while prominent in American literature has not been notable
in southern letters, not even in the "glory" days of the
twentieth-century "Southern Renaissance."
("Autobiographical Impulse" 63-64)

Though the occasion for Simpson's claim suggests that his opinion may

not have been shared by all who heard, he nevertheless articulates a

perception that has long been held by American studies scholars and

southernists alike, one that would appear to be supported by the fact

that no white southerner's autobiography is counted among the classics

of American life writing.' I cite Simpson here, not because I disagree

with the general thrust of his characterization of southern

autobiography. Indeed, white southerners have not shown the flair for

writing "classic" autobiography that their northern, especially New

England, counterparts have historically demonstrated. Rather, I quote

him because his view exemplifies a pervasive critical disposition that

has allowed scholars to avoid addressing the particular qualities of

southern autobiography. Instead of questioning the aesthetic principles

A number of southern born African-Americans are routinely
included in the canon of American autobiography, most notably Frederick
Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Booker T. Washington, Richard Wright, and Maya
Angelou. (Simpson himself mentions only Douglass.) Though these and
other African American autobiographers were born and raised in the South
and devote significant portions of their narratives to events they
experienced in the region, few scholars treat their works as a species
of southern literature, a point which I shall address below.



that have been used to exclude various works from the canon of American

autobiography, Simpson merely suggests that "southerners"--since he

fails to address the work of any women or African Americans, we can

assume he means white male southerners--have historically given

expression to the "autobiographical impulse" through works of fiction

and (to a lesser extent) poetry instead of formal autobiography.

Because he is primarily interested in discussing why so many

(privileged) southerners have resisted the autobiographical act, he

conveniently turns a blind eye to those first-person narratives that

have been written in and of the South.

Simpson may be faulted for failing to adequately acknowledge the

many significant autobiographies written by African American

southerners, but others have not been so negligent. The critical study

of the slave narrative and its modern successors constitutes one of the

richest and fastest growing areas of American literary scholarship, and

shows no signs of abating in the near future. And with the exception of

Malcolm X, none of the major African American autobiographers was born

outside the South. But while Narrative of the Life of Frederick

Douglass. An American Slave (1845), Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the

Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), and Maya

Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) are now standard fare

in the reading lists of college American Literature courses, the same

cannot be said of autobiographical writings by white southerners. And

if the slave narrative played a major role in replacing the "moonlight

and magnolias" plantation myth with a more balanced perception of the

antebellum South, it did so by attacking the credibility--and often the

humanity, as well--of white southerners who sought to idealize their

region's past. Pointing to the "moral authority" that has been accorded

to the southern black's version of history, African American critic

William L. Andrews asks,

Is it advisable simply to slip the yoke of marginality from
one group of writers [southern blacks] to another [southern


whites] without changing the joke that southern literary
historians and critics have for too long been playing on
themselves and their readers, namely, that a single race or sex or
mode of southern writing can be awarded plenary or representative
status? ("Problem of Authority" 2)

Historians and literary scholars may not be inclined to grant much

moral authority to white southerners' views on race relations, but this

alone does not explain the marginalization of self-representation by

this group, since many southern whites' autobiographies following the

civil rights battles of the fifties and sixties are extremely critical

of the region's racism. To arrive at a more complete understanding of

the reasons for the canonical exclusion of white southerners' life

writing, we must first recognize the ways in which this branch of

American autobiography has served as a site of resistance to nationally

dominant, individualistic paradigms of selfhood. Since the terms "the

South" and "southerner" acquire meaning only in relation to the rest of

the United States, we must place our examination of southern

autobiography in the context of the national autobiographical tradition

that Simpson silently assumes as an exclusive norm.

American Autobiography: The Dominant Tradition

A great deal has been said on the subject of American

autobiography and national identity since Robert Sayre wrote his

groundbreaking study on the topic, The Examined Self: Benjamin

Franklin. Henry Adams, Henry James, in 1964. Emerging as a distinct

form of writing at about the same time that the Colonies made their

break with England, autobiography has been called "the preeminent kind

of American expression" (Sayre, "Autobiography and America" 147).

Sayre's claim rests, not on the assumption that Americans are especially

gifted at self-representation, but on the belief that the same economic

and political conditions that gave rise to the birth of the republic

also helped to create a discourse of individualism in which modern

autobiography could emerge. As C. Thomas Couser has recently observed,

"Autobiography is the literary form, and democracy the political form,

most congruent with [the] idea of a unique and autonomous self" (Altered

Egos 13). Despite recent theories of selfhood that cast serious doubt

upon the implicitly androcentric assumption that autonomous

individualism is a necessary precondition for self-representation,

Couser's point is a valid one.2 Just as the individual is the primary

voting unit of a democratic government, the first person singular is the

basic signifier in the autobiographical tradition. (The rare

autobiographer like Henry Adams who has avoided using the first person,

or those like Gertrude Stein, whose Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

succeeds in presenting a decentered subjectivity to her readers, have

done so only by consciously subverting the conventions of self-

representation.) It is difficult to refute Couser's claim that

autobiography is a particularly appropriate (if not ideal) literary form

for articulating the ideology of individualism, though some critics have

pushed the reciprocity between democracy, capitalism, and self-

representation too far by grafting certain democratic ideals expressed

in the personal narratives of privileged Americans onto their

definitions of autobiography. Thus, for Sayre and others, the art of

self-invention so deftly demonstrated by Franklin is nothing less than

an expression of "the American character" whose unfailing optimism and

refusal to let the fetters of the past constrain one's actions allowed a

fledgling nation to become a world power almost overnight. For example,

Sayre has recently stated,

2 See Shari Benstock, "Authorizing the Autobiographical," and Susan
Stanford Friedman, "Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and
Practice," in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's
Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock (U of North Carolina P,
1988). For instance, according to Friedman,
The very sense of identification, interdependence, and
community that [Georges] Gusdorf dismisses from autobiographical
selves are key elements in the development of a woman's identity,
according to theorists like [Sheila] Rowbotham and [Nancy]
Chodorow. Their models of selfhood highlight the unconscious
masculine bias in Gusdorf's and other individualistic paradigms.


For Americans to have built this "House" of civilization and
autobiography in a mere two or three hundred years is an
impressive feat. We may be critical of it, but we still have to
wonder at the extent of the work and the unity of purpose that in
spite of all the conflict and disagreement finally went into it.
A study of some of the major autobiographies may help us to see
what the unifying purposes and methods were. (150 emphasis added)

The desire to see the "representative American" lurking behind the

narrators of such classics as Franklin's Autobiography, Walden, and The

Education of Henry Adams may mask the critic's need to privilege "unity

of purpose" over "conflict and disagreement." In turn, the ideological

predisposition towards consensus at the expense of dissent allowed this

generation of scholars to confuse certain historically and regionally

specific codes of masculinity, such as self-reliance, rugged

individualism, self-improvement, with national--even universal--forms of


Subsequent criticism has pointed out that the qualities identified

as common to "American" autobiography failed to describe many discursive

features found in the life writing of women, African Americans, Native

Americans, etc. Now, thanks to the work of women and minority

autobiography critics, it is generally acknowledged that the ability to

represent an identity that is unencumbered by attachments to family,

community, or even an awareness of one's race, gender, sexuality, or

class, is a reflection of that subject's privileged social position. In

addition to using autobiography primarily as a means of inscribing the

subject's individuality and authority, as is the case with Franklin,

Thoreau, or Adams, members of marginalized groups tend to engage in

3 In addition to Sayre's The Examined Self, (Rev. ed. Madison: U
of Wisconsin P, 1988), studies that attempt to define the "dominant
character" of American autobiography by examining only the works of
white male authors or by attributing the patterns found in New England
autobiographies to American autobiography in general include Thomas
Cooley, Educated Lives: The Rise of Modern Autobiography in America
(Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State U P, 1990); Thomas Couser, American
Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1979);
James Cox, Recovering Literature's Lost Ground: Essays in American
Autobiography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1989), William G.
Spengemann and L. R. Lundquist, "Autobiography and the American Myth"
(American Quarterly 17: Summer 1965) 243-63.


self-representation in order to affirm their solidarity with their

particular group and to bear witness to that group's collective

historical experience. Thus, as Paul John Eakin has recently noted,

"[t]he true history of American autobiography and the culture in which

it is produced and consumed may turn out to be the history of

identifiable groups within the culture and of the network of relations

among them" (12). The emerging body of scholarship examining the links

between personal and collective identities in autobiographies by members

of historically oppressed groups has provided a more diverse portrait of

self-representation in the U.S., one that shows how incomplete the

original picture drawn by Sayre and his contemporaries truly was.

But one unforeseen effect of the inclusive trend in American

autobiography criticism is that by equating marginality with

"difference," critics have come to equate dominant subjectivities with

"sameness," suggesting that anglo heterosexual masculinities, like

Tolstoy's happy families, are all alike, and are therefore undeserving

of critical scrutiny. This assumption is understandable, since so much

scholarship prior to the last ten or fifteen years was directed

exclusively at the autobiographies of the privileged few. Traditional

autobiography critics have been talking about masculine subjectivity for

a long while, some would correctly argue; they just assumed they were

talking about "universal subjectivity" or "representative American

autobiography," when in fact they were discussing gender-specific forms

of life writing. But there is some justification for a renewed focus on

the representation of dominant subjectivities. By treating white

masculine subjectivities as "obvious" and transparent, we continue to

misrecognize the variety of hegemonic discourses as monolithic and thus

run the risk of leaving intact the ideological structures that have been

used historically to oppress women and minorities. Observing this

trend, Richard Dyer argues that

1l]ooking, with such passion and single-mindedness, at non-
dominant groups has had the effect of reproducing the sense of


oddness, differentness, exceptionality of these groups, the
feeling that they are departures from the norm. Meanwhile, the
norm has carried on as if it is the natural, inevitable, ordinary
way of being human. ("White" 44)

By distinguishing between various dominant subjectivities "and the

network of relations among them," we can further the critical agenda

Eakin describes by adding to the complexity and diversity of the

emerging portrait of autobiographical writing in America. In addition,

the timing for an investigation into the process by which ideology

conceals the cultural construction of white masculinity is good, since

the new insights into the autobiographical act that contemporary theory

has afforded us have put at our disposal the critical tools necessary

for such an investigation.

Following in the wake of feminist scholarship on historically

specific ideologies of gender, some critics in American studies have

begun exploring ways in which discourses of masculinity have changed

with the passage of time.4 Still, it is remarkable that in a critical

climate where the concept of "difference" plays such an important role

in the direction and focus of scholarship in literary studies, and where

autobiography criticism has come to constitute such a large part of that

scholarship, the study of southern autobiography has remained largely

uninformed and undisturbed by poststructuralist critical interpretation.

I say this, not because the autobiographies of southerners are uniquely

different from those of non-southerners, though a number of distinctive

patterns have been identified that set them apart from the national

norms. Rather, it is remarkable because of the extent to which southern

4 For an example of recent scholarship in regionally specific
forms of masculinity, see Ted Ownby, Subduing Satan: Religion,
Recreation, and Manhood in the Rural South, 1865-1920 (Chapel Hill: U of
North Carolina P, 1990). For more generalized treatments of Masculinity
in the U.S., see David Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance
(Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1989); E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood:
Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era
(New York: HarperCollins, 1993); Mark C. Carnes, Secret Ritual and
Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven, CT: Yale U P, 1989); Mark C.
Carnes and Clyde Griffen, eds., Meanings for Manhood: Constructions of
Manhood in Victorian America (Chicago, U of Chicago P, 1990).

identity has historically been constructed around the idea of

"difference"--from the North in particular, but from the rest of the

nation as well--and because of the conspicuous prominence of regional

identity in the life writing of southerners, especially that of white

males, the group that has traditionally acted as self-appointed

spokesmen for the region. While anglo male gays, non-anglo males, and

political activists also represent themselves as marginalized figures,

the number of autobiographies written by these three groups outside the

South is dwarfed by the number of those by white men from the South, who

have been strategically deploying their "colonized" status since before

Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

If scholars in the sixties and seventies were guilty of

unconsciously imposing a gender- and class-specific model of self-

representation onto their understanding of what constitutes "American

autobiography," then they were equally guilty of imposing a regionally-

specific model as well. The qualities then seen as "national"

characteristics of autobiography--self-reliance, a predisposition to

self-examination and self-improvement, a readiness to take advantage of

opportunities as they present themselves, and an unwillingness to be

constrained by the past--were, in fact, New England virtues at the time

that many of the canonical autobiographies were written (though these

ideals would come to be embraced by much of the rest of the nation by

the end of the nineteenth-century).5 Indeed, they may have served

hegemonic purposes. One reason why critics imposed what now can be seen

as a regional template upon the national autobiographical character is

I For example, see William Spengemann and L.R. Lundquist,
"Autobiography and the American Myth," American Quarterly 17.3 (1965)
501-519, who identify two branches of the dominant national
autobiographical tradition. The first of these "is comprised of
restless types, searching for truth, undergoing personal metamorphosis,
interpreting the holy mysteries of their tribe, forecasting the
collective destiny." In the second branch we typically find "the
progress from penury to wealth, the religious overtones of secular
success, [and] the identification of affluence and worldly reputation
with happiness" (509).


that New England was an especially fertile ground for the development of

a tradition of life writing that elevated the notion of autonomous

individualism. As Sacvan Bercovitch has convincingly argued, the

Puritan sensibility quickly found expression in the spiritual narrative,

which required an extreme degree of introspection. And though the

ideology of individualism had not yet taken shape in such accounts as

The Diary of Cotton Mather (1681-1724) and Jonathan Edwards' Personal

Narrative (c.1739), the Puritan's religious experience was an intensely

private one between the narrator and God that served to lay the

groundwork for the development of a quasi-secular modern national

autobiographical tradition.6 Furthermore, the personal transformation

occasioned by the subject's spiritual awakening provided a teleological

structure to the narrative which distinguished it from the differently

structured personal accounts of exploration and settlement that were

being written at the time in both the North and the South. But the

sensibilities that made New England such fertile ground for the

cultivation of "classic" autobiography were not shared by other regions

of the nation. While New Englanders, who increasingly saw themselves as

exemplars of the national character, were writing "classic"

autobiographies, southern whites, who increasingly defined themselves in

opposition to that character, eschewed the confessional, personal mode

of self-representation in favor of the public memoir. With the

exception of Mark Twain, whose posthumous autobiography anticipates many

discursive techniques employed by twentieth-century southerners, it

would not be until the so-called "Southern Renaissance," when the South

began to enjoy a reputation as an area rich in literary talent, that

6 Bercovitch notes that, earlyry New England rhetoric provided a
ready framework for inverting the later secular values--human
perfectibility, technological progress, democracy, Christian socialism,
or simply (and comprehensively) the American Way--into the mold of a
sacred teleology" (Puritan Origins 136). One particularly effective
medium for the transmission of this "sacred teleology," according to
Bercovitch, is the "genre of auto-American-biography: the celebration of
the representative self as America, and of the American self as the
embodiment of a prophetic universal design."


privileged southerners engaged in writing "artistically conceived"

autobiographies that purported to reveal the author's private "self."

