In his introduction, the editor of A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood explains the genesis of the book. Having edited works varying from collections of South African photographs to collections of chalk drawings made by children in Spanish Harlem, Alex Harris has always emphasized the visual rather than the textual. This collection, in which the written word is primary, is the result of a happy conjunction in Harris’ interests, the fact that he found himself fascinated with the casual amateur snapshots from his own childhood and at the same time was developing a new enthusiasm for reading fiction.
Looking through the snapshots, Harris noticed how they recalled memories which he had lost, stimulated him to fictionalize, and demanded new assessments of his life. After he had read the fiction, he saw the possibility of a new link between photography, memory, and expressive words. In a way, he thought, this could be a new combination of oral history and documentary photography, particularly interesting because while the photographs on which the essays were based would be naïve, generally amateur efforts from the past, the reflections of the essayists would be those of adult professional writers, viewing their own childhoods from a distance. In order to provide a common frame, Harris chose eleven writers who were growing up in the same period and in the South or, in the case of Ellease Southerland, in a Northeastern community which was actually the South transplanted. The result is a book which is both varied and fascinating.
Some of the essays are people-centered, attempts to assess the importance of one person or of one set of people in a writer’s life. Others address a particular place, perhaps a lost paradise, or recount a special incident which marked a turning point in the writer’s life. All of them, however, must finally deal with the problem of memory, its selectivity and even its tendency to become dream or fiction, and with the problem of mutability and loss, which concerns every adult who retreats into memory.
In “My Real Invisible Self,” Josephine Humphreys, the novelist from South Carolina, takes her point of departure from a series of Christmas photographs arranged by her grandmother. Humphreys realizes how much she learned from the grandmother who was always looking closely at others, seeing qualities in them which others missed. In the various photographers she employed, for example, the grandmother saw artists, not seedy men; in her granddaughter Josephine, she saw beyond a shy child to someone whose introspective nature would make her a successful writer. As she looks at the pictures of her grandmother and her grandfather, Humphreys cannot help but judge them. However difficult so complex a woman may have been, her grandmother was beautiful and loving; to Humphreys, the man who abandoned her grandmother is properly summed up in the single snapshot of him which remains. Holding his trophy, a once-free fish that he has caught and killed, her grandfather stands frozen in time like a predator.
Several of the writers in Harris’ book must grapple with feelings toward fathers who were less than perfect. Robb Forman Dew admired the courageous liberalism of her father, who was a neurosurgeon, and perhaps it was inevitable that she would reject the values of her high school friends, dedicated to the pursuit of popularity and the exhausting exertion of charm. Yet her father, while a neurosurgeon, was also an alcoholic who eventually lost his practice, his home, and his family, thus making the normal social life impossible for his children, even if they had desired it. Although Dew believes that her rejection of a stifling and trivial society was for the best, she recalls the isolation, the humiliation, and the sense of personal betrayal which were the result of her father’s actions, not those of society. The snapshot of a tree-shaded home which was repossessed, the account of the Internal Revenue Service’s suspicious search of the family car, and the bare statement that in the end no one in the family...
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