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Remembering Jim Crow: The literary memoir as historical source material

Jennifer Jensen Wallach, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation is a two-fold project. The first half is a methodological examination of how memoirs can be used as instruments of historical understanding. The second half applies this methodology to the study of several memoirs written about life in the American south in the first half of the twentieth century. Memoir is a peculiar genre which straddles the disciplines of literature and history. Currently the field of autobiography studies is dominated by literary critics. However, there is nothing inherent about the genre dictating that this should be the case. This dissertation analyzes memoirs from a historical perspective. I argue that insights drawn from life writing have the potential to greatly enhance our historical understanding. I broach several topics including the problem of defining autobiography, the disciplinary proprietorship of the memoir, the relationship between history and theory, and the linkages between the historical study of memoirs and interdisciplinary conversations about historical memory. I describe the nature of historical reality, arguing that the individual thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and misperceptions of each historical agent are constitutive of the historical reality of a particular moment. Memoirs capture the entire universe as it appeared from one acknowledged perspective. Furthermore, skilled, creative writers are especially adept at capturing the complexity of a past moment. Authors of literary memoirs draw on the aesthetic power of literary language and on literary devices such as metaphor and irony to powerfully portray particular historical moments. I apply these ideas to an examination of memoirs about life in the segregated American south. I analyze memoirs written by African Americans, by whites, by men, by women, and by individuals with various political points of views. I find these accounts bear certain similarities to one another but are often strikingly at odds. Different ideas about the psychological impact of segregation, dissimilar characterizations of the black community, and contrary descriptions of the same moment and the same geographical space reveal that there is no singular Jim Crow experience. Historical reality is multifaceted, and the complexities of individual experiences are best captured in artfully constructed literary memoirs.

Subject Area

Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|American literature|African Americans|Biographies|History

Recommended Citation

Wallach, Jennifer Jensen, "Remembering Jim Crow: The literary memoir as historical source material" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136790.