Capitalizing on the region's literary reputation, an increasing

number of professional writers would take pen in hand to "tell about the

South" and their place in it, almost all of them taking time along the

way to wrestle with their personal involvement in the issue of race

relations. Though a resistance to representing interiority continues to

manifest itself in these works, the conventional demarcation between the

public and private spheres is circumvented through a relational method

of self-disclosure, in which the autobiographical subject's identity is,

to use Mary G. Mason's description of women's self-representation,

"linked to the identification of some 'other'" ("Other Voice" 210).

Instead of using autobiography to celebrate the autonomy of the self, to

affirm the "obviousness" of what Sidonie Smith characterizes as the

"well-defined, stable, impermeable boundaries around a singular,

unified, and atomic core, the unequivocal delineation of inside and

outside" (Subjectivityl Identity, and the Body 5), they use the medium

to define themselves in relation to others and as "others" to the North.

While the tendency to construct relational autobiographical identities

is not limited to white men from the South, nor to southerners in

general, it is most commonly associated with members of traditionally

marginalized groups. In particular, this discursive pattern has come to

be recognized by feminist scholars as one of the defining

characteristics of women's autobiography.7 Therefore, it may be

something of a surprise to see so many white men from different social

backgrounds constructing their autobiographical identities in relation

7 See Friedman, "Women's Autobiographical Selves," especially her
discussion of the theories of Sheila Rowbotham, Nancy Chodorow, and
their relevance to the "relational" model of autobiographical selfhood
described by Mary G. Mason in "The Other Voice." Though Mason was
apparently unaware of Rowbotham's and Chodorow's research, Friedman
persuasively argues that Mason's reading of women's self-
representational practices is supported by that research (Friedman

to their families, communities, and even the landscape in which they

were raised. (As we shall see, the methods of self-disclosure used in

these autobiographies by white southern men are still distinguishable

from women's self-representation in a number of specific ways, often

relating to issues of dominance and control, on the one hand, and fear

of fluidity and penetration, on the other.) Where privileged northern

autobiographers have traditionally articulated what Smith calls

"individualistic paradigms of selfhood" by narrating the personal

journey to spiritual awakening (Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather),

tracing the career of the self-made man (Franklin and P.T. Barnum), or

removing the self from the contaminating influences of society (Thoreau

and Parkman), the white male southerner rarely represents himself as the

isolato. We get some indication of this pattern in the title of Will

Campbell's autobiography, Brother to a Dragonfly, and in the subtitles

of such works as Will Percy's Lanterns On the Levee: Memoirs of a

Planter's Son, and Andrew Lytle's A Wake for the Living: A Family

Chronicle, all of which call attention to the importance the author

places on family. The subtitle of Harry Crews's autobiography, A

Childhood: The Biography of a Place, implies even more directly that

the identity of the protagonist cannot be fully separated from the

people with whom--and place where--he spent his formative years.

Another discursive pattern that distinguishes the autobiographies

of white men from the modern South from those by non-southern anglo

males is the tendency to represent their subjectivity as "embodied" and

particularized, rather than disembodied and universal. While this

pattern is not as pronounced as the relational motif, it bears

mentioning because it, too, is closely associated in contemporary

criticism with marginalized figures. As Sidonie Smith explains, because

of the Cartesian assumption of a fundamental split between the body and

the self, the essential core of man/human is characteristically seen as

disembodied and universal; conversely, what is classified as "other" is

its opposite: "Thus, certain people, those positioned peripherally to

the dominant group, those claiming and/or assigned marginalized

identities, find themselves partitioned in their bodies and culturally

embodied" (Subjectivitv. Identity, and the Body 10). Through this

logic, anatomyoy becomes the irreducible granite at the core of woman's

(or any other marginalized subject's] being" (12). So long as one is

content with universalized conceptions of gender ideology that fail to

take into account cultural variations, Smith's claims would appear to be

valid. But in a culture where a man's identity is largely a function of

community regard, where publicly defined honor counts for more than

internalized conscience, masculine subjectivity may not be as free of

corporeal encumbrance as Smith's characterization suggests. Noting the

embodiment of antebellum southern masculinity, Anne Goodwyn Jones


Whether in eye-gouging contests on the frontier (Elliot Gorn) or
sophisticated duels in the plantation South (Kenneth Greenberg),
southern men subjected their bodies to manmaking, and unmaking,
physical contests. Of course honor took other, less tangible
forms as well; yet the presence of the body in these contests
suggests the personal and concrete location of masculinity in the
South, as well as its continual vulnerability to contestation.
("Good Old Boys" 6)

If such explicitly physical forms of masculine competition are no longer

as popular as before, the ideal of vigorous physical manhood--and its

attendant reliance upon violence to assert one's manhood--is still alive

and well in the South.'

Finally, the issue of race serves as a common theme--if not

preoccupation--for modern southern autobiographers, white and black,

male and female, conservative and liberal, though, of course, the topic

is rarely absent from nineteenth-century southern autobiographies

either. But when race relations are brought up repeatedly in the

s According to John Shelton Reed, ". the historical records
and actual crime statistics suggest that Southerners do have a tendency
to appeal to force to settle differences, and it may be supposed that
they view such resort as more often legitimate than do non-Southerners"
(Enduring South 46).


narratives of Thomas Jefferson, William Grayson, and Richard Taylor, the

issue takes the form of a political, sociological, or moral discussion,

while in modern southern white men's autobiographies, from Lanterns on

the Levee to Melton McLaurin's Separate Pasts: Growing Up White in the

Segregated South (1987), the subject is handled on a more intimate

level. Later representations of African Americans by white southern

autobiographers are typically more fully rendered, less stereotyped than

earlier characterizations, but as in the more "abstract" discussions of

racial matters in nineteenth-century personal narratives and defenses of

slavery, the construction of southern whiteness is accomplished through

the constant presence (if not the direct agency) of the racial "other."

Furthermore, because southern white liberals and conservatives alike

have historically considered themselves the world's leading experts on

race relations, the inclusion of this racial "other" in southern whites'

autobiographies allows for the construction of the narrator's regional

as well as racial identity.9

Beginning in the 1930s, the autobiographies of southern white men-

-in particular those who were professional writers--began to emphasize

the tradition of storytelling as a regional phenomenon, too, one that

served as a source for the author's literary material. In addition,

since it was frequently implied that this oral tradition was the source

of the author's facility with language, as well, the narrator's identity

as an artist became fused with his identity as a southerner. This

conflation of "artistic" and "southern" identities presented the white

male writer with a number of difficulties, though, not the least of

which was the relatively low regard held by traditional southerners

See Melton McLaurin, "Southern Autobiography and the Problem of
Race," Looking South: Chapters in the Story of an American Region, eds.
Winfred B. Moore, Jr. and Joseph F. Tripp (New York: Greenwood Press,
1989) 65-76. McLaurin suggests that although post-World War II southern
liberal autobiographers began to openly question racial segregation in
the South, their narratives lacked "the deeply emotional, personal,
paternalistic, relationships with blacks described by Percy and other
traditionalists" (67).

toward those who pursued literary professions. In a society that

privileged action over intellect and the spoken word over the written

one, feelings of inadequacy often accompanied the representation of the

self as artist. While Will Percy probably best exemplifies this

pattern, his was by no means an isolated case. As Stark Young observes

in his autobiography, The Pavilion (1949), in the South ". your son

could be a planter, a lawyer, a judge, a senator or a doctor--in sum, a

man--but a musician, a painter, a poet were likely to be effeminate

weaklings, certainly no credit to their class" (170). Nevertheless,

some writers found that by using their autobiographies as vehicles from

which to speak for the South they could mitigate much of their gender

anxiety, particularly if they could depict their autobiographical

personae in ways that exemplified the norms for white southern

masculinity--asserting their "sense of place" in relation to both

geography and class, racial, and gender hierarchies, speaking with self-

declared authority on the character of "the negro" and southern race

relations, and demonstrating their resistance to nationally dominant

ideologies of selfhood that stressed autonomous individualism and

competition in the work place." Admittedly, many followed the opposite

path, rejecting self-representation, as Tate did, on the grounds that it

was out of character for the southern "man of letters."" Yet, those

that chose to engage in self-representation could conflate the roles of

writer and regional spokesman in a manner that allowed for their

10 See Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the
Intellectual in the Old South. 1830-1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P,
1977), and Fred Hobson, Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to
Explain (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P, 1983), for studies of the
ways in which white southern intellectuals spoke for their region in
part as a response to their feelings of alienation from traditional
forms of white southern masculinity (and in the case of Lillian Smith,
whom Hobson discusses briefly, white southern femininity).

"1 See Tate's remarks in "A Lost Traveller's Dream," in Memoirs and
Opinions, 1926-1974 (Chicago: Chicago Press, 1975) 3-23; and "A Southern
Mode of the Imagination," in Essays of Four Decades (Chicago: Swallow,

literary self-fashioning without compromising their claims to southern

manhood.1 In order to understand why white southerners initially

resisted lending their voices to "the preeminent kind of American

expression," we must first examine the cultural conditions in the South

that inhibited the representation of interiority.

Regional Identity and the Rise of Southern "Difference"

Historian Sheldon Hackney sees a "a sense of grievance at

the heart of Southern identity," and takes the position that "[t]he

South was created by a need to protect a peculiar institution from

threats originating outside the region. Consequently, the Southern

identity has been linked from the first to a siege mentality" (quoted in

Reed, 88). For instance, Frank Owsley claims in the Agrarian manifesto

I'll Take My Stand (1930) that

afterr the South had been conquered by war and humiliated and
impoverished by peace. there commenced a second war of
conquest, the conquest of the Southern mind, calculated to remake
every Southern opinion, to impose the Northern way of life and
thought upon the South, write "error" across the pages of Southern
history which were out of keeping with the Northern legend, and
set the rising and unborn generations upon stools of everlasting
repentance. ("Irrepressible Conflict" 63)

White southerners in general, and males in particular, have historically

articulated such claims and, more importantly, as Hackney suggests,

built their personal identities--to the extent that they identify with

12 As the use of the term "self-fashioning" implies, my
understanding of this process is informed by Stephen Greenblatt's
Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: U of
Chicago P, 1980), where he offers the following definition:
self-fashioning derives its interest precisely from the fact
that it functions without regard for a sharp distinction between
literature and social life. It invariably crosses the boundary
between the creation of literary characters, the shaping of one's
own identity, the experience of being molded by forces outside
one's control, the attempt to fashion other selves. (3)
While Greenblatt does not discuss autobiography in his book (the term
was not even coined until almost two centuries after Shakespeare's
death), it is fairly obvious that all self-representation, like self-
fashioning, blurs the "distinction between literature and social life,"
since the autobiographer finds even less of a "boundary between the
creation of literary characters, the shaping of [his/her] identity" and
"the attempt to fashion other selves" than do writers of fiction, drama,
or poetry.


the region--around those claims. Given this rhetorical tendency to

portray themselves as victims of the victorious and unforgiving North,

it is not surprising to find in the autobiographies of southern white

men the perception that they are marginalized figures, cut off in

various ways from their legitimate sources of power. This attitude

helps to explain why white men from the South have historically avoided

the representation and exposure of interiority, since "defensiveness"

implies a psychic vulnerability, a need to guard one's borders in order

to protect the interior from attack. What is surprising, because it

problematizes conventional assumptions about the supposed uniformity of

dominant subjectivities, is the relational character of their

representations of selfhood, a "marginalized" discursive strategy that

critics have only recently come to identify as a defining characteristic

of autobiographical writing by women and minorities whose oppressed

status is less subject to debate.

If Hackney is correct in saying that a "sense of grievance" over

the events surrounding the Civil War serves as the basis for southern

identity, it is also true that differences existed well before then. At

the time of the American Revolution, the cultural and political

dissimilarities between the North and the South were not so pronounced

as they would later become, but the contrasts between the two sections

were noticeable, as evidenced by the remarks of one prominent observer

of the time. In a letter to the Marquis de Castellux, Thomas Jefferson

enclosed a table of differences between the two sections:

In the North they are: In the South they are:

cool fiery
sober voluptuary
laborious indolent
independent unsteady
jealous of their own zealous for their own
liberties, and just liberties, but
to those of others trampling on those
of others
interested generous
chicaning candid

superstitious and hypo- without attachment or
critical in their to any religion but
religion that of the heart

(quoted in O'Brien, Idea of the American South 3)

The list is of interest, not only because the perception of sectional

differences was already pronounced at so early a point in our nation's

history, but also because those perceptions have remained largely

unchanged for so long.13 (The obvious exception is Jefferson's

characterization of southern religion, which fails to anticipate the

long-term effects on the South of the evangelical movement already

underway at the time he wrote the letter.) As the South saw its

interests compromised by the growing capital and industrial might of the

North and the rise of the Abolitionist movement, and as the Yankee

virtues of industry, individualism, self-reliance, and progress came to

be embraced as elements of the national character, southern identity was

increasingly constructed around the idea of "difference."

Although antebellum southerners found some political leverage, as

well as emotional satisfaction, in representing themselves as

marginalized and out of step with the direction in which the nation

founded by so many notable Virginians was headed, this is not to suggest

that significant material and cultural differences did not, in fact,

already exist. Bercovitch notes that at the time of the settlement of

the colonies, New Englanders and Southerners already had markedly

different conceptions of their respective missions in the New World.

While the Puritans saw their arrival in "the American paradise as the

fulfillment of scripture prophecy[,] [t]he Southern myth was essentially

utopian" (Puritan Origins 137). Brought to the southern colonies by

1 According to John Shelton Reed, when a group of white college
students from the South were asked in 1971 to list the "most typical
traits" of southerners and northerners, some of the most frequently
ascribed traits of southerners were: "conservative, tradition-loving,
courteous, loyal to family ties, generous, lazy, pleasure loving, and
honest." In contrast, some of the most frequently mentioned
characteristics of northerners were: "industrious, materialistic,
intelligent, progressive, sophisticated, aggressive, arrogant, and
deceitful" (Enduring South 27, Table 3-5).

exaggerated reports of an Edenic paradise and the lure of gold, early

settlers there were quickly persuaded otherwise by disease and frequent

hostilities with Native Americans. Bercovitch argues, "Appropriately,

when their expectations failed, they recorded their disillusionment not

in jeremiads but in dystopian satires, deriding the local Yahoos,

mocking the vanity of human wishes and the pitfalls of Candide-like

innocence. ." (138)." The southern colonists' early experience with

disappointment, combined with the absence of a divinely sanctioned

conception of shared destiny, as was held by the Puritans, makes it

easier to understand why southerners were less inclined than northerners

to view the Union as sacred. In addition, their belief in the

inevitable imperfection of human institutions may also help to explain

the relative ease with which southerners have historically made their

peace with obviously oppressive systems like slavery and segregation.

The most striking material contrast between the sections was the

continuation in the South of an agrarian slavocracy long after the North

had entered the industrial revolution. Thus, while urban population

swelled in the northern states, necessitating greater centralization of

services and distribution of goods, the population in the South remained

largely unconcentrated, with the plantation system constituting the

primary community structure."

