Introduction: The “Contradictory” Legacy of Corra Harris
Introduction: The “Contradictory” Legacy of Corra Harris
Abstract and Keywords
Corra Harris was the most widely published and one of the most nationally popular woman writers in the United States during the twentieth century. Critics during her day and since have had a difficulty in categorizing Harris's works, often dismissing her work as part of a lightweight genre of domestic fiction. Harris's life and work do not fit wholly into any category. Harris simply defied characterization. Harris popularity and legacy first derived from A Circuit Rider's Wife. Since the book is marginally autobiographical, many readers remember Harris as the “circuit rider's wife”. This Introduction outlines the topics the other chapters in this book discuss. This book offers a glimpse of Harris's fascinating life and writing career. This book looks at the issues of race, class, and gender found in the works and literature of Harris. These issues found a constant struggle with the belief, experience, and values of Corra Harris. This book demonstrates the ways in which Harris's work and life both differed from and matched thouse of other southern women writers of her time. The book also reveals the manner in which time and place intersect with class, gender, race, and other variables in the forging of identity in her writing.
In 1931, Good Housekeeping editor W. F. Bigelow predicted that Georgia novelist Corra Harris's reputation would outlive that of Nebraska's Willa Cather, stating that Harris's novel A Circuit Rider's Wife was “far more important than Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.” Attesting to her continued national popularity, Bigelow informed Harris that she had held her own in Good Housekeeping's contest that year to find the nation's twelve greatest living women.1 Bigelow was wrong, of course, in his ranking of Cather's and Harris's works. Harris may have been disappointed at the outcome, but she would not have been surprised to find Cather's works remembered and her own forgotten. In a 1903 review comparing fiction in the North and South, she noted that when the country's “great fiction is written, it will come out of the West.”2 Harris was under no illusions about the merits of her own work.3
Whatever her legacy, Corra Harris (1869–1935) was the most widely published and nationally popular woman writer from Georgia in the early twentieth century. Critics during her day and since have had a difficult time categorizing Harris's works, many either dismissing them as part of the lightweight genre of domestic fiction or unable to categorize them at all. Indeed, little about Harris's life or writing fits neatly into any category. Whether the subject is her work or herself, she was a person who depend-ably, as her nephew said in a memorial speech, “defied characterization.”4 Interest in her works has revived over the past couple of decades, as indicated by the 1998 reissue of her most famous novel, A Circuit Rider's Wife (1910), but since 1968, when John Talmadge published Corra Harris, Lady of Purpose, no one has revisited her life or works in depth.
Harris's popularity during her lifetime and her legacy since then derive from her identification with A Circuit Rider's Wife and its heroine, Mary Thompson. Even though the book was only marginally autobiographical, Harris was ever after remembered as “the circuit rider's wife.” Contemporary (p.2) readers who admired Harris and her work ranked her with various literary icons, from George Eliot to Shakespeare; regionally, one reviewer compared her with Ellen Glasgow.5 Hamilton Holt, one of her earliest editors, and John Paschall, her last, captured something of her reputation in eulogies they delivered in 1936, the year after she died, at the dedication service of a memorial chapel built over her grave. Holt was one of Harris's most distinguished and sustained admirers, and their professional association and friendship lasted from 1899 until her death.
Holt edited and for a time owned the Independent, which grew under his direction from a religious journal of limited reach to one focused on political issues with a much wider national circulation. He later served as president at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, from where he and Harris continued to correspond and visit. Politically, the two could not have been further apart.6 Holt was known for his liberal politics, most notably peace activism, and Harris for her “extreme reactionary conservative” opinions.7 Holt was well known for his work in journalism, politics, and education. Harris admired and respected him and valued highly his opinion. The regard was mutual.
