Scholarly Pursuits: A Senior’s Adventures in Academia
Meagan Racey is a journalism and mass communication major from Whispering Pines.
Honors Thesis Update: The autobiographical impulse
For most people, memories buzz around our minds like bees around flowers during pollen season. Every glance, movement, and thought triggers a memory, some painful, some happy, and some downright amusing. Most of us recycle them, and some of us release them.
The memoir writer reaches out to grab them, one by one, as he narrates his life on paper. When I think about memoirs, I first admire the author for undressing his life, layer by layer, to be naked for the reader. To me, the true autobiographer embraces all memories and characteristics, with all their stings and satisfaction. Memoirs capture a piece of his reality – a piece that as others read, they recall their own childhood, placing within a similar story a different face in a different place.
As a journalism student, I’m naturally interested in nonfiction. Nonfiction, particularly autobiographical works, sets a concrete platform from which readers can spring, a context that makes content tangible and boxes the abstract into reality.
I enrolled in Dr. Fred Hobson’s English class, “Southern Memoir and Autobiography,” because the course combined my interests in journalism, literature, and my Southern roots. Dr. Hobson, the Lineberger Professor in the Humanities, had us read autobiographies and memoirs that spanned in tone and theme from nostalgia (William Alexander Percy) to protest (Richard Wright, Lillian Smith and Mary Mebane), apology (Katherine Du Pre Lumpkin), individualism (Zora Neale Hurston), and the childhood of the good ole boy (Willie Morris).
But these were all voices that I’d heard before – maybe not authors I’d read before, but voices that echoed others I had read.
There were dispossessed blacks; rich, reminiscent Southern men; and angry and unhappy Southern women. But in this class, I had one more window to look through. I gazed, for the first time, from my side of life in 21st-century Chapel Hill to the early and mid-20th-century lifestyle of the poor white Southerner.
I went from reading Percy’s rants about the bottom rail pushing to the top, to reading firsthand perspectives of whites whose top priorities were not to win the election but to put food on their tables. These people worked with their hands, labored in the humidity and depended on Mother Nature for life. They lived beside blacks, moved often to find fertile land and lives, and swapped histories of storytelling, sweat and moonshine.
I read these autobiographies and memoirs – Will Campbell (“Brother to a Dragonfly”), Tim McLaurin (“Keeper of the Moon”), Harry Crews (“A Childhood”) and Rick Bragg (“All Over But the Shoutin'”) – with an intensity that is most easiest matched by readers who feel they have stock in these authors’ words.
By no means did my childhood in suburbia resemble their lives. But my history does. I have watched and helped my father uncover his family past, digging deep into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
His father’s branch of the family tree has been on American soil for more than 225 years, since John Luke Racey arrived with his brother as an indentured servant from England. Joseph Bemis, also on my father’s side, emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1640, becoming a blacksmith and farmer.
My ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In fact, in our family, the Civil War truly penned brother against brother. After William Henry Racey went AWOL from the Confederate Cause in 1862, he joined the 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry and fought on some of the same battlefields that his brother, James Madison Racey, and other relatives, John Jackson Racey and possibly my great-great-great grandfather, Saint Luke Racey, fought on.
I’ve visited graveyards hundreds of years old, forgotten and covered in weeds behind churches, in woods and in pastures. I’ve visited where my grandmother grew up, by an old mill, beautiful, dark, decaying and out of use. Those words – beautiful, dark, decaying – describe, to me, the South that these writers immortalize through words.
Both of my parents worked, so my dad often stayed on the farms of his grandparents, aunts, and uncles. An extra hand never went to waste, so he would gather eggs in the hen house, keeping a careful eye for where feral cats had kittens in the hay or where black snakes lurked in the rafters. His Poppy always told him not to get his hands and fingers near the hog pen, “cause hogs ate anything, and they could bite your fingers off.”
My father’s big treat was getting a dime from Mr. Holler, who lived at the foot of the mountain, in anticipation of Mr. Combs coming in his big covered truck selling flour and coffee to grandma and a Hershey bar to him. Some of his prized possessions – besides his children, I assume – include his guitar, shed, shotgun and mounted game.
As I read the autobiographies, two writers in particular captured my spirit and mind – Harry Crews and Rick Bragg. As I read their childhood memoirs, words became images in my mind. Crews’s naturalistic, Southern gothic style makes art of the severe and grotesque. I read with disbelief and peculiar interest as Crews described his near-death experiences with lye soap, scalding water and paralysis.
His rhythmic, simple and colloquial language portrays life at its most basic – immediate, concrete and tangible in the world of soil. Poverty at times overwhelms the weaving of his story, which relives the terror of a child brought up by sharecroppers, drunken stepfathers and steadfast women. But overall, “A Childhood” is a celebration of the fading white folk culture, with the humor and superstition of storytelling at its core.
Bragg’s writing style is so detailed, with every subject defined and described, that he paints pictures as his scenes unfold. I did not want the images in my mind to leave, and so I would read for hours, as his lyrical language stuck in my mind like church hymns on Sundays.
I tagged along as – according to him – good fortune turned Bragg’s impoverished childhood into a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism career. The story begins as an ode to the mother who kept him alive by depriving herself, who pulled him behind her on a sack as she bent over tobacco plants, pulling row after row after row. Poignant tales capture and defend the culture and beauty of Bragg’s deep South, while others show the desperate nature of those who fall victim to the fields and mills. As Bragg writes, it’s “the story of a strong woman, a tortured man and three sons who lived hemmed in by thin cotton and ragged history in northeastern Alabama.”
Beyond my essential interest, I wondered why Crews and Bragg chose to write autobiographical pieces. Their autobiographies seemed to be misfits of typical Southern literature and autobiography (Crews in particular). Their livelihoods were built elsewhere, and not in the prestigious backgrounds that typically called for autobiographies.
Crews’s career grew from writing fiction, essays and articles, and Bragg’s career was built on journalism. I later realized that Crews’s novels and Bragg’s more elaborate features echoed and paralleled their own childhoods. I decided to spend my senior year exploring, researching, and analyzing why Crews and Bragg leapt over the literary wall to autobiographies. I wanted to learn their motivations for turning the looking glass on themselves, what they hoped to accomplish and what personal gains they grasped for. What did their writing styles and subject matter suggest, and what did nonfiction and memoir enable them to accomplish? Most of all, what did they not accomplish through memoir? These two writers had spent their careers telling their own stories through those of others, as they hid safely behind the veil. So I chose to explore their autobiographical impulse, their decisions to step in front of the curtain and expose themselves.