1 Although Bercovitch fails to offer specific instances of
"dystopian satires" from the southern colonies, the most obvious
examples would be Robert Beverly's The History and Present State of
Virginia (1704), which attempts to dissuade the prospective immigrant
from seeking a new life in Virginia, and Ebenezer Cook's mock-heroic
poem, The Sot-Weed Factor (1708). Less notable satirists from the
southern colonies include Samuel Davies (1723-1761) and Robert Bolling
Jr. (1738-1775).

U See Daniel Singal, The War Within: From Victorian to Modernist
Thought in the South, 1919-1945 (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P,
1982). According to Singal,
The plantation's needs determined the South's pattern of
settlement, its principal transportation routes, and the location,
size, and vitality of its cities, all the while sapping life from
any other institution that threatened to compete for power. .
effectively choking] off the economic growth of southern towns
and thus preventing) the rise of an independent middle class.


Scholars who have written of the shifts in masculine ideals in the

nineteenth-century have tended to base their conclusions on a New

England social model, overlooking these cultural divisions between the

North and the South. For instance, Anthony Rotundo speaks of the

transition around the end of the eighteenth century from the Colonial

era ideal of "communal manhood," where "a man's identity was inseparable

from the duties he owed to his community" (American Manhood 2), to the

more modern ideal of "self-made manhood.""1 This ideal, according to


emerged as part of a broader series of changes: the birth of
republican government, the spread of a market economy, the
concomitant growth of the middle-class itself. .In this new
world a man took his identity and his social status from his own
achievements, not from the accident of his birth. Thus, a man's
work role, not his place at the head of the household, formed the
essence of his identity. (3)

Some of Rotundo's description of the social transformation in the

U.S. at the beginning of the nineteenth-century is applicable to the

southern states. For instance, cotton production in the South was

intrinsically tied to a market economy, and though they did not have the

relatively egalitarian local tradition of community involvement in

politics that characterized the New England town meeting system,

southerners participated in--indeed, played decisive roles in the

leadership of--the new Federal government. But growth of the middle-

class was extremely limited in the antebellum South. Admittedly, the

relatively risky but lucrative cultivation of cotton created a parvenu

class of "self-made men," but rather than build their identities around

their ability to compete in the workplace and accumulate wealth, as men

16 In defense of his decision to base his study of "American"
manhood on a New England model, Rotundo says, "In limiting the scope of
this study, I chose to screen out regional variance by examining manhood
in the part of the country that proved dominant in politics, economics,
and culture: the North" (295). His failure to establish the limits of
northern cultural hegemony, especially in relation to the South,
undermines what would otherwise be a sound treatment of the subject.

in the North did, these men typically tried their best to pass

themselves off as members of the traditional southern aristocracy.17

And while it may be true that in the northern states men increasingly

"rejected the idea that they had a fixed place in any hierarchy, be it

cosmic or social. .. [and] no longer thought of themselves as part of

an organic community from which they drew their identity" (Rotundo 19),

the same cannot be said for the vast majority of southerners. During

the period that Rotundo claims the transformation in American

masculinity was taking place, the technological advances that brought

social modernization to the North had the opposite effect in the South,

where the invention of the gin allowed for the proliferation of cotton

production. As this practice became more widespread and the region

became increasingly tied to a single-crop economy, the South's

dependence on slavery grew along with it. Though linked to modern modes

of processing (via the New England textile industry) and transportation

(steam ship and railroad), as well as speculative trading on the world

market, the labor-intensive cultivation of cotton required that the

South embrace anew a form of labor that many had considered antiquated

at the turn of the nineteenth century. Even in the expansive

plantations of the Mississippi Delta, where the owners were less likely

than ever before to know their chattel by name, the system remained

dependent upon the authority of the master, the most visible symbol of

Sthe hierarchy of power that sanctioned human bondage. Thus, the

privileged southern male's "place at the head of the household"

continued not only to constitute the "essence of his identity," but to

i Although more objective accounts of the nouveau "cotton snob"
are available, for instance in Richard Gray's Writing the South: Ideas
of an American Region (New York: Cambridge U P, 1986), see W. J. Cash's
The Mind of the South (New York: Vintage, 1941) for a lively and
illustrative description of the anonymous "stout young Irishman" from
humble beginnings whose shrewd investment in cotton production allows
him to be eulogized in the newspaper as "'a noble specimen of chivalry
at its best'" (14-17). A more complex and disturbing account of the
same kind of figure can be found in Faulkner's Absalom, Absaloml (New
York: Random House, 1936), which depicts in mythic overtones the rise
and fall of the house of Sutpen.

represent the "essence" of the primary mode of production in the

antebellum South, a mode of production that became increasingly

intertwined with the region's identity as the slave debate grew in the

national political discourse. In contrast to what white southerners saw

as an impersonal and atomistic social environment in the North, the

paternalism of the plantation and small town South found easy expression

Sin a relational mode of self-portraiture in which the speaker stressed

his "familial" interactions and obligations with those whose well-being

fell under his authority.

Because of the socio-economic differences between the northern and

southern states, it was much more difficult for bourgeois individualism

to make inroads into the South, which was still dominated by the

plantation system and lacked a significant urban population like that in

the Northeast and, following the Civil War, the Midwest. The rise of

bourgeois individualism was facilitated in New England by the residual

influence of the Puritan tradition, whose vision of collective destiny

for the community of the elect was offset by its privatized conception

of religious experience, its emphasis on self-inspection as a means of

attaining grace, and its reliance upon conscience as the primary means

of self-regulation. In contrast, the South had no intellectual or

Spiritual tradition that promoted interiority and individualism.

Bertram Wyatt-Brown argues in Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the

Old South that southerners inherited a set of cultural practices that

embraced an honor-based conception of selfhood which was "almost

\entirely external in nature" (33). Public shame, rather than private

guilt, served as the most important means of self-regulation for

southern whites, who were more inclined than their northern counterparts

to concern themselves with how others regarded them, the matter of

conscience carrying less weight than community opinion. According to


The following elements were crucial in the formulation of southern
evaluations of conduct: (1) honor as immortalizing valor,

particularly in the character of revenge against familial and
community enemies; (2) opinion of others as an indispensable part
of personal identity and gauge of self-worth; (3) physical
appearance and ferocity of will as signs of inner merit; (4)
defense of male integrity and mingled fear and love of woman; and
finally, (5) reliance upon oath-taking as a bond in lieu of family
obligations and allegiance. (Southern Honor 34)

While antebellum northerners would have inevitably evaluated the

conduct of their family members and neighbors according to some or all

of these criteria, the growing opportunities for social advancement

afforded by a market economy in the North combined with the relatively

impersonal nature of urban life there made community censure a less

tangible social practice than in the South. Furthermore, the importance

of honor in the South was intrinsically linked to the peculiar

institution, for the plantation head's authority and mastery over his

slaves was derived in large part from his general standing in the

community. A striking illustration of this phenomenon can be found in

the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Noting with

contempt the way in which some slaves drew their own sense of self-worth

from that of their master, Douglass describes how slaves would quarrel

over whose owner was "the smartest, and the most of a man": "These

quarrels would almost always end in a fight between the parties, and

those that whipped were supposed to have gained the point at issue.

They seemed to think that the greatness of their masters was

transferable to themselves" (266-67). Though Douglass fails to mention

it, those slaves also emulated their masters in their use of violence to

assert their place in the hierarchy of power, as well. Although the

abolition of slavery brought an end to the most brutal and dehumanizing

aspects of the relationship between southern blacks and their white

employers, it did little to change the basic structure of agricultural

labor in the South. For even though emancipated slaves were now in

direct economic competition with poor whites, the "share" system that

replaced slave labor continued to rely upon the same system of

paternalism that privileged whites had used to legitimize the

institution of human bondage. In addition, as Singal points out, the

Lost Cause myth that emerged after the defeat of the Confederacy both

reinforced and reinvented the cavalier image of the southern gentleman,

which, in turn, helped perpetuate the system of southern honor well into

the modern era, further inhibiting the emergence there of bourgeois

individualism (The War Within 21-22)."

The Interpretation of Southern Autobiography

Given these cultural differences between the North and South,

then, it is little wonder that when the secularized model of the New

England spiritual autobiography, which privileged introspection and

autonomous individualism, became the standard by which modern

autobiographies were measured, the South produced no equivalent of

Franklin's Autobiography. For instance, one would assume that since

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both products of the

Enlightenment, shared many political and moral views, and worked

together in the establishment of the new Republic, their autobiographies

would bear some formal resemblance, even if the events described therein

differed according to the particular circumstances of the narrators.

Yet the differences in style, form, and scope between the two

revolutionaries' personal narratives are remarkable. In fact,

Franklin's account seems by far the more modern of the two, even though

he was almost forty years Jefferson's senior and penned his memoirs some

thirty years before Jefferson wrote his. Recounting what he claims are

the formative experiences of his youth and carefully detailing how he

made the most of every opportunity, the Philadelphian's account

exemplifies the aforementioned characteristics that came to be known as

"American autobiography"--introspection, self-improvement, optimism, and

Wyatt-Brown alludes to the tenacity of the honor-based model of
selfhood in the Preface to Southern Honor, where he writes, "'Old South'
refers to traits and styles of action with distant origins and with
manifestations still observable in Southern life today" (xvii).


self-reliance--while Jefferson's text is marked by its rigid decorum, a

studious avoidance of all things personal, and attention to the minute

details of state that are of interest to the student of history, but

serve little to inform the reader what role the narrator played in

bringing those events to pass, let alone how he felt about them. But if

privileged southerners did not engage in the kind of self-representation

we have come to value in autobiography, this is not to say that their

texts are insignificant or fail to reveal something about their authors.

On the contrary, because they are so anomalous to the dominant--that is

to say, the New England heterosexual white male--national tradition,

they problematize many convenient assumptions about the supposed

uniformity of self-representation by white males in the U.S. In

addition, since autobiography affords us a glimpse into the process of

self-construction, and southern white men typically take such pains to

link their sense of selfhood with the idea of "the South," their

autobiographies reveal the ideological dimensions of the merging of

personal and collective identities.

The skeptic may well ask how such a provocative area of inquiry

could be overlooked in a field such as autobiography studies, which is

currently flooded with new articles and books. If initial attempts to

define a national autobiographical pattern were as unfair to white men

of the South as they were to women and minorities from every state in

the Union, then why has the regional chauvinism implicit in those

characterizations not been challenged? Above and beyond the general

complacency the academy has shown until recently in regard to the issue

of masculine subjectivity, the most probable reason is that the critics

who are most responsible for reshaping the canon have not counted many

scholars of southern literature among their number. Drawing on their

research in women's, African American, and ethnic writing, and acting on

their desire to make the canon reflect more fully the rich cultural

diversity of the nation's literature, these mostly liberal critics have


been understandably wary of the category of "southern autobiography"

because of the South's history of paternalism and racism." (This

problem is exacerbated considerably by the conservative--some have

called it reactionary--politics of many white male southern

autobiographers and critics.) But given the Americanists' failure to

recognize the significance of regional distinctions in American

autobiography, one would expect that scholars of southern literature

would point out this oversight. In fact, southern literary scholars

have lately begun to take notice of southern autobiography, but despite

the growing interest in the subject, they have been slow to bring to

this branch of American life writing--especially as it pertains to white

male writers--the level of critical sophistication that has come to

characterize scholarship in other categories of self-representation in

the U.S.

Though a considerable number of studies focusing on the slave

narrative and African American autobiography have been published in

recent years, all but a few of these critical works on southern-born

authors studiously avoid the use of the label "southern autobiography,"

for reasons I have already suggested and will discuss more fully below.

The most prominent body of criticism to use the label "southern

autobiography" can be found in two collections of essays edited by J.

Bill Berry, Located Lives: Place and Idea in Southern Autobiography

(1990) and Home Ground: Southern Autobiography (1991). But while the

efforts put forth by Berry, who is a historian, to bring this much-

neglected branch of American life writing to the attention of the

academic community are to be lauded, the results of his labors are

somewhat disappointing to literary scholars. Many of the essays found

9 For instance, in defending his choice not to include white male
southern writers in his section on "Issues and Visions in Pre-Civil War
America," in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (generally
perceived to be the leading "revisionist" American literature
anthology), Paul Lauter quotes Thoreau, who writes, "'Slavery and
servility have produced no sweet-scented flower annually, to charm the
senses of men, for they have no real life. '" (1195).


in the two volumes are themselves listed as "Personal Narratives," and

are short autobiographical pieces that appear to have more interest in

conflating the relationship between the authors (all of whom are white

male academicians), their writing, and their region, than in

disentangling those three threads and shedding any real light on the

process of self-representation. Of the remaining essays, less than half

show any evidence that their authors are familiar with recent

theoretical approaches to the study of self-representation that have

problematized the authority of the narrator; many even offer readings of

novels and short stories to illustrate their claims about the character

of southern autobiography.2 To be fair, the pieces dealing with

autobiographies by women and African Americans are typically well-

written, critically informed discussions that challenge many of the

long-standing regional myths about the supposed "concreteness" of "the

southerner," and the "sense of place" in literature of the region.2

But those essays that purport to deal with the general practice of

southern autobiography (or lack thereof) seem intent upon affirming Anne

Goodwyn Jones' remark that "'the South' continues to be seen as white

and masculine, a view enabled by reading only the works of white men"

("Tools of the Master" 6).

For instance, Simpson attempts to explain why the South has

produced "so few notable autobiographies" by pointing to the pervasive

0 For instance, Walter's Sullivan's "Strange Children: Caroline
Gordon and Allen Tate" (Home Ground 123-30) begins by mentioning the
usefulness of autobiography in "the study of the creative process"
(124), but uses only biographical information and the writers' fictional
works on which to base his opinions. Others move back and forth
indiscriminately between autobiography and fiction, as in Simpson's
piece; Sally Wolff's "Eudora Welty's Autobiographical Duet: The
Optimist's Daughter and One Writer's Beginnings" (Located Lives 78-92);
and George Core's "Life's Bright Parenthesis: Warren's Example and One
Man's Pathology" (Home Ground 48-60).

2 See Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, "Between Individualism and Community:
Autobiographies of Southern Women," Located Lives, 20-38; Olney,
"Autobiographical Traditions Black and White, Located Lives, 66-77; and
Andrews, "Booker T. Washington, Belle Kearney, and the Southern
Patriarchy," Home Ground.


antipathy toward public confession held by (privileged) southerners.

Significantly, he uses Allen Tate, the self-appointed spokesman for the

traditional South, as his model for the representative southerner, a

move that the contributor to the Agrarian symposium I'll Take Mv Stand

would most likely have approved of. Simpson argues that Tate, "not

being able to reconcile the private and public significance of his

complex autobiography--of the story of himself and his family, of

slavery, race, and America--hides it in the artifice of The Fathers"

(84-85). The argument that twentieth-century (white) southerners feel

compelled to acknowledge in their fictional writings the sins of their

fathers, yet cannot bring themselves to deal with those issues in the

stark light of autobiography, would seem to be supported by the deeply

autobiographical nature of Faulkner's writing, in which he, too,

confronts the demons of his family's and region's past by fictionalizing

them. Indeed, similar patterns can be found in the fiction of Robert

Penn Warren, Walker Percy, and other white male writers from the region.