In his speech in 1936 at the chapel dedication, Holt reiterated what he had written in 1924 in a review of Harris's first autobiography, My Book and Heart: “As I look back now I recall but one red-letter day like it in The Independent office—the day when Robert Frost—a stripling of eighteen—sent in his first poem.” Or perhaps “that day when Sydney Lanier's first poem came in, … when the whole staff gathered round [Dr. Ward's] desk … to listen while he read it aloud.” In Holt's opinion, Harris's first autobiography, My Book and Heart, put her in the company of four of the Western world's most renowned autobiographers: “I know of only two living Americans who seem … to have the courage, candor and literary ability … to emulate these four immortals [Benvenuto Cellini, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herbert Spencer, and Benjamin Franklin]. One is E. W. Howe …. The other is Corra Harris.” To him, however, her genius transcended her writing ability. “Corra Harris knows the human heart as does, in my judgment, no contemporary writer in America,” he wrote, careful to add, “certainly no woman writer.”8
The last editor with whom Harris worked, John Paschall of the Atlanta Journal, enjoyed as close a relationship with Harris as perhaps anyone in her final years. She wrote extensively for him during the last four years of her life. In his speech at the chapel dedication in 1936, he said that she had “the virility of a man, the deftness and intuition of a woman, and the wit and (p.3) brilliancy of both. She is Walter Lippmann, Arthur Brisbane, Will Rogers, Helen Rowland or Dorothy Dix, as the mood strikes her.”9
There are several reasons why Harris has not been revisited as a historical subject. Most problematic by far are the contradictions that fill her works, fiction and nonfiction, from the beginning of her writing career to the end of her life. To the frustration of anyone attempting to analyze Harris, she contradicted herself at pivotal turns as she tried to come to terms with vital social and political issues. Her contemporary readers from disparate backgrounds noticed contradiction as a defining trait.
In her mature years, Harris wrote in My Book and Heart about asking a reader and trusted friend (unnamed) for a candid opinion of her. After a long pause, the friend responded, “I think that you are the most enigmatical woman I have ever known.” After an interview with Harris, a journalist called her “the most … uncatalogueable person I have met in many a day's work.” Jack London, one of her “socialistic” contemporaries whom Harris loved to hate and whom she delighted in abusing, called Harris's a “curious” mind that was foremost “all complexity.” A reader and longtime fan wrote Harris in 1926 that she was “frequently self-contradictory and stubbornly sad.” Another wrote, “to me you are an interesting paradox.”10 Discussing primarily her eclectic religious philosophy, Charles Dobbins wrote in 1931 that one could read everything Harris had written and yet find oneself “at the end more confused than at the beginning.” She was, to Dobbins, “inconsistent with amazing consistency.”11
Indeed, Harris saw herself as a contradiction, writing in My Book and Heart: “I do not know what God could have been thinking about when he made me,—such a lie! A being whose outside is an absolute contradiction to her inside. Whose every action is a concealment of truth, who can never be veracious except when she is writing fiction.”12 After reflecting on the fleeting nature of fame and how she had taught herself not to “hunger” for it, she wrote Holt that she had just finished “getting the stone blasted out for the little chapel” she was preparing to have built as her memorial. She admitted the incongruousness of disclaiming fame and providing for one's own memorial but wrote that “we cannot be consistent, my dear friend, only aim pathetically at consistency.”13
Educator, historian, and critic of southern culture Edwin Mims captured succinctly Harris's most salient trait as a person and a writer: “It is in a certain balance of seemingly contradictory elements in her personality and in her novels that her chief distinction lies among contemporary writers.”14 It is at times the “seeming”—and at other times the outright—contradictions (p.4) that make Harris difficult to interpret. But it proves worthwhile to examine how she tried to achieve the balance Mims found in her life and fiction. Something in her contradictory reasoning and conclusions appealed to her readers, nationally and locally. One noted interpreter of southern identity, Wilbur Cash, considered contradiction “the very stuff of Southern psychology.”15
Among other explanations for why Harris has been “something of an orphan in historical scholarship,” one is that she held what strikes many readers today as distasteful politics.16 She was notorious for holding poorly informed and often naively argued political positions found in much of her nonfiction. As Talmadge notes, she rarely let facts get in the way of making a point or expressing herself, and her spelling and grammar were atrocious.17 Most of the staff at the Independent shared Holt's opinion about Harris's “reactionary conservative politics,” albeit one they paid well and encouraged, a point worth noting since the Independent was reputedly a progressive periodical and considered by some “the best weekly in the country.”18
Harris could be reactionary and conservative. She wrote contemptuously about modernization and industrialization decades before the Southern Agrarians took their stand in 1930 and legitimized the genre. On gender she could be stridently antifeminist, even misogynist. About race, she believed in white supremacy and condoned lynching. With regard to class division, she held relentlessly to a belief in meritocracy and a level playing field. On the other hand, she could be astutely insightful about issues on which she took otherwise rigidly conservative positions or was indifferent. Such was the case with gender and race, about which she revealed theoretical insights even if they were not followed by similarly insightful practices. If she expressed antimodernist rhetoric in places, she also saw the need to move forward. She believed it a mockery to expect patriotism from Native Americans, who had been “deprived” “of [their] liberties and pensioned … to a life of ignominy.”19
Of particular note is Harris's legacy to histories of the New South, namely, her mocking critique of the Lost Cause, of southern literature for its blind hold on a “defunct ideal” and a Dixie that “never existed” well before such criticism was an accepted genre.20 In The Promise of the New South (1995), Edward Ayers used Harris's 1912 novel The Recording Angel as an example of such regional self-awareness, and in 2005 Peter Schmidt recommended revisiting the same novel for that and other reasons.21 But her sharp criticism began at least a decade before that novel was published, a significant (p.5) point since such insight is chiefly reserved for the Fugitives and Agrarians, who did not surface until many years later.
