Coming of Age in Mississippi

by Anne Moody

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Critical Overview

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Coming of Age in Mississippi was published in 1968 to overwhelmingly enthusiastic acclaim. Around the country, journalists, reviewers, even politicians, remarked upon Moody's stirring story and the historic chain of events to which she bore witness. Senator Edward M. Kennedy became the spokesperson for the New York Times with his 1969 review in which he declared that Coming of Age in Mississippi was ‘‘a history of our time, seen from the bottom up, through the eyes of someone who decided for herself that things had to be changed.’’ Kennedy was certainly not alone in his thinking. C. N. Degler also remarked in the Nation on the timeliness and importance of Moody's work: ‘‘Though the author of this autobiography is only twenty-eight years old, her life has already spanned the revolution that has … made racial equality the central issue of our time.’’

Coming of Age in Mississippi was successful because it evoked for so many readers a picture of a world they could not heretofore imagine. Moody's autobiography brought to life the rampant discrimination and violence inflicted upon southern African Americans on a daily basis, as well as the lengths to which whites would go to perpetuate this oppression. Many reviewers commented on the truthful ring of Moody's prose. Wrote Degler, ‘‘Moody's candor and refusal to overdramatize create an air of verisimilitude that is the book's signal achievement.’’ Kennedy asserted that in her work, Moody was ‘‘personalizing poverty and degradation and making it more real than any study or statistic could have done.’’

Although an audience for Coming of Age in Mississippi may have developed out of interest in the civil rights movement, which had taken particularly violent turns the summer before the book was published, many readers also appreciated it for its portrayal of the rural southern African-American world. Mary Ellmann maintained in Nation, ‘‘The first section, Childhood, is different from, and better than, all the rest.… It hits the page like a natural force, crude and undeniable and, against all principles of beauty, beautiful.’’ Shane Stevens went much further with his praise in Book World: ‘‘Some [books] have tried to sketch a picture of these years from the American black man's point of view. Coming of Age in Mississippi is, quite simply, one of the very best of them.’’

However, the attention that Moody's autobiography drew to the civil rights movement, at a time when an American would be hard-pressed to ignore it, was perhaps more important. For, as Senator Kennedy noted, even in 1969 discrimination and inequity still prevailed. In closing his review, Kennedy admonished, ‘‘Anne Moody's powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.’’

In the years since its initial publication, Coming of Age in Mississippi has evolved into a staple on college reading lists and a key text to understanding the civil rights movement in the United States. While Moody herself moved outside of that sphere, her enduring work has placed her presence and influence firmly within the movement.

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