Nevertheless, Simpson fails to acknowledge the many autobiographies by

southern blacks that have been included in the canon, nor does he take

into account the numerous examples of life writing by southern white men

and women, many of whom address on very personal terms the issues Tate,

Faulkner, and others deal with in a more indirect manner.

In addition to revealing his inclination to see the southern

writer as a white male entity, Simpson's argument implies some other

biases as well. For instance, his focus on the "impulse" to write an

account of one's life and his subsequent examination of how that

"impulse" is satisfied by including autobiographical elements in works

of fiction and poetry suggest his eagerness to sidestep the important

distinction between fiction and autobiography. Thus, Simpson can claim

that Tate's Civil War novel The Fathers (1938) is "perhaps the most

distinguished fulfillment of the impulse to autobiography on the part of

southern novelists," simply because Tate manages to address the issue of

miscegenation there. But as Lejeune and Bruss have convincingly shown,

the only way in which the "genre" of autobiography can be distinguished

from fiction, on the one hand, and biography, on the other, is by

acknowledging the specific set of assumptions surrounding the

transmission and reception of self-representation." For those who were

trained in the New Criticism, the reader's involvement in the production

of meaning is insignificant and the line between fiction and

autobiography becomes rather unimportant.

Simpson's apparent agreement with those who have kept (white)

southerners' autobiographies excluded from the canon also reveals some

aesthetic biases. While he does not specify what he means by "notable"

examples of life writing, his view that southerners have not succeeded

in writing "artistically conceived" autobiographies implies that he

values self-representation as a branch of imaginative literature, not as

a mode of discourse that allows us to locate the convergence of

individual and group experience. Paul John Eakin has observed that

S. attention to the referential dimension of autobiography is
not a familiar exercise for critics and literary historians who,
when they deal with autobiography at all, have been intent on
demonstrating the literariness of such texts, validating their
status as imaginative art. (5)

Thus, the New England autobiographical tradition, with its introspective

emphasis on the protagonist's self-development, more easily fulfills the

requirements of imaginative art, in contrast to the more outward

directed southerners' autobiography." Yet, from Twain to Welty, white

a See my discussion of Bruss and Lejeune in the previous chapter.

3 See Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, "'The True Happenings of My Life':
Southern Women Writing Autobiography," forthcoming in Haunted Bodies:
Gender and Southern Texts, eds. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan Donaldson
(Charlottesville: U P of Virginia, 1996). Noting critical bias that
informs the distinction critics have drawn between the outward directed
"memoir" and the more canonically privileged (or, to use Simpson's term,
"artistically conceived") "autobiography," Prenshaw notes:
scholars prior to the 1880s typically sought to
differentiate autobiography from diary or memoir or journal,
naming as autobiography what they regarded as the more serious
form, in which the development of the self is the chief object of
attention, and naming as memoir the less deliberate, less artistic

southern writers have treated the occasion of self-representation as an

opportunity to explore the relationship between their southern identity

and their art (even as they construct their southern and artistic

identities), a fact that Simpson and others have ignored. Apparently

agreeing with those who have kept white southerners' autobiographies on

the margins of literary study--he does not define what he means by

"notable"--Simpson reveals a tendency to evaluate autobiographies on

purely aesthetic terms. Perhaps because they still embrace many of the

aesthetic values that previously excluded non-white male autobiographers

from the canon, no southern literary critic (or any other critic, for

that matter) has pointed out that white male autobiographers from the

South remain marginalized for many of the same reasons that were once

given to justify the exclusion of women and minorities, in particular

their resistance to representing the self as fully autonomous.2

The pattern of using the Fugitive/Agrarian group as the model for

the southern writer is even more apparent in George Core's "Lives

Fugitive and Unwritten." While Simpson at least qualifies his claim by

specifying the kind of autobiography "the southerner" supposedly has not

written (what we can now see to be the canonized New England model of

"American" autobiography), Core is much less cautious:

When we survey southern literature from its beginnings until the
past decade or so, we find precious little in the way of
autobiography, which is to say little that falls under the heading
of even reminiscence or memoir; and there is nothing to speak of
so far as diaries and journals are concerned. (52)

Core seems to be less interested in the issue of southern autobiography

than in reaffirming certain essentialist notions about the character of

form, in which the persons and events surrounding the self are
witnessed, interpreted,and recorded. (8)

4 See Paul Bove, "Agriculture and Academe: America's Southern
Question," Boundary 2 (vol. 14, no. 3 (Spring 1986): 169-95), for a
discussion of the political agenda at the heart of the "Professional
Southernist" (or PS) critical establishment. Bove faults the PS for
"his" failure to recognize his collusion with the southern literary
establishment it glorifies: "Too often, the PS is a hagiographer" (172).

"the southerner" (by which he apparently means white male privileged

southerner). For instance, to explain southerners' resistance to self-

representation, he writes, ". .. I would think that autobiography as a

mode is as foreign to their natural bents or temperaments as it was to

their southern forefathers"; "[t]he southerner naturally is a

conversationalist and storyteller," and "[w]ith such a vast and engaging

subject before them [southern history], southern writers were naturally

so drawn to it that they never got around to chronicling their own

lives" (54, 63 emphasis added). To back up his claims about the

"nature" of the southerner, he turns to Allen Tate's argument that the

New England imagination is "dialectical" while the southern imagination

is "rhetorical," a dichotomy that is intended to account for the

southerner's lack of interest in self-representation, since the

rhetorical mode leads[] to myth, and the mythical mode is as far

removed from the self and autobiography as any literary impulse and form

that we might adduce" (55).

Like Simpson, Core is intrigued with Tate's failure to complete

his autobiography, and, again like his colleague, makes the ironic move

of turning to the former Agrarian's memoirs in order to explain that

failure. According to Core, Tate's desire to protect his privacy was

the primary reason for his failure to complete the project, and in this

respect Tate's rationale has the effect of reaffirming some notions he

espoused in "A Southern Mode of the Imagination" about the southern

writer as "properly a public figure." More revealing is Tate's claim

that there were aesthetic considerations that also played a part in his

abandonment of the autobiography: "'I fell back on authority: I couldn't

let myself indulge in the terrible fluidity of self-revelation" (58).

Core, who notes nothing significant in the fact that the author of The

Fathers "fell back on authority," apparently sees the statement as a

straightforward expression of Tate's aesthetic views, explaining, "as a

severe classicist in matters of art, he would naturally have shied away


from the terrible fluidity of autobiography--what he would have

considered romantic--and fluid--self-revelation" (emphasis mine). By

using the word "fluidity" to describe the qualities of self-disclosure,

a feminized term implicitly juxtaposed to the (southern) masculine

solidity of self-concealment, Tate casts the issue of self-

representational reticence in familiar, regionally specific terms that

call up a host of dichotomies favored by the Agrarians. (The words

"indulge" and "terrible" leave little doubt that autobiography occupies

a lower rung in Tate's aesthetic hierarchy.) In case the reader is

still unsure of Core's complicity in Tate's misogynistic aesthetic, the

critic remarks that Tate "might have seen autobiography proper as

falling on the thorns of life and bleeding all over the page," thus

completing the portrait by invoking Shelley's image of feminine

penetrability to describe a historically androcentric discursive


My reasons for scrutinizing Core's remarks have less to do with

the need to refute his logic than with my belief that he represents the

"professional southernist" orthodoxy as it concerns autobiography, which

has in turn contributed to the critical neglect and relative obscurity

of self-representation by white, especially male, southerners. Nowhere

is his critical bias clearer than when he says, "We are reasonably safe

in making the generalization that the more minor the southern writer--

and the less committed he is to the profession of letters--the more

inclined he has been to write autobiography" (61). Nor is he able to

acquit himself of the charge of condescension when he adds "I like

autobiographies; I probably am more inclined to read autobiographies

than biographies. But if his choice of writers to include in

his discussion merely implies that the character of "the South" is white

and male, he is less indirect in his statement that autobiography is

somehow antithetical to the southern literary tradition, as when he says

that "the autobiographical impulse in the South" probably has not


emerged more strongly because of "the powerful continuing influence of

good poetry and fiction written by Ransom, Tate, Faulkner, Warren,

Welty, and others from the late 1920s until the recent past" (62).

While Berry appears more favorably disposed towards southern

autobiography than does Core or Simpson, his omission of poststructural

theory and the challenges it has offered to conventional conceptions of

self-representation is quite evident. Despite his best intentions, he

replicates many of the critical positions that have previously kept

southern autobiography on the margins of scholarship in autobiography

studies. For instance, his unquestioning use of the term "place"

perpetuates the mystification of a term that southern literary critics

have used for the last sixty years to valorize southern belles lettres.

One has only to look at the subtitle of Located Lives: Place and Idea in

Southern Autobiography to see how Berry essentializes the term. Only

someone who is unwilling to see that the "sense of place" is itself an

"abstraction" would separate "idea" and "place" into distinct

categories. In addition, his readiness to believe in an essential

southern identity, and to "ground" his reading of southern autobiography

in this extratextual referent, severely compromises his critical

objectivity. This is evident in his rejection of C. Vann Woodward's

famous rhetorical question as to whether southern identity had "become

an old hunting jacket" to be slipped on when home but to be traded in

for something more modern when abroad:

Our questions assume that a way of life is heavier wear than
a lifestyle and will not hang lightly in the closet to be brought
out as seasons or company change. They presuppose that southern
identity could not always be slipped on and off; that there has
been a distinct South, with a culture (or subculture) that took
from and gave back meaning to the ground it occupied. Being a
southerner was a fate. (Intro., Home Ground 3)

The tenacity of southern folkways in the face of the homogenizing forces

of modernity lends credence to Berry's claim that southern identity is

more than a mere "lifestyle," but his insistence that "southern identity

could not always be slipped on and off" obscures the fact that, in the

case of self-representation, regional identity must be the product of a

number of discursive acts. These acts may be indirect, as when an

autobiographer takes pains to present conversations in dialect, describe

family and community history, or characterize regional qualities. They

may also be direct, as when the narrator openly identifies with the

region or some part of it, often in the title or subtitle of an

autobiography, or, more often, in the body of the text, for instance,

when Will Percy speaks of the Mississippi Delta as "my country."

Berry's claim that southern identity is derived in some manner from the

soil of the South is a familiar one, and points to the influence of

social organicist theory on his thinking, but his suggestion that

southern culture could actually "g(i]ve back meaning to the ground it

occupied" indicates the extent to which he essentializes "the South."

Although Berry includes some essays on women's autobiographies,

his own identification with southern patriarchy is made quite clear in

the conclusion of his introduction to Home Ground, where he writes,

Every man's life begins with the birth of his father. And the
father's with that of his father's, and on to the first of the
line; until all the generations live together, each at once,
father, son, and brother. And the dead walk about in the heads of
the living, and no man is one and individual until he knows that
he is of. and part of, each that has gone before. And the fathers
know what is waiting, and are what they are to hearten, teach, and
give sinew to spirits yet unquickened but already present, and
rising to stand with the fathers. (9 emphasis added)

Perhaps it is unfair to scrutinize too closely a passage that is

obviously intended to be read as a rhapsodic indulgence rather than

straightforward literary criticism. But taken in context with the other

essays in the two collections that attempt to characterize the general

tradition of southern autobiography, one cannot help but notice that

Berry's paean to patriarchy is implicitly informed by much of the same

logic that white male southerners have historically used to describe and

defend their region: an ahistorical view of southern identity in which

the essence of the region's distinctiveness remains alive and unchanged

from one generation to the next; a totalizing tendency that attempts to


stamp the imprint of sameness on the disparate parts of the South; an

embracing of the Edenic myth--notably sans Eve--in which the South

offers the fragmented individual the possibility of wholeness; and a

belief in the primacy of the relational self is primary.

If we can take the recent publication of Will Brantley's The

Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir: Smith, Glasgow. Weltv. Hellman.

Porter, and Hurston (1993) as a sign of things to come, then we may take

heart in the belief that a more inclusive and critically sophisticated

study of southern self-representation is finally under way. Brantley

offers his book--the first full length study by a single author on the

subject of southern autobiography not dealing exclusively with the slave

narrative or modern black autobiography--as "another contribution to the

current movement to deprovincialize the Southern Renaissance--to

redefine it without the a priori conditions for what constitutes

'southernness'" (ix). He displays a willingness to question

conventional understandings of what is meant by the terms "the South"

and "the southerner" (though he is not exclusively--or even primarily--

concerned with the issue of regional identity). And he is equally

willing to recontextualize the "place" of the woman writer in the South

and in southern literary studies. But while it is difficult to reject

his claim that the spattering of critical essays on southern

autobiography have perpetuated the marginalization women writers from

the South have received from the southern critical establishment, I

would add that the "PS" orthodoxy has shown remarkable fairness (as well

as blindness) in ignoring southerners' self-representation, regardless

of gender or race. On the other hand, if we look at the number of

essays on southern autobiography that examine actual instances of self-

representation in a critically sophisticated manner without mystifying

the relationship between the narrator and "the South," then the

marginalization of women writers becomes less apparent. The timeliness

of Brantley's study notwithstanding, the need for an extended analysis

of white male southerners' autobiographical practices increases

considerably with the publication of The Feminine Sense.

The misreading and critical neglect of white male autobiographers

from the South by the professional southernist orthodoxy can be

attributed to a number of factors besides those already mentioned (e.g.,

the supposed lack of autobiographies and the attendent reasons for this

"lack). Since the current boom in autobiography criticism is part of

the broader critical interest in the status of the self (brought about

in turn by the challenges that postatructuralism offers to the "self" of

bourgeois individualism), then one plausible explanation for

southernists' continued silence on the issue of self-representation is

their rather notorious resistance to theory. For instance, Anne Goodwyn

Jones has recently argued that critics "who have chosen to use the term

'South' or call themselves 'southern' have frequently been those

who most resist a relationship with theory, in particular theory that

addresses questions of power, gender, class, and race" ("Tools of the

Master" 6). The coolness scholars of southern literature have shown

toward deconstruction, feminism, cultural studies and psychoanalytic

theory, Jones suggests, results from a pervasive conservative critical

temper that has deep roots in the South, and, more immediately, reflects

the loyalty still felt by many members of the southern literary

establishment towards such southerners as Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks,

Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom, who played leading roles in

the development of the New Criticism in the forties and fifties.A But

while the New Criticism's exclusive attention to formal considerations

at the expense of "political" and "historical" interpretations hides its

own conservative political agenda and probably goes a long way toward

accounting for southernists' "theoryphobia," a more detailed explanation

is still necessary before we can adequately understand why these critics

See Jones' unpublished essay, entitled "Tools of the Master:
Southernists in Theoryland." See also Theory and the Good Old Boys,
forthcoming 1996, U P of Virginia.

have remained uninterested in probing the relationship between southern

identity and southern autobiography. It is my feeling that the failure

of the (predominantly white male) "PS" to recognize the significance of

southern autobiographies in general, and those by white men in

particular, is symptomatic of two of the very characteristics that

enable us to distinguish the self-representation of white southern

masculinity from its northern counterpart: 1) a defensiveness/defiance

resulting from feelings of cultural and intellectual

inferiority/superiority to the victorious North (a variation on the

"siege mentality" to which Hackney refers); and 2) a general, if largely

unexamined, belief in the ideology of social organicism, characterized

by a desire to see a "natural" and "obvious" correlation between "self"

and "place," and by a continuing need to read autobiography for what

Nancy K. Miller has called its "truth effect" ("Facts, Pacts, Acts" 12).

