Autobiography2018-05-25T18:19:52+00:00
Cover of Lanterns on the Levee by William Alexander Percy.
William Alexander Percy’s memoir, Lanterns on the Levee (Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press)

Autobiography

Mississippians have written some of the world’s most powerful autobiographies. Reasons for the popularity of autobiography are numerous. Many Mississippians write autobiographies either to praise their family’s past or to figure out their complicated, love-hate relationships with their home state, community, and sometimes family. Some write autobiographies to deal with what they see as misconceptions about Mississippi. Some write to inspire change, using their lives as examples of problems and attempts to overcome them. Some write autobiographies because the traditions of autobiographical writing are so strong that they feel they have to continue or respond to them.

One popular genre for Mississippi autobiographers has been the pastoral. Many autobiographers have written to describe the positive features of a rural life that has changed, primarily for the worse. Most famously, William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941) lovingly details what he considered the nearly permanent values he associated with an agricultural upper class: respect for leisure and good manners, love of nature and art, love and respect for family tradition, and a sense of obligation to the rest of society, especially African American farm laborers.

Many less famous Mississippians have written pastoral autobiographies to describe memories of rural family and community life, the special skills necessary to live near nature, and the unique pleasures of farming, gardening, hunting, and fishing. Some, like S. G. Thigpen’s Work and Play in Grandpa’s Day (1969), take a straightforward approach to remembering the good old days. Many others complicate something they see as positive about rural life and how it changed. David Cohn’s Where I Was Born and Raised (1947), based in part on his earlier work, God Shakes Creation (1935), repeats some of the themes of Percy’s autobiography, with its depiction of the power and beauty of nature in the Mississippi Delta and the paternalism of the planter class. Mary Hamilton’s Trials of the Earth, completed in 1933 and published in 1992, tells a compelling story of a family struggling to find work, health, and security while moving around the Mississippi Delta and working in logging camps. Hamilton’s narrative is not a conventional pastoral, in that she does not look back longingly toward the peaceful past. However, she has a pastoral ideal in the ways she always hopes that each new move might lead the family to settle down and farm.

More recently, some African American autobiographers, among them Chalmers Archer Jr. and especially Clifton Taulbert, have detailed the particular strengths rural families and communities showed in protecting each other, looking after everyone’s children, and developing black-run institutions. Taulbert’s first memoir, Once upon a Time When We Were Colored (1989), portrays a strong and creative community life of a sort the author thinks no longer exists.

A second type of autobiography crucial to Mississippi writers is the story of the outsider. Richard Wright’s Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (1945) is probably the best example of the outsider autobiography, a genre in which the author writes to describe life as someone who is misunderstood and mistreated. Wright’s work dramatizes his alienation from a society that tries to limit his behavior and demands that he not ask difficult questions. Black Boy explores the quandary of wanting to tell the truth but knowing that it is often necessary to play roles demanded by Jim Crow and recognizing the consequences of playing those roles poorly. The book also details physical hunger; Wright’s distrust of most southern institutions, especially those run by whites but also those controlled by African Americans; and his decision to move north. Much of the book discusses his frustration with life in Chicago and New York.

Many Mississippians have written to describe their lives as outsiders. Noel Polk’s Outside the Southern Myth (1997), Kevin Sessums’s Mississippi Sissy (2007), and Edward Cohen’s Peddler’s Grandson: Growing Up Jewish in Mississippi (1999) position these authors’ stories as those of people who do not fit into what some part of society expects of them—Polk because he grew up in the Piney Woods, Sessums because he is gay, and Cohen because he is Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian state. A literal outsider, born in the Midwest, Anthony Walton wrote Mississippi: An American Journey (1996) to describe his attempt to come to terms with the state and its history. Walton drove around Mississippi, talking to people and reading about the state, in an effort both to confront the difficulties of his immediate ancestors and to understand the strength they showed in surviving segregation and violence. Walton memorably describes Mississippi as “perhaps the most loaded proper noun in American English.” James Silver, creator of another powerful phrase, “Mississippi: The Closed Society,” tells the story of leaving the state amid controversy in Running Scared in Mississippi (1984).