On the issue of women's status, Harris catered obsequiously to the domestic ideal in most of her fiction and prescriptive essays. However, over the course of her writing career she made a startling discovery about women, namely, that whatever biology was—and in her early career she held assiduously to the notion that biology was destiny—gender was a social construct. She waged war with herself over how much the “ancient fate of women” was biology and how much social. Even though she spent her professional life promoting traditional roles for women, over time she came to do so more tentatively, awkwardly, and self-consciously. Moreover, in interviews and in much of her fiction she challenged women's secondary status by exposing the contradictions between constitutional liberty and women's reality. The subtle and obvious ways she did so are a focus of this volume.
Regarding race and race relations, Harris was never able to let go of her belief in white superiority. She maintained to the end of her life that the black race as a whole was “of a lower order,” incapable of “ever attaining coucasion [sic] standards of morals or civilization.”22 But she reveals at times as much curiosity as antipathy in her thinking about race, as well as an effort, albeit failed, to rise above prejudice.
Locating Harris among contemporary writers is essential. Neither her conservative values nor her contradictory nature sets her apart. Both reflect the experience of a thinking woman in a time and place of devastation—the South struggling to recover from the wholesale destruction of the Civil War by simultaneously inviting and resisting modernization. Whether the subject is political ideals, class background, racial views, gender ideals, southern identity, or writing style, Harris differs from her contemporaries in degree—not in kind—of reaction and response to the dramatic changes through which they were living.
Her reputation, as was the case for writers decades before and since then, depended for its survival on the writer's relationship to the Southern Renaissance, a defining movement in the South's literary history and legacy. In Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920–1960, John M. Bradbury lists nearly 800 contributors to the Southern Renaissance, nearly a third of whom are women. Harris is not among them. He dismisses her (along with Mary Johnston and others) as writers of “sentimental fiction.”23 A closer look at much of Harris's work, however, reveals sentiment as a facade.
(p.6) Perspectives on the Southern Renaissance differ according to academic training. Historians interpret the relevance and influence of the Renaissance differently from literary scholars, a difference consequential to understanding any of the authors' lives and writings. In a lengthy historiographical introduction to a collection of overlooked essays on the New Deal by the Southern Agrarians, Emily Bingham and Thomas Underwood write: “By the 1980s, the literature examining Agrarianism had grown into two labyrinths: one negotiated by English professors and the other by historians. The gulf … continues to prevent a meaningful synthesis of the literature.” Historians have generally been more concerned with the political implications of the writers' works, while literary scholars, at least until recently, more often demonstrated a “willful lack of interest in the Agrarians' political commentary,” focusing rather on the aesthetic value of their works.24
Briefly, the Southern Renaissance was a movement coalesced if not started by “Twelve Southerners” at Vanderbilt University. Four of the twelve—Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren—had gained a reputation in the mid-1920s publishing poetry as “Fugitives” in exile from two parallel constructs: a New South creed, committed to its own plan of reconstructing the South through industrialization; and the Lost Cause, a mythologized past.25 The four later joined with eight more in somewhat of an about-face. Provoked originally by attacks on the South from critic H. L. Mencken beginning in the 1910s to portray the region infamously as an intellectual and artistic wasteland, the Fugitives turned outward in their reaction, trying to distance themselves from association with such a reputation. However, when widespread publicity from the Scopes trial in 1925 seemed to affirm Mencken's assessment, the Fugitives regrouped and took defensive action. With a revitalized sense of regional pride they hoped to rescue the region and the country from what they determined were the evils of modernization. In 1930 they published the manifesto I'll Take My Stand, promoting Southern Agrarian values as the only hope of saving the nation from self-destruction.26