Tate's remarks concerning the "terrible fluidity" of autobiography

imply that the New Criticism's emphasis on formal balance and structure

placed autobiography (conceived as structureless) on the periphery of

belles lettres. For those scholars interested in establishing then

maintaining the region's literary reputation, there would have been

little sense in examining a branch of writing which they believed never

took root in southern soil. Thus, the view that the southern tradition

discouraged the confessional mode was conveniently suited to explain the

"absence" of autobiography in the South, since it reinforced

conventional assumptions about the essential nature of "the southerner,"

and allowed for the casual dismissal of the extensive number of personal

narratives written in and about the region.

Those same critics' unwillingness to question the authority of the

autobiographical "I" is an indication of their continued belief in the

transparency of language and its referential capacity. If Miller is

correct in arguing that "[t]he pull of autobiography as a cultural act


for [non-academic] readers .. resides in the desire it figures to be

read as autobiography, which we might also call its truth effect," then

we might also say that members of the southernist orthodoxy have a

vested interest in maintaining their belief in that "truth effect." But

in order to further investigate the similarities between southern

literary criticism and the discursive strategies used by white male

autobiographers from the South, it will be necessary to analyze at

length some specific narratives. In turn, before we do this, I must

first mention briefly some general characteristics of southern

autobiography in order to show the distinctiveness of life-writing by

white men within that category.

The Practice of Southern Autobiography

Just as the monolithic term "the South" obscures the cultural and

geographical diversity contained in that region, the term "southern

autobiography" runs the risk of imposing a label of uniformity on what

is, in fact, a quite varied and heterogeneous body of texts. Still, a

number of characteristics enable us to distinguish southern

autobiography, regardless of gender, race, or class, from the dominant

national tradition. Berry suggests that the dominant themes in this

branch of life writing are, "a strong sense of family and of place;

individual identity deeply engraved with regional preoccupations of

race, poverty, failure, and defeat; defensiveness and defiance; and a

divided (thrice in the case of black autobiographers) consciousness as

southerner and American" (Intro., Home Ground 6-7).

Although Berry's short list describes the primary features of life

writing by white male southerners better than it does those of any other

group of autobiographers from the region, anyone familiar with southern

literature will recognize the prominence of the same themes and

preoccupations in the fiction, poetry, and drama written in and of the

South.w Thus, distinguishing between southern autobiography and other

modes of writing by southerners is not so much a matter of content as of

how that material is handled when it becomes enmeshed in the

representation of selfhood. For instance, in what ways are the twin

themes of family and place connected to the author's personal identity?

Any autobiography that proposes to offer something approaching a

complete portrait of the author's life gives some account of the

narrator's family life and the circumstances of his/her childhood. But

in the case of southern autobiographers the degree to which and manner

in which these forces give shape to the narrator's sense of self differ

from the usual autobiographical pattern. Lynn Z. Bloom notes that in

the typical twentieth-century American autobiography, the family serves

as a point of reference against which the narrator establishes a

separate identity, while the southern autobiographer's sense of self is

typically defined by and within his/her family ("Coming of Age" 110-

111). Even if the narrator's growing understanding of the evils of

racism strains familial ties, as in Lillian Smith's Killers of the

Dream, Will Campbell's Brother to a Dragonfly, or Anne Moody's Coming of

Age in Mississippi, the narrator rarely makes a complete break from the

family. Though Bloom's characterization of the relationship between

self and family in southern autobiography is generally accurate, she

fails to mention that a number of critics have pointed to such a

pattern, in particular the female autobiographer's emphasis on the self

in relationship with others, as one of the distinguishing features of

women's life writing, regardless of race, region, or nation. For

2 Berry attempts to include African Americans' thematic concerns in
his description of southern autobiography, but while autobiographers
like Richard Wright, Anne Moody, Maya Angelou, and others address issues
specific to the South, I do not agree that their southernness results in
a "divided consciousness" in the same sense as their racial and national
identities. I would add that the regional preoccupations of failure and
defeat are common only to southern whites; the Civil War represented
quite the opposite to descendants of slaves. From the slave narrative
to the present, black autobiographers have repeatedly celebrated their
"success" in escaping the South itself or, in the more recent example of
Anne Moody and others, their victories in the civil rights movement.


instance, drawing upon the work of theorists Nancy Chodorow and Sheila

Rowbotham, Susan Stanford Friedman has recently argued that ". .

individualistic paradigms of the self ignore the role of collective and

relational identities in the individuation process of women and

minorities" ("Women's Autobiographical Selves" 35). Furthermore, as

Bloom herself notes, the importance of family in the formation of the

narrator's sense of selfhood is "pervasive in childhood autobiographies

of non-European cultures, just as they remain vigorous components of

southern autobiographies" (111). Thus, the special attention given to

familial relationships in southern autobiographies, while undeniably

prominent, may not provide much help in determining what is distinctive

about this branch of life writing.

"Family" is often bound up with the idea of "place" in southern

autobiography, though the latter is subject to greater mystification and

ambiguity than the former. No other phrase has been used more

frequently than "a sense of place" in describing what is distinctive

about southern literature; not surprisingly, it is often invoked to

describe southern autobiography, as well. Sociologist John Shelton Reed

has suggested that southerners are indeed more inclined than non-

southerners to display localism, that is, they are "more likely than

other Americans to think of their region, their states, and their local

communities possessively, as theirs, and as distinct from and preferable

to other regions, states, and localities" (Enduring South 33). Reed's

observations seem especially relevant to autobiographical discursive

practices by white male southerners, since for this group the issue of

possession figures prominently in the relationship between self and

place. Nevertheless, the term "place" has so many different

connotations and has been so heavily mystified by critics of southern

literature that it ceases to be very useful. For instance, Charles

Reagan Wilson notes that untiltl recently southern whites frequently

used place to indicate the status of blacks" (515). More recently, it


has assumed a more benign meaning. The elements of local color, the

careful observation of class, gender, and race relations within a

community and the network of information that is passed along and

enhanced by various members of that community, a shared sense of

history, and detailed descriptions of landscape all combine to evoke the

ineffable "sense of place" in the fiction of Faulkner, Welty, Hurston,

and others. In the life writing of southerners, however, these devices

are typically presented in such a way that the reader is asked to see a

"natural" and "obvious" correlation between the narrator's textual

identity and his/her "home ground." But if this pattern is pervasive in

southern autobiography, equally pervasive is the blindness which critics

have shown to the political implications of "grounding" the

autobiographical subject in his/her place of origin. In particular,

critics have failed to recognize that the assumption of an essential

reciprocity between self and spatial "place" is informed by the ideology

of social organicism, the same set of beliefs used by apologists of

slavery and the racial status quo in the segregated South to justify an

individual's "place" in the social hierarchy."

The narrator's personal engagement with the issue of race

relations in the South constitutes another important element of southern

autobiography. For African Americans the typical pattern involves the

struggle towards the affirmation of the narrator's dignity and humanity

in the face of racism. While this struggle may involve a generational

conflict, the narrator's moral certainty of his/her own humanity

overrides any guilt felt about causing loved ones pain. The voice of

liberal or radical dissent has never been as strong in the South as in

other areas of the country, but a tradition of self-criticism on the

issue of race has existed in the South since before the Civil War.

Though many white southern autobiographers have embraced the racial

See Drew Gilpin Faust, The Ideoloav of Slavery: Pro Slavery
Thought in the Antebellum South. 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State
U P, 1941).

status quo, very few have shied away from the subject altogether. And

while it is possible to separate southern autobiographers along liberal

and conservative lines, the ambivalence they manifest towards the

subject suggests a much more complicated picture than the "school of

shame and guilt/school of remembrance" dichotomy that Fred Hobson has

used to describe white southern writers' attitudes towards race

relations in the South."

Southern African Americans' Autobiography

One particularly rich (and by far the most critically recognized)

branch of southern autobiography is the life stories of African

Americans, though few critics choose to treat the slave narrative and

such modern classics as Black Boy and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as

examples of regional writing.2 James Olney, who has edited a number

of books on autobiography studies, exemplifies the critical consensus in

his field when he says, ". no, there is not a tradition of

autobiography among white writers; but, yes, there is a tradition of

autobiography among black writers from the South" ("Autobiographical

a See Hobson, Tell About the South.

2 Most of the scholarship that treats self-representation by
African Americans from the South as a regional phenomenon can be found
in the only two collections of critical essays on southern
autobiography, J. Bill Berry, ed., Located Lives: Place and Idea in
Southern Autobiography (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990); and Berry, ed.,
Home Ground: Southern Autobiography (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1991).
See William L. Andrews, "Booker T. Washington, Belle Kearney, and the
Southern Patriarchy," Home Ground 85-97; Andrews, "In Search of a
Common Identity: The Self and the South in Four Mississippi
Autobiographies," Southern Review 24.1 (1988): 47-64; Andrews, "Mark
Twain, William Wells Brown, and the Problem of Authority in New South
Writing," Southern Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Jefferson
Humphries (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1990) 1-21; Andrews, To Tell a Free
Story: The First Century of African American Autobiography (Urbana: U of
Illinois P, 1986); Lynn Z. Bloom, "Coming of Age in the Segregated
South: Autobiographies of Twentieth-Century Childhoods, Black and
White," Home Ground 110-22; Francis Smith Foster, "Parents and Children
in Autobiography by Southern Afro-American Writers," Home Ground 98-109;
Olney, "Autobiographical Traditions Black and White," Located Lives 66-
77; and various articles in the journals Calaloo and Black American
Literary Forum.

Traditions" 66-67)." Indeed, when one considers the strength of the

autobiographical tradition in African American literature, one wonders

why Olney feels it necessary to argue for its existence.3 Given the

historical oppression of blacks in the South, it is understandable that

few African American critics are willing to treat black autobiography as

a species of southern literature. After all, most of these

autobiographers had to leave the South before they could achieve the

freedom to write of their experiences, and they therefore constructed

their textual identities in opposition to the region. Olney argues for

the significance of Wright's achievement in writing Black Boy, but his

remarks might apply equally well to most, if not all, southern black


Naming him with a name that was not his, "placing" him where he
did not belong, the white South was in effect telling a story, of
itself and him, that was utterly alien to Richard Wright, and the
project of Black Boy might be said to be the wresting of that
story from the white South and the telling of it as Wright knew it
should be told--with the white South now a character, however, and
with Wright as the storyteller. (70)

Like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and other former slaves

who wrote of their lives in bondage, Wright and his fellow twentieth-

century African American autobiographers typically take great pains to

demonstrate their familiarity with the nuances of southern culture--

white and black. But they do not attempt to prove their credentials as

"authentic" southerners simply in order to conflate their personal and

3 Olney's argument remains sound so long as he holds to his
restricted definition of "tradition." However, his choice of texts to
exemplify the two branches of southern autobiography, Wright's Black Boy
and Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, exaggerates the lack of an
autobiographical tradition among white writers. As Henry Louis Gates
has persuasively argued in The Signifying Monkey, Black Boy is carefully
patterned after Douglass's narratives. On the other hand, as its title
suggests, One Writer's Beginnings stresses the individuality of one
writer, and in this sense is anomalous to the majority of
autobiographies by white southerners.

31 See William L. Andrews' Introduction to African American
Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Andrews (Englewood
Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993) 1-7, where he states that
autobiographypy holds a position of priority, indeed many would say
preeminence, among the narrative traditions of Black Americans" (1).

regional identities, as is the case with many white autobiographers.

African American autobiographers have not (until very recently) been

interested in celebrating the South's distinctiveness; rather, they

construct their autobiographical personae in opposition to the South, as

survivors." Nevertheless, the power of their respective indictments of

racism in the South depends upon their ability to display their

expertise in decoding the mechanisms of oppression there, as only an

insider or "true Southerner" can do. For example, eighty years before

W. J. Cash would write his analysis of "the mind of the South," Harriet

Jacobs gives an astute account of the manipulation of the poor whites by

the local slaveowners following the Nat Turner insurrection:

It was a grand opportunity for the low whites, who had no
negroes of their own to scourge. They exulted in such a chance to
exert a little brief authority, and show their subserviency to the
slaveowners; not reflecting that the power which trampled on
colored people also kept themselves in poverty, ignorance, and
moral degradation. (393)

Similar observations on the relations of power in the South can be found

in the narratives of Douglass, Wright, Angelou, Anne Moody, and Pauli

Murray, all of whom use such passages to reinforce their credibility as

witnesses to the brutality of the benighted South.

Because of their differing positions within the hierarchy of

power, "the South," as it appears in Percy's Lanterns on the Levee or

Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, may bear only a passing

resemblance to "the South" in Wright's Black Boy, even though the two

writers were contemporaries and grew up only a short distance from one

another. Although Percy devotes a significant portion of Lanterns to

African Americans of his acquaintance--the book includes a chapter each

on his black childhood playmates and his manservant, "Fode"--his

n For examples of recent autobiographical writing by African
Americans that seek to reclaim a southern identity, James Alan
McPherson, "Going Up to Atlanta," in A World Unsuspected: Portraits of
Southern Childhood, ed. with introduction by Alex Harris (Chapel Hill, U
of North Carolina P, 1987) and William Mackey, Jr., "Going Home," in
Black Southern Voices: An Antholovg of Fiction. Poetry. Drama,
Nonfiction, and Critical Essays, ed. John Oliver Killens and Jerry W.
Ward, Jr. (New York: Meridian Books, 1992) 506-525.

privileged position prevented him from representing the racial other in

ways that significantly depart from traditional stereotypes. On the

other hand, though Wright's personal contact with his racial other was

much more limited than Percy's, his very survival depended upon his

ability to understand the white man. Indeed, the narrator of Black Boy

finds little difficulty comprehending the "mind" of the white South, and

in this respect Wright presents himself as no different from his fellow

members of the black southern community, all of whom understand the

rules of behavior in the segregated South equally well. The central

conflict facing Wright's protagonist is his inability to conceal his

real feelings behind the "mask" of smiling subservience to whites, the

same mask that Percy appears incapable of seeing past in his depictions

of Fode and other blacks. White liberal journalist Willie Morris

acknowledges the subjective reality of the South in his autobiography

North Toward Home (1967), where he speaks of receiving a piece of

correspondence from a black civil rights activist from Mississippi in

regard to a piece Morris had written about his home state for Dissent

magazine: "'Your Delta,' he had said, 'was not mine'" (380). But if

recognizing self-representation by African Americans as a branch--

indeed, as far as the canon is concerned, the most significant branch--

of southern autobiography entails some risk of reappropriating a

distinctive literary tradition and collective voice that had to be

"wrested" from the white South under the most challenging of

circumstances, then failing to recognize the regional concerns of those

writers would mean a return to the antiquated logic that equates

"southern" with "white," a logic that was used to silence black voices

in the first place.