Willie Morris was Mississippi’s most prolific memoirist, publishing North toward Home in 1967 and spending much of the rest of his life writing about the themes it raised. Did he love home or hate it? North toward Home explores his mixed feelings—his love for the fun and security of small-town life in Yazoo City as well as his growing hatred for racism and cruelty and the difficulty of asking questions. Morris wrote several other memoirs, one dealing with his work in the publishing world in New York—where he also felt like an outsider—and another describing his return to Mississippi in the 1980s.

The civil rights movement has been so important to Mississippians that it inspired a relatively new genre, the civil rights narrative. Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) continues Richard Wright’s outsider approach but takes a new direction with her involvement in activism in Jackson and Canton. Much of the book details her anger about segregation and rural poverty and sometimes her frustration with most African Americans. But initially at Tougaloo College and later in a series of mid-1960s protests, she found some of the sense of purpose and community she sought. The book ends with memorable uncertainty.

Will Campbell’s Brother to a Dragonfly (1977) is engaging autobiography that combines the author’s love for his troubled brother with the distance his own activism creates between him and the white Mississippians he knew in his Pike County youth. Combining pastoral themes with alienation and the excitement of the civil rights movement, Campbell dramatizes his fear that Christian activists may become so full of righteousness and moral certainty that they will forget their own religious principles.

Among the many other important autobiographies related to civil rights issues, several recent works stand out as especially revealing. From the Mississippi Delta (1997), by playwright Endesha Ida Mae Holland, portrays the civil rights movement as a virtual conversion experience, giving her hope and inspiration to change her life, especially by pursuing her creative interests, after early years filled with poverty and pain. Civil Rights Childhood (1999) blends the memories of Jordana Shakoor with excerpts from a journal kept from her father, Cleveland Jordan, a Greenwood activist. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leaders Aaron Henry and Charles Evers tell the stories of their long commitments to changing Mississippi in Aaron Henry: The Fire Ever Burning (2000) and Have No Fear (1997), respectively.

Another powerful genre, less unique to Mississippi, is the creative autobiography, in which writers or musicians describe the course of their creative lives. Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1983) is perhaps the best example of such a work by a Mississippi author. Welty describes how her Jackson upbringing may have influenced her writing, particularly in the ways she loved to listen to people talk and then tried to re-create that conversation in her work. Elizabeth Spencer’s Landscapes of the Heart (1998) traces the influences on her life as a writer, combining stories specific to Mississippi with stories reaching far beyond the state. Autobiographies by B. B. King (The Blues All Around Me, 1996) and David “Honeyboy” Edwards (The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing, 1997) describe the relationship between life in the Mississippi Delta and playing the blues.

Like the creative autobiography, the story of people in politics and political crusades is not distinctive to Mississippi, but the state has produced several political works of note. Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells (1970) describes the author’s early years in Mississippi and her work as an opponent of lynching and a supporter of African American organizing, while Belle Kearney’s A Slaveholder’s Daughter (1900) tells of how the author became involved in crusades for temperance and women’s rights. Mary Craig Kimbrough Sinclair intriguingly chose Southern Belle (1957) as the title of her autobiography about life with her husband, writer and socialist activist Upton Sinclair. John Roy Lynch’s Reminiscences of an Active Life (1970), Frank Smith’s Congressman from Mississippi (1964), Erle Johnston’s Politics Mississippi Style (1993), and Trent Lott’s Herding Cats: A Life in Politics (2005) all detail various moments in the state’s politics, often with an attempt to assert or defend the author’s place in history.

Further Reading

  • William Andrews, ed., African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays (1993)
  • J. Bill Berry, ed., Located Lives: Place and Idea in Southern Autobiography (1990)
  • Will Brantley, Feminine Sense in Southern Memoir (1993)
  • Joanne Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (1989)
  • David Dudley, My Father’s Shadow: Intergenerational Conflict in African American Autobiography (1991)
  • V. P. Franklin, Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition (1995)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Autobiography
  • Author
  • Keywords Autobiography
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date December 17, 2018
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 25, 2018