Historians writing about the Agrarians often implicitly question their centrality to and influence on the Southern Renaissance. James Cobb, a historian of southern identity more concerned with the Agrarians' historical setting than with the literary value of their works, writes that the Agrarians' “true attitude toward the use of history,” namely, “as propaganda,” exposed the limitations of their vision for what they believed was a more legitimate New South. With little use for the “facts,” Agrarians offered “no practical alternatives other than a romanticized historical vision of the country life that (p.7) Depression-era southerners were then fleeing by the thousands.”27 Moreover, with the exception of a few whose racial views progressed in time, Agrarians' visions of the South excluded African Americans. By linking the Southern Renaissance with the Harlem Renaissance, Cobb further decenters the Agrarians' role in the South's literary revival.28
By collecting and publishing rarely consulted works of the Agrarians, Bingham and Underwood hoped to make these works available as “an opportunity to examine closely one permutation of the American right.”29 As historical figures representing conservative, reactionary, or regressive values, Harris and the Agrarians offer students of history something that reformers and activists cannot. Although their works are often more dispiriting than they are inspiring, they help explain what informs reaction.
Anne Goodwyn Jones suggests the value of studying those on the right, the “orphans” or “dark horses” of history. Writing about Louisa McCord, a slave mistress known for holding extremely conservative views in the midst of a slaveholding South, Jones explains that although McCord was “never willing to critique the myth” of southern womanhood, she “nonetheless reveals that its roots are planted in fear.”30 To expose fear as a root cause of people's reactions and attempts to hold on to regressive values helps explain why some people choose to look forward while others look behind for ways to live in the present.
Women scholars from many disciplines have recently questioned and challenged the validity of attributing the beginning of the Southern Renaissance to the Fugitives and Agrarians.31 If one defines renaissance as “a sense of challenge that stirs the minds of men [individuals] simultaneously and stimulates a new awareness of the values by which they have been living,” then, according to many scholars the beginning of the Southern Renaissance can be pushed back two or three decades from its traditional date of the mid-1920s.32
Carol Manning argues that if we extend the “intellectual field” or the “larger regionalist impulse” of the Southern Renaissance back in time, southern women writers of the late nineteenth century were its “real beginning.”33 “If one looks objectively for first signs of a modern southern literature,” she states, “one will discover that the Southern Renaissance did not wait for World War I and the Fugitives and Agrarians at Nashville but dawned instead with scattered individuals, chiefly women, writing alone in the last decades of the nineteenth century.”34 That southern women were grappling with similar cultural experiences, creating similar characters in their fiction, and discovering and revealing similar cause and effect in their (p.8) works, largely “scattered” and “writing alone,” demonstrates the influence of time and place. Both perception and perspective explain the differences between the writings of women and those of men writing at the same time.35
For critics who examine these works for their literary merit, Manning explains, the caliber of the writing is not the issue: “While much of this writing does not merit resurrection, some of it, along with their more personal writing, is of historical, cultural, and artistic interest, as revisionists are even now discovering.”36 Manning finds that themes of ambivalence, ambiguity, and contradiction characterize the works of these “scattered” women writers.37 Significantly, their writings reveal how women began to question and challenge, if from behind a mask, the conventions handed down to them as southern ladies.
That southern women especially “exploited the possibilities of fiction as a mask” is the topic of Anne Jones's Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859–1936, which examines the works of seven writers whose careers overlap with Harris's: Augusta Jane Evans, Grace King, Kate Chopin, Mary Johnston, Ellen Glasgow, Frances Newman, and Margaret Mitchell. These women demonstrate the influence of the suffrage movement as it reemerged in the late nineteenth century. It helped make women aware, if for most in inarticulate ways, of the constraints of southern ladyhood. Denied a public voice to express a curiosity about liberty and what it ought to mean to them, some southern women found a voice in writing. Trained to keep silent, however, they