The dominant themes in the autobiographies of African American men

and women--literacy, flight, and freedom--do not resonate in many life

stories of southern whites." Nor do we find many white male southern

autobiographers explicitly equating their humanity with their

masculinity, as do Wright, Douglass, and Nate Shaw, the narrator-

protagonist of the as-told-to autobiography All God's Dangers (1974).

In Douglass's first and most famous of three autobiographical accounts,

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave. Written

By Himself (1845), which was written for a New England audience and was

published at the expense of the Abolitionist movement, the protagonist

displays the Yankee virtues of self-reliance, self-improvement, optimism

and industry to the extent that we are tempted to see the narrative as

only marginally "southern," especially as it relates to regionally

specific constructions of masculinity. But the famous scene in which

Douglass gives his abusive overseer, Mr. Covey, a sound thrashing, calls

to mind the physically competitive assertion of honor and masculinity

more common to southern white men of the day. Douglass first gives

expression to his interior state when he says that the victory in battle

against his adversary became "the turning point in my career as a slave.

It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom and revived within me a

sense of my own manhood" (298, emphasis mine). Yet he soon moves from

articulating his subjective experience of attaining manhood to a more

honor-based assertion of masculinity, adding, "I did not hesitate to let

it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in

whipping, must also succeed in killing me" (299). In order for his

attainment of manhood to be complete (inasmuch as that is possible while

still being held in a state of bondage), it must be recognized by other

"men," in this case the other whites on the plantation.

Because African American women autobiographers typically place a

greater emphasis on the role the family plays in conferring an identity

upon the narrator than do their male counterparts, the similarities

See Gates, Introduction, The Classic Slave Narratives, ix.


between the autobiographies of white and black women autobiographers

from the region are greater than those between the narratives of white

and black male southerners. Jacobs may, like Douglass, flee her life of

bondage, but she makes it clear that she could have left the South much

sooner had it not been for her desire to remain close to her children

and grandmother. Only when her children are safely in the North does

she make good her escape from slavery. Similar patterns abound in the

autobiographies of such twentieth-century black women as Angelou, Moody,

and Murray, all of whose resistance to white racism is compromised by

their fear of reprisals against their families.

Though this study does not propose to analyze the tradition of

self-representation by southern African Americans of either gender, it

is important, nevertheless, to remain wary of easy comparisons between

white and black southerners' writing that may minimize the significant

differences that exist between the two. William L. Andrews, the critic

who has written most extensively on African American narrative as a form

of southern autobiography, questions the underlying motive behind the

southern liberal's need to believe "that beneath or beyond the racial

differences, there is a core of southern experience and a fundamental

southern view of life that is shared by all raised in that milieu"

("Common Identity" 56). Whatever might be gained by discerning

discursive patterns and thematic concerns common to all southern

autobiographers, he cautions, we must recognize the danger in

"identifying as truly southern only those aspects of black experience

that buttress, rather than destabilize, the totalizing tendencies of

white integrative ideals" (57). Although his concerns are well

founded, given southern whites' propensity for speaking on behalf of all

southerners, we should not take Andrews' cautionary remarks out of

context and assume that he finds no value in comparing the life writing

of blacks and whites from the South. As his insightful approaches to

African American autobiography as a species of southern literature

clearly demonstrate, the examination of the role region plays in the

construction of racial identities can allow us to demystify the

processes by which racial differences have been essentialized and

oppression legitimized from the antebellum days to the present.

White Southern Women's Autobiography

White women's writing constitutes another category of southern

autobiography, again displaying great variety, but characterized

nevertheless by a number of common concerns and themes. Though they

exercised considerable if varying degrees of authority over black men

and women in the domestic sphere, white women from the antebellum South

were less empowered legally and publicly than their bourgeois northern

counterparts, many of whom were involved by mid-century in various

reform movements and other channels of public action. Furthermore, the

emergence of the "self-made man" in the North allowed for the

concomitant growth there of the ideology of separate spheres, which

granted northern women a greater degree of moral authority in the

domestic sphere.3 But since the ideal of the self-made man found

little opportunity for growth in the South at that time, the moral

authority of the white southern household remained decidedly

paternalistic. Having less of a public voice than even African American

women (some of whom, at least, found expression in the slave narrative),

white southern women's life writing was limited in the nineteenth-

century to the diary form, which tends to focus more on day-to-day

activities rather than the more comprehensive and reflective form of

self-portraiture found in autobiography proper. In addition, we find

little evidence until the turn of the century of southern white women

embracing the kind of collective women's identity we see in the

autobiographies of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or

3 See Carol Holly, "Nineteenth-Century Autobiographies of
Affiliation." in American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed.
Paul John Eakin (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991) 218-19.


even Jacobs, who repeatedly appeals directly to her (northern) female

"sisters" in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Elizabeth Fox-

Genovese notes that despite the lack of a public voice for white women

in the nineteenth-century South, their journals and diaries "embody a

certain concern with bridging the gap between private (female)

experience and public (male) discourse" ("Between Individualism and

Community" 26).

Though outright condemnation of the slaveowner's mistreatment of

his chattel is uncommon in the writings of slaveholding women, an

undercurrent of resistance to southern patriarchy can be discerned in

some of those diaries, as in Mary Chesnut's Civil War, where she speaks

of the shame felt by the plantation mistress over her husband's

infidelities with his slaves:

Like the Patriarchs of old our men live all in one house
with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees
in every family exactly resemble the white children--and every
lady tells you who is the father of all the mulatto children in
everybody's household but, those in her own she seems to think
dropped from the clouds, or pretends to think so. (29)

Significantly, Chesnut here blames the female slaves ("We live

surrounded by prostitutes") rather than their masters for this


It is not until the twentieth century that a tradition of white

women's autobiography begins to emerge in the South. From the

publication of Belle Kearney's A Slaveholder's Daughter (1900) to the

present, this group of autobiographers has been a significant, if not

the dominant, voice of white liberal dissent in the South. Kearney's

narrative focuses on her activities in the Woman's Christian Temperance

Union, the first organization to allow southern white women the

opportunity to publicly articulate their concerns about male

drunkenness, neglect of, and violence against women, and in this respect

fits the pattern of New England women's autobiographies by treating her

involvement in the public sphere as the occasion for personal

transformation and as a source of empowerment.3 Other women from the

aristocratic South, most notably Grace King, Lillian Smith, Ellen

Glasgow, and Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin, have followed Kearney's lead by

using their position of social prominence to legitimize their

autobiographical critiques of southern patriarchy. Although Brantley's

Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir does not focus exclusively on this

aspect of southern women's self-representation, he notes that "[i)n

addition to their rejection of patriarchy or anything that would inhibit

self-development and human wholeness," each of the writers he examines

in his study offers "various critiques of provincialism, nationalism,

racism, and sexism. (6)." The appearance of Brantley's study is

an encouraging sign that critics and presses are realizing the value and

richness of southern autobiography, but the largest uncharted area in

this promising field of study remains the self-representation of white

males from the region.

w In addition to her involvement with the W. C. T. U., which in
itself represents a rejection of the ideal of southern womanhood,
Kearney advocates women's suffrage. In a chapter devoted to the
"Evolution of Southern Women," she attributes their desire for equality
to "the evolution of events set in motion by the bombardment of Fort
Sumter" (112), i.e., the defeat of the Confederacy.

M While Brantley's book is a welcome addition to the study of
southern autobiography, his choice of southern women writers seems
haphazard at best. In my estimation, neither Welty nor Hurston fit the
description of politically motivated autobiographers. Even more
problematical is his devotion of a chapter to Hellman's Scoundrel Time
and Porter's The Never-Ending Wrong, both of which are extremely narrow
in scope and only minimally autobiographical. Their inclusion
illuminates the conspicuous absence of more notable autobiographers,
such as Lumpkin, Grace King, Anne Moody, and Maya Angelou.


Until the twentieth century, when the South began to develop a

self-consciously regional literary reputation, southern white men who

wrote of their lives resisted reflecting upon the inward realm of

experience so valued in modern autobiography, preferring instead to

limit their narratives to their more public activities. As one Civil

War era autobiographer with an appreciation for paradox remarks in the

beginning of his narrative, "A life then to be fully written should be

written with some reserve." Offended by the "frankness" of Rousseau's

Confessions, the author of the remark, South Carolina poet, educator,

and statesman William J. Grayson continues by saying, "The human heart

will not bear to be shown to the world divested of all drapery. It must

be veiled like the body in decent clothing" (38). Over a century later,

novelist Andrew Lytle would write in his autobiography, "Not to know the

difference between the public thing, the res public, and the intimate

is to surrender that delicate balance of order which alone makes the

state a servant and not the people the servant of the state" (Wake for

the Living 5). While Lytle, firebrand contributor to the Agrarian

symposium I'll Take My Stand, may have been more inclined to politicize

what Grayson saw as primarily a matter of decorum, both men would have

agreed that the boundary between public and private was a line that

should be strictly policed.

Given the strong tradition of confessional autobiography in New

England, Grayson's comments can be seen as part of a larger strategy of

cultural self-definition, in which southerners of his day increasingly

sought to represent themselves as different from the North. If

nineteenth-century American literature in general--and American

autobiography of that period in particular--has been characterized by

its attempts to define a national identity that was separate and

distinct from its European roots, southern autobiography has been

equally obsessed with defining a southern identity in opposition to the

culturally, economically, and militarily dominant North.' With the

defeat of the Confederacy, southern whites were more inclined than ever

before to see themselves as colonized subjects whose cultural

distinctiveness was threatened by the hegemonic industrialism of the

Northern states. Even as New South boosters like Henry Grady sang the

praises of sectional reconciliation, southern Local Color writers

continued to assert the region's "difference," responding to northern

readers' desire to be reassured that pockets of America remained

untouched as yet by the homogenizing forces of urbanization and

industrialization and, as Edward Ayers notes, to "relegate them to their

place in the national hierarchy of speech and manners" (Promise of the

New South 339).2 More importantly, perhaps, southern whites began to

slowly recapture some of the authority they had lost with the collapse

of slavery to speak on the subject of "the Negro Problem," an issue that

had acquired a greater degree of immediacy for non-southern white

laborers who now found themselves competing with former slaves for

jobs.3 Thus, while antebellum southerners largely failed to persuade

1 For representative discussions of the relationship between
autobiography and the construction of American identity, see Thomas
Cooley, Educated Lives: The Rise of the Modern Autobiography in America
(Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1976); Thomas G. Couser, American
Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P,
1979); and Robert F. Sayre, "Autobiography and the Making of America" in
Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney
(Princeton: Princeton U P, 1980) 147-68.

2 See Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life after Reconstruction
(New York: Oxford U P, 1992) 339-372.

3 See Eric J. Sundquist, "Mark Twain and Homer Plessy"
(Representations 24: Fall 1988, 102-128), for a discussion of the ways
in which the "layering" of New South and Old South ideologies within the

the rest of the nation that slavery was an acceptable institution

commensurate with the Constitution, writers in the post-Reconstruction

era South found a less hostile audience in the North, one more willing

to accept not only the white South's representations of blacks, but

their myth of the Old South in which those constructions of the racial

other appeared.

Besides the self-conscious assertion of southern difference that

came to characterize white southern autobiography by the early

nineteenth century, life writing by privileged southerners was marked by

less overt forms of discursive difference from the dominant

autobiographical tradition. The extent to which white southerners

shared Grayson's concerns regarding autobiographical disclosure can be

seen in both the virtual absence of a confessional strain in white

southern autobiography until well into the twentieth century, and the

subsequent exclusion of this branch of life writing from the canon of

American autobiography. As I have argued in the previous chapter,

critics have long privileged the inward directed, "artistically

conceived" self-told narrative, granting the status of autobiography to

texts that fit that mold and assigning the label of memoir to those that

fail to do so. For instance, Karl J. Weintraub argues in "Autobiography

and Historical Consciousness" that

autobiographyy presupposes a writer intent upon reflection on
(the] inward realm of experience, someone for whom this inner
world of experience is important. In memoir, external fact is,
indeed, translated into conscious experience, but the eye of the
writer is focused less on the inner experience than on the
external realm of fact. (823)

By means of this dichotomy, other critics have argued, the life writing

of women and minorities has conveniently fallen into the category of

memoir. But even white men can suffer marginalization as a result of

this prescriptive definition, for it is through this logic that the

Local Color fiction of the 1880s and 1890s participated in the gradual
erosion of civil rights for African Americans during that time.

white South has come to be seen by critics as lacking an

autobiographical tradition.4

While the comments by Grayson and Lytle suggest that privileged

southerners have historically viewed the discourse of public confession

as "indecent," the existence of numerous personal narratives testifies

that these factors have not kept white men from the South from engaging

in the autobiographical act. During the period in which New England

autobiographers were immersing themselves in rigorous spiritual self-

examination, their literary counterparts in the southern colonies were

writing narratives of geographical rather than spiritual exploration, as

well as more mundane accounts of settlement, husbandry, and agriculture.

Although these narratives predate the self-conscious regional identity

that would emerge as a result of the growing tensions between the North

and South over the slavery debate, a number of regionally specific

concerns and motifs are evident in even the earliest writings. Most

notable of these is the white male southerner's obsessive observation of

the line between the public and private spheres, and his consequent

emphasis upon the more public, honor-based forms of selfhood at the

expense of conscience and other internalized notions of selfhood

associated with autonomous individualism. This southern difference

would come to be exploited toward the end of the nineteenth century by

Mark Twain, who parodies the plantation myth of the southern gentleman

in Life on the Mississippi (1883) and "The Private History of a Campaign

that Failed" (1885) in order to expose the superficiality and moral

corruption of the chivalric code. Besides resisting the representation

of interiority and autonomous selfhood, privileged southerners also

sought to represent themselves as authorities on the character of blacks

by depicting their autobiographical personae in paternalistic

relationships with their negro servants and acquaintances.

4 See my critique of Lewis P. Simpson, "The Autobiographical
Impulse in the South," and George Core, "Lives Fugitive and Unwritten"
in Chapter Two.


One of the first autobiographical accounts to be written by a

European settler in North America, John Smith's A True Relation of Such

Occurrences and Accidents of Noate as Hath Hapned in Virginia .

(1608), remains of interest to readers today both for what his keen eye

for detail reveals about the land he explores and for what those

descriptions tell us about the mind of the seventeenth-century

adventurer as it encountered the strange new world of the Americas.

