Autobiographies and Southern Identity

Adapted from Tulane University

In 1941, W. J. Cash wrote, "If it can be said there are many Souths, the fact remains that there is also one South." This course will explore what it means to be southern through autobiographies. The southerners you will meet in this seminar are a cross section of southern society in the 20th century in various parts of the South. They represent different races and classes. We will explore Cash's observation and use these life narratives to ask if there are, indeed, characteristics that define southerners across those divisions. These individuals are also firmly grounded in their own time and place, and through their eyes, we can witness the remarkable transformation of the region during the 20th century and the people who are drawn from many walks of life — planters and sharecroppers, politicians and musicians, writers and drag queens. We will also confront the problems that autobiographies pose for historians. They are a part of the historical record, a very important part, and they contain information regarded as factual, but they are not factual histories of a time, person, or event. When life narrators describe an event or celebrate a community, they are making history in a sense, but they are also justifying their own perceptions, defending their reputations, disputing accounts left by others, and writing from their own cultural perspectives. Unlike historians, they do not aim for objectivity. Are they true? What does that mean for an autobiography? As we will see, some are not true at all. The larger truth contained in an autobiography is more complex. Mahatma Ghandi called his autobiography "my experiments with truth." For our purposes, autobiography is historically situated in a particular time and place, and this is essential for understanding the South and the southerner.

Randy J. Sparks


Randy Sparks specializes in Southern History, the Early Modern Atlantic World, and American Religious History.

Course Chapters

  • About This Chapter

    Southern historian C. Vann Woodward claimed that the South was never more victorious than in the moment of its defeat in…

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    Too often "Southerner" is used to mean "white Southerner" when, in fact, blacks and whites have lived on intimate terms in…

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    Popular images of the South have often created the illusion of homogeneity. Talk of the "Solid South," for example, has helped…

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    That potent myth of the Old South celebrated the lives of the planter aristocracy, but the planter aristocrats were always a…

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    The blending of diverse races and cultures in the South has produced a remarkable cultural and artistic life intensely localistic but…