While it would be another century before settlers in the southern

colonies would display any sense of cultural discontinuity between

themselves and the New England settlers, Smith's propensity for

nonchalantly downplaying the considerable hardships he encountered in

his explorations of Virginia evokes for modern readers the cavalier

image that novelists like William Pendleton Kennedy, William Gilmore

Simms, Alexander Caruthers, and John Esten Cooke would popularize in the

first half of the nineteenth century.5 Recounting his famous capture by

Powhatan's braves, Smith casually understates his concern for his own

safety in much the same manner that later writers would use to describe

the bravery of Nathan Bedford Forrest and other Civil War heroes.

Having bound his arm to that of one of his Indian guides whom he has

taken hostage, Smith recalls, "I was struck with an arrow on the right

thigh, but without harme: upon this occasion I espied 2 Indians drawing

their bowes, which I prevented in discharging a Frenche pistol" (46-

47). Though all the rest of his company has been slain by the war

party, Smith manages to escape death by parlaying a surrender then

presenting Opeckankenough with his compass, whereatt he so amazedly

5 Though the purveyors of the antebellum southern romances would
find their strongest influences in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and
James Fenimore Cooper, Smith's self-depictions of the brash adventurer
who calmly places himself in harm's way give him a temporal claim to the
title of first "Cavalier of Virginia" literature. See William R.
Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National
Character (Garden City, NY: George Braziller, Inc, 1957), and Susan R.
Durant, "Cavalier Myth" in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles
Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (New York: Anchor, 1989) v. III 503-


admired, as he suffered me to proceed in a discourse of the roundness of

the earth, the course of the sunne, moone, starres, and planets" (47).6

If Smith does not express a personal identification with the "place" he

describes, he does recognize the value of the personal narrative for

shaping other's perceptions of that place--and of his role in furthering

its settlement. Thus, he treats A True Relation as an occasion

for fashioning a self as well as for promoting the financial interests

of the Virginia Company.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Robert Beverly and

Hugh Jones would follow Smith's example by writing first-person

promotional narratives extolling the colony's beauty and natural

plenitude. Like Smith's text, Beverly's The History and Present State

of Virginia (1705) and Jones' The Present State of Virginia (1724) both

present a narrator who is personally acquainted with the habits of the

region's natives and settlers; both authors also echo Smith's concerns

that the climate of Virginia inclines its settlers to laziness.

According to Beverly, the colonists "spunge upon the Blessings of a warm

Sun, and a fruitful Soil, and almost grutch the pains of gathering in

the Bounties of the Earth" (319). Neither of these two texts is as

engaging and personal as Smith's accounts, but in Beverly's narrative we

witness the first stirring of defensiveness concerning the peculiar

institution, a stance that would come to dominate white southerners'

rhetoric in the years leading up to the Civil War. Like nineteenth-

6 Notably absent from this, Smith's first account of his
explorations in Virginia, is the famous story of his rescue by
Pocahantas. His subsequent inclusion of the incident in A Generalle
Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624) has
become the stuff of legend, but Smith's admission that no Europeans but
himself were present to corroborate the veracity of the scene has left
many scholars skeptical. J. A. Leo Lemay observes that none of Smith's
contemporaries ever challenged his version of the account (31).
Furthermore, Lemay continues, Smith's vivid and realistic depiction of
this and other fantastical episodes in his life lead one to conclude
that "[i]f his tales are his own imaginative creation, then he is a
greater writer of fiction than anyone has ever suspected" (32).


century proslavery apologists, Beverly seeks to dispel the supposedly

exaggerated accounts of slaves' mistreatment in the colonies:

Because I have heard how strangely cruel, and severe, the Service
of this Country is represented in some parts of England; I can't
forbear affirming, that the work of the Servants, and Slaves, is
no other than what every common Freeman do's. (272)

Likewise, he attempts to mitigate the appearance of the slaves'

suffering by comparing their lot with that of laborers outside of the

region, a strategy favored by later defenders of southern slavery: "And

I can assure you with a great deal of Truth, that generally, their

Slaves are not worked near so hard, nor so many Hours in a Day, as the

Husbandmen and Day-Labourers in England." Though he devotes

considerably less time and attention to defending the slave system than

he does to describing (in remarkably sympathetic terms) the colony's

native inhabitants, his benign portrait of human bondage in Virginia may

be viewed as a prototype of southerners' subsequent treatments of the


Beverly's comments are useful in tracing the origins of the

proslavery apologia, but it is in the writings of his brother-in-law,

William Byrd of Westover, that we find the emergence of a set of

concerns that more clearly distinguish the personal narratives written

in the region from those of the New England colonies. The significance

that such self-consciously "southern" writers as Grayson and Lytle would

later attach to the division between the public and private spheres is

clearly foreshadowed in Byrd's writings, most notably in the cleavage

that Byrd runs between the History of the Dividing Line Run in the Year

1728 and The Secret History of the Line, his "official" and "private"

accounts of the survey establishing the border between Virginia and

North Carolina. Although there are no glaring inconsistencies or

contradictions between the two accounts, the official History is clearly

written for an audience on the far side of the Atlantic, the Secret

History for those who would already be familiar with the personages of

the survey party and the rift between "Steddy" and "Firebrand" (Byrd's

fictional names for himself and his nemesis, Richard Fitz-William,

respectively). Filled with detailed descriptions of the region's flora,

fauna, and human inhabitants, the "official" narrative also sketches the

history of English settlement in North America, where Byrd draws a

distinction between the northern and southern colonists that echoes

Beverly's remarks concerning the Virginian's indolence. In contrast to

the southern colonists, those "Riprobates of good Familys" who tended to

"look upon all Labor as a Curse" (2,3), the New England settlers "were

very useful Subjects, as being Frugal and Industrious, giving no Scandal

or bad Example, at least by any Open and Public Vices. By which

excellent Qualities they had much the Advantage of the Southern Colony"

(5). It is worth noting that, unlike his Puritan contemporaries, Byrd

apparently has little regard for the private domains of sinfulness; here

his interests lie solely in the "Open and Public" forms of righteousness

that pertain to the maintenance of personal honor rather than


Byrd's need to divide the account of the Dividing Line into two

separate narratives points to an epistemological predisposition toward

dichotomization, cleavage, and demarcation that extends beyond

topographic and bibliographic boundaries.7 While both texts are

concerned with establishing distinctions between Virginians and

Carolinians (he claims that the latter's "porciverous" habits are so

strong that "many of them seem to grunt rather than speak in their

ordinary conversation" [Secret History 55]; they are also lacking in

intelligence, industry, religion, and every manner of self-restraint),

it is in the Secret History that we most clearly see this

7 According to William K. Boyd, Byrd apparently never intended to
publish the Secret History, though he circulated it among his friends
for years before completing the lengthier "official" History in 1737
(xv). He also notes that the latter was written for a British audience
that would have had minimal knowledge of the customs and natural
environment of the region; the former was intended for colonists who
would have been able to surmise the identities of the parties whose
names were fictionalized (xv).


predisposition. Steddy stands on the side of competence, industry, and

self-restraint (all qualities later associated with the Northern male),

his efforts alone insuring the success of the venture, while Firebrand,

who threatens to ruin the entire affair, represents ineffectiveness,

sloth, and moral depravity (characteristics Byrd assigns to all those

who come from the colony to the south of Virginia). Though Byrd takes

pains to draw careful and obvious distinctions between the two men, the

voice he uses to articulate those distinctions is precariously balanced

directly upon the dividing line, indulging in moralistic tongue-clucking

while vicariously enjoying the pleasures of the voyeur. In one instance

he claims to have retiredd early to our Camp at some distance from the

House, while my Colleagues tarry'd within Doors and refresh't themselves

with a Cheerful Bowl" (Secret History 59). Despite his remove, though,

he is somehow able to relate in considerable detail and with thinly

disguised relish the ensuing revelry:

In the Gaiety of their Hearts, they invited a Tallow-faced Wench
that had sprained her Wrist to drink with them, and when they had
rais'd her in good Humour, they examined all her hidden Charms,
and played a great many gay Pranks. While Firebrand who had the
most Curiosity, was ranging over her sweet Person, he pick't off
several Scabs as big as Nipples, the consequence of eating too
much Pork. The poor damsel was disabled from making any
resistance by the Lameness of her Hand; all she cou'd do, was, to
sit still, & make the Fashionable Exclamation of the Country, Flesh
a live & tear it, & by what I can understand she never spake so
properly in her Life. (59)

Byrd/Steddy's absence from the scene of the incident signals his ability

to resist the temptation to engage in "open and public" forms of

misbehavior, and the satirical tone he employs here (which he uses in

most of his descriptions of the actions of the Carolina party) seeks to

reinforce that distance. His apparent disapproval notwithstanding, the

speaker's eye clearly "ranges" over her "person," exhibiting as much

"Curiosity" as the unrestrained Firebrand, and revealing her "hidden

Charms" to his readers with obvious pleasure, even as he derides the

behavior of Steddy and crew.

More revealing than even his Secret History, the Secret Diary of

William Byrd of Westover. 1709-1712 (1941) offers an intimate glimpse

into the life of the colonial squire. Critic Robert Bain's

characterization of the diary as "repetitive, formulaic, dull, drab,

banal, and monotonous" yet "historically significant" (52) overlooks the

psychological complexity of many of the entries. Because he assumed

that his diary--much of which is written in code--would not be

scrutinized by others, Byrd's daily entries lack the self-consciousness

and reticence of more public forms of self-portraiture. Ranging from

practical matters concerning the supervision of his estate and the

execution of his public offices to more personal concerns such as

marital difficulties, sex, and dreams, Byrd fills his Secret Diary with

enough details to allow for a richly complicated portrait of colonial

plantation life. For instance, after describing the various "purges,"

"stupes," "hot dressings," "glysters," and other home remedies he has

prescribed for his ailing slaves, he casually mentions that "Tom was

whipped for not telling me he was sick" (53). Doubtless, the punishment

was less to be feared than whatever cure Byrd had in store. In one

characteristically desultory yet revealing entry, dated May 22, 1712, he


It rained a little this morning. My wife caused Prue to be
whipped violently notwithstanding I desired not, which provoked me
to have Anaka whipped likewise, who had deserved it much more, on
which my wife flew into such a passion that she hoped she would be
revenged of me. My wife was sorry for what she had said and
came to ask my pardon and I forgave her in my heart but seemed
to resent, that she might be the more sorry for her folly I
ate some mutton for dinner. I said my prayers and was
reconciled to my wife and gave her a good flourish in token of it.
I had good health, good thoughts, but was a little out of humor,
for which God forgive me. (533)

Perhaps the most revealing aspect of this entry is the way in which the

conflict between Byrd and his wife is violently displaced onto the two

slave women, Prue and Anaka, whose bodies serve as the externalized site

of contestation. Yet, it is also significant that Byrd takes pains to

note the "flourish" that signals the conclusion of marital hostilities.


These details, along with the more commonplace references to his diet

and "humor," reveal in striking clarity an embodied subjectivity, one

that bears little resemblance to the disembodied spirituality of his

contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, and other New England writers of

personal narratives.

In stark contrast to the "secret" writings of William Byrd, Thomas

Jefferson's Autobiographv (1821) is anything but personal. Its

successful avoidance of private matters has consigned it to the

periphery of literary studies, critic James M. Cox argues, a marginal

position which points, in turn, to a by now familiar critical bias that

informs much of the scholarship on American autobiography. Preferring

to think of Jefferson's narrative as memoir--as, indeed, Jefferson

himself originally titled it--Cox remarks,

The memoir is, after all, pointed toward history and fact whereas
literary criticism invariably seeks after creativity and
imagination. There is a distinct tiresomeness about the ease with
which literary critics assure themselves that "mere" fact has
little to do with autobiography. The truth or falsity of
autobiography is thereby subordinated to the creativity, the
"design," the "inner" truth of the narrative. The more we can
say that the autobiographer is creating it and not inertly
remembering his past life in the present, the more we can claim
for autobiography a presence all but identical to the fictions and
forms of "imaginative" literature both generated and mastered by
New Critical literary theory. ("Literature's Lost Ground" 124-25)

Beginning with scholars of the slave narrative, and continuing with

feminist critics, American literary critics have since shown a great

deal of interest in first-person narratives that focus more on

historical "fact" than subjective experience. Because this relatively

new approach to autobiography studies is restricted to works by members

of marginalized groups, however, the continued critical obscurity of

Jefferson's Autobiographv should be attributed to the reasons Cox


8 Cox argues that because Jefferson included the original draft of
the Declaration of Independence in his narrative, "[i]t is the most
volatile text that we know or have" (127). The inclusion of the
"Declaration" in that text, he continues, should also tell us how
Jefferson wanted to represent his life: "Whatever Jefferson is

Written when he was seventy-seven years of age and all but retired

from matters of government, Jefferson's narrative contains occasional

references that suggest his impatience with the autobiographical

project, as he conceives it. For instance, at the conclusion of a

summary of the debate over the funding of education, he writes, "I shall

recur again to this subject, towards the close of my story, if I should

have life and resolution enough to reach that term; for I am already

tired of talking about myself" (51, emphasis mine). Jefferson comes

closest to blurring the line between the public and private spheres when

he mentions the death of his wife, remarking: "I had, two months before

that, lost the cherished companion of my life, in whose affections,

unabated on both sides, I had lived ten years in unchequered happiness"

(53). More characteristic of the way in which he treats his personal

tragedies, though, is his description of his travels in France, where,

he tells us, ". I received my younger daughter, Maria, from

Virginia, the youngest having died sometime before" (75).

Jefferson's autobiography lacks the complexity and apparent

intimacy that characterizes Franklin's more famous narrative;

nevertheless, its straightforwardness and lack of inward reflection make

it as illustrative of the temperament and sensibilities of the

privileged southerner as Franklin's is of the privileged New Englander.

For instance, while the tone of his discussion of the issue of slavery

appears to be objective, one detects an undercurrent of passion in his

sense of conviction. Remarking upon an amendment to abolish the

peculiar institution that was postponed by the Continental Congress, he

writes, "Yet the day is not distant when it must bear and adopt it, or

worse will follow. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of

fate, than that these people are to be free. .. (51). But if such

sentiments seem out of place for a southern squire, one need only read

eliminating from his written account of his life--his personality, his
inner feelings, his private relations--he is stating, affirming, and
maintaining his original authorship of the Declaration" (130).

on. For Jefferson, the fate of the white South may well be inextricably

intertwined with those held in bondage there, but he still feels the

need to define the races themselves in mutually exclusive categories,

employing a rhetoric that, with only minor adjustments, would eventually

find use in twentieth-century defenses of segregation: ". nor is

it less certain that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the

same government. Nature, habit, opinion have drawn indelible lines of

distinction between them." Similar notions were undoubtedly shared by

many, if not most, of the non-southern representatives at the

Convention. But for those who, like Jefferson, grew up in a slave-

holding society, the matter of race could never be treated as just

another issue on the assembly's agenda; rather, it affected their most

intimate conceptions of the self and its relative position in the social

hierarchy.'. In addition to giving shape to the privileged southerner's

sense of self, the problem of slavery would play the defining role in

shaping the region's identity, as well. For as the character of the

slaveholder became increasingly maligned in the northern popular

imagination with the help of the abolitionist texts like Narrative of

the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) and Stowe's

Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the privileged southerner became even more

inclined to equate the peculiar institution--and the master of the

plantation--with the South."

The white southerner's growing sense of difference from the

culturally dominant New England states was manifested in a number of

9 Jefferson's purported relationship with Sally Hemmings and its
effects on Jefferson's political life is only the most obvious example
of how the issue of race could bridge the gap privileged southerners
wished to maintain between the public and private spheres.

10 See Drew Gilpin Faust, "The Proslavery Argument in History" in
The Ideology of Slavery, ed. Faust (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P,
1981), 1-20. In her discussion of the pro-slavery apologies that were
written in response to abolitionist critiques of the peculiar
institution, Faust notes that by the 1840s privileged southerners
"associated slavery with the fundamental values of their civilization"

narratives, beginning with the plantation fiction of John Pendleton

Kennedy and William Gilmore Simms, as well as the Southwestern humor of

Simms, Johnson Jones Hooper, and Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, all of

whom created a number of stereotyped roles which white men from the

South could adopt in their own acts of self-representation, most

notably, the cavalier and his alter ego, the raconteur. One such

example is the Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of

Tennessee (1834), a ghost written account (co-authored by Thomas A.

Chilton) which capitalizes as much upon Crockett's notoriety as a teller

of tall tales as it does upon his prowess as an Indian fighter and

explorer." Written in the dialect of the southern backwoodsmen, the

narrative was widely read at the time of its publication and is one of

the first instances in which we see the commodification of regional

identity, one in which the narrator's masculinity is rather explicitly

shown to result from his "place.""

Though it is highly unlikely he ever intended to capitalize on

regional "difference" the way Crockett did, William J. Grayson

repeatedly calls attention to distinctively southern social practices

and habits of thought in his autobiography, recently published as

Witness to Sorrow: The Antebellum Autobiography of William J. Gravson

(1862). Best known for his proslavery poem, The Hireling and the Slave

(1855), in which he sought to defend the peculiar institution by

comparing it to the capitalist labor system of the North, Grayson was

also a staunch anti-secessionist who mourned what he called "the demise

11 According to James A. Shackford and Stanley J. Folmsbee,
editors of the 1973 edition of Crockett's Narrative, the text of
Crockett's account was almost certainly ghost-written by Chilton, whom
records show received one-half the royalties from the book's sales
(Intro. xv-xvi).

12 Admittedly, it is not so much "the South" as it is the frontier
that Crockett identifies with in his narrative. Although he had
regained his seat in Congress in 1833, the year before he wrote his
narrative (with the help of Chilton), and makes numerous references to
scandals in the Jackson administration, Crockett displays no interest in
sectional political issues like nullification and slavery.

of the Great American Republic" even as he reconciled himself to the

newly formed Confederacy (217). The South Carolina planter, statesman,

educator, and poet was peripherally associated (through his friendship

with William Gilmore Simms) with the group of southern intellectuals

that form the subject of Drew Gilpin Faust's A Sacred Circle, but as

many passages in his autobiography suggest, his fundamental social,

political, and aesthetic conservatism would have prevented him from

embracing the relatively radical agricultural and legal reforms that

group advocated.3 In part because of his conservatism, but also

because of his willingness to discuss a host of topics ranging from the

moral character of the South to literary criticism, Grayson's narrative

affords the contemporary reader an especially valuable glimpse into the

mind of the privileged antebellum southerner.

Unlike Jefferson, whose narrative gives little indication whether

the author read many examples of the newly emerging genre of

autobiography, Grayson refers to Rousseau's Confessions (1770) and

Franklin's autobiography. Yet, he makes explicit his conscious decision

to eschew the confessional mode, noting that "[t]he example of Rousseau

warns[,] not invites" (37). In a statement that acknowledges both the

limitations and excesses of representation, Grayson argues that while an


should be exact in saying what he knows, he must not say all that
he knows. To tell the whole truth is hardly possible and if
it were possible it would not be advisable. The exposure of human
infirmity that must follow such unreserved revelations could
neither satisfy the reader's taste nor commend itself to his
judgement. It would disgust[,] not gratify.

13 See Faust, A Sacred Circle, and Michael O'Brien and David
Moltke-Hansen, Intellectual Life in Antebellum Charleston (Knoxville: U
of Tennessee P, 1986). Ironically, like William Gilmore Simms, James
Henry Hammond, Edmund Ruffin, Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, and George
Frederick Holmes, the members of the "sacred circle," Grayson too would
come to feel like an exile in his southern homeland, largely because of
his outspoken opposition to secession in the days immediately preceding
his state's withdrawal from the Union.


Significantly, the pious southerner shows little interest in the

possibilities for inward reflection and spiritual examination occasioned

by the autobiographical act. Instead of viewing the self as something

which can be improved through rigorous inspection, he seems to accept it

as inherently flawed. More importantly, he is less concerned with the

status of his inner self than with the impropriety of revealing its

"infirmity" to the imagined reader whose sensibilities would be offended

by such a lack of restraint on the part of the autobiographer. Thus,

for Grayson, one's moral infirmity is itself no cause for great alarm;

indeed, such a state appears inevitable to him. The danger lies in the

temptation to reveal the depraved inner self to the public's gaze. To

indulge in such uninhibited confessional self-portraiture is to commit

nothing less than a "moral suicide."

Perhaps because he saw the South's departure from the Union as an

act whose consequences would bring ruin to the region, Grayson takes

pains to describe life in the Sea Islands, in many instances detailing

both positive and negative trends in social and agricultural practices

from the turn of the century to the years immediately preceding the war.

One topic that he discusses at length is the recreational pastimes of

the men in Beaufort when he was a boy. With apparent nostalgia he calls

the men "a jovial and somewhat rough race, liberal, social, warm

hearted, hospitable, addicted to deep drinking, hard swearing, and

practical joking and not a little given to loose language and indelicate

allusions" (59). Taking great pleasure in each other's company, they

attended "club meetings" where "no men was (sic] permitted to go home

sober." After relating with apparent relish numerous anecdotes of

masculine revelry, Grayson introduces a tone of disapproval, noting that

in addition to the drinking, swearing, cock-fighting and foot racing,

"much laxity of morals appeared in various ways. Religion was very

little regarded. Church going was mostly confined to the women. They

are always better behaved than their lords" (61). For these veterans of

the Revolution, sevenvn years of war and license had not strengthened

self denial or led to the control of the appetites and passions(,]

whatever effect they may have had in promoting other virtues" (61-62).

While "self denial" and "the control of the appetites" may have been

seen at the beginning of the century as feminine virtues unbecoming a

man, Grayson notes with satisfaction that the situation has since

changed. When asked by a northern friend to describe the changes he has

witnessed in standards[) of public and private virtue," Grayson replies

in a manner that points to the white southerner's emphasis on the

former: "Religion had revived. The churches were filled. Temperance

prevailed. The riotous sensuality of the old times had disappeared. If

immorality existed it was at least deferential enough to conceal itself

from public eve" (65 emphasis added).

Such changes in public morals obviously meet with his approval,

but other changes prove more troubling to Grayson. Deploring what he

sees as the South's increasing involvement in the cash nexus of northern

capitalism, he sounds a warning that is remarkably similar to the

Vanderbilt Agrarians' rejection of industrialism and its attendant

"gospel of progress."14 In the days of his youth, Grayson observes, ".

. people lived on their plantations and all useful and pleasant things

flourished accordingly. Now plantations are cotton fields rearing a

crop for foreign markets and little more" (43). In addition to leaving

themselves vulnerable to precipitous fluctuations in the market value of

their cash crop, his neighbors are now dependent on others for items

they once produced themselves:

The cultivation of a great staple like cotton or tobacco
starves everything else. The farmer curtails and neglects all
crops. He buys from distant places not only the simplest
manufactured article [such as] his brooms and buckets, but farm
productions, grain, meat, hay, butter, all of which he could make

14 See the "Statement of Principles," John Crowe Ransom's
anonymously penned introduction to I'll Take My Stand: The South and
the Aararian Tradition (1930), xliv-xlvi especially.

at home. Under this system the country that might be the
most abundant in the world is now the least plentiful. (43)

Grayson is not alone in criticizing the southern planter's dependence

upon a single crop economy and foreign markets. As Drew Gilpin Faust

has noted, at least two of Grayson's intimates, James Henry Hammond and

William Gilmore Simms, saw a need for crop diversification and a

decreased reliance on imported goods.15 Unlike these reformists,

though, Grayson is less concerned with employing new scientific methods

to increase crop yields than with preserving a way of life he closely

identifies with and that he believes to be irreconcilable with a market


Like many privileged southerners, Grayson received much of his

schooling in the North, where he witnessed firsthand many of the

cultural differences between his home region and the northern states.

And, like many defenders of the peculiar institution, he draws upon his

familiarity with both regions to lend authority to his claims that the

South's system of labor is better than that of the North. For Grayson,

the strongest proof of the superiority of slavery over wage labor is to

be found in the character of the ruling class each system produced. A

slaveholding society, he argues, resembles "that of a landed gentry in

other countries. There is about it the sure sense of superiority in

landlord or master; the same call for protection of dependents; the same

claim from them for attention and kindness in sickness and want" (91).

Consequently, the bond between master and slave is more intimate

and enduring" than that of the landlord and tenant or industrialist and

wage worker. The assertion that the relationship between master and

slave is an inherently benevolent and "intimate" one was rather

15 See A Sacred Circle (95-100 especially) for a discussion of the
group's efforts to bring agricultural reform and economic
diversification to the region. Grayson's friend Simms articulated a
view held by many southerners of the day when he said that reliance upon
imported goods pointed to "'a slavish deference to the will, the wit,
the wisdom, the art and ingenuity of the people to whom we yield our
manufactures'" (100).


commonplace at the time. More notable defenders of the peculiar

institution such as George Fitzhugh had already appealed to such

paternalistic notions."1 Yet Grayson gives only scant attention to the

relative merits of the slaveholder's treatment of his human chattel. He

is less interested in the condition of the slave than with the effect

such a relationship has on the master, as when he says, "Integrity,

refined manners are the natural characteristics of a slaveholding

country." Though he avoids explicitly comparing the "natural

characteristics" of the southerner to the northerner, such a comparison

is clearly implied in his description of the slaveholder's social


A nice sense of personal dignity produces courtesy in social
intercourse. Courtesy is a keeper of the peace. What is exacted
it readily yields. Refinement of manners is the natural
consequence of guarded intercourse. It is attended with
hospitality generally and liberal dealings. The views of the
slaveholder are not generally avarice or niggardly selfishness.

It is especially suggestive that Grayson discusses "social

intercourse" in very general terms here. So long as he remains focused

on "refinement" and "integrity," the discussion of "courtesy" appears to

describe the character of relations among social equals, or at least

among fellow whites. But when he remarks that whatht is exacted it

readily yields," Grayson couches his discussion in terms that call to

mind less equitable relationships. Thus, like the slave, the privileged

southerner "yields" his own will to that of the social order. Rather

than imposing one's needs upon others, the member of the slaveholding

society--be it slave or master--must submit to the needs of the

community. In this articulation of the ideology of social organicism,

personal integrity is equated with one's ability to strike a balance

between the public and private spheres, to successfully integrate

16 See, for instance, Fitzhugh's "Southern Thought," De Bow's
Review XXIII (1857) 338-50; and "Southern Thought Again," ibid., XXIII
(1857) 449-62, reprinted in The Ideology of Slavery: Proslavery Thought
in the Antebellum South. 1830-1860, ed. Drew Gilpin Faust (Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State U P, 1981) 272-299.

individual desire and social harmony. The self becomes defined in terms

of obligations to others, even if the specific types of obligations vary

according to one's place in the social hierarchy.

With the collapse of the Confederacy, the slaveocracy that Grayson

identified so strongly with became extinct, at which point it provided

the ideological grounding for the emergence of the Plantation Myth.

Through the Local Color fiction of the New South era, writers like

Thomas Nelson Page, Joel Chandler Harris, and others continued to assert

the region's difference from the rest of the Nation, even as that

literature participated in other ways in the process of sectional

reconciliation. The proliferation of autobiographies by southern

soldiers and civilians alike following the Civil War provided the

eyewitnesses to those events ample opportunity to discuss what they

perceived to be "natural" and "obvious" differences between northerners

and southerners, as well as a chance to express their grievances over

their mistreatment by the North during and after the war. By drawing

upon their experiences during the war and Reconstruction and casting

those experiences as representative of their fellow southerners, these

writers found a way to bridge the gap between the public and private

spheres without appearing to indulge in confessional self-

representation. In addition, we find in these narratives a pattern that

had been established by the proslavery apologists, in which the narrator

speaks as a representative southerner, addressing an audience that is

implicitly understood to be northern for the purpose of explaining (if

not defending) the South's behavior.' Usually employing an ostensibly

17 See Hobson, Tell About the South, for a substantive treatment
of the southerner's need to interpret the South for non-southerners.
Hobson argues that the southerner's rage to explain is primarily for
his/her own benefit, since the writer's identity is tied to the South.
Although he does discuss the autobiographies of a number of modern
southern writers, including Lillian Smith, Will Percy, Willie Morris,
and Larry L. King, Hobson makes no mention of self-representation prior
to the mid-twentieth-century.

conciliatory rhetoric, Confederate veterans' narratives such as George

Cary Eggleston's A Rebel's Recollections (1874), Gen. Richard Taylor's

Destruction and Reconstruction (1877), Sam Watkins' "Co. Avtch" (1882),

and John B. Jones' A Rebel War Clerk's Diary (1866), to name but a few,

typically express deep regret at the "misunderstanding" that brought

ruin to the South, a sincere admiration for the valor of the Union

soldiers whom they fought against on the field of battle, and (sometimes

less convincingly) a contrite patriotism and faith in the renewed

strength of the Union.

Typical of the partially reconstructed rebel's war narrative,

Eggleston's autobiography begins with a direct appeal to the northern

reader to place himself in the narrator's shoes: ". the reader must

make of himself, for the time at least, a Confederate. He must put

himself in the place of the Southerners and look at some things through

their eyes. .. (1-2). After enumerating the reasons for which the

South went to war, he then says,

You, reader, who shouldered your musket and fought like the hero
you are, for the Union and the old flag, if you had been bred in
the South, and had understood your duty as Southerners did theirs,
would have fought quite as bravely for secession as against it. (4)

While it is true that he speaks of "the Southerner" and "the Virginian"

in third person, Eggleston shows no qualms about speaking for his

region, though he does his best to defend his fellow Virginians (often

at the expense of the overly-belligerent South Carolinians), the

majority of whom, he claims, "were disposed to wait and avoid war

altogether, if that should prove possible" (15). Not surprisingly, they

entered the Confederacy because they could not, without

cowardice and dishonor, do otherwise; and the Virginians are brave men

and honorable ones" (16-17).

Such pronouncements concerning the price southerners were prepared

to pay for honor are standard fare; more striking is Eggleston's

somewhat ambivalent claim that southerners "made war upon a catch-word,

and fought until they were hopelessly ruined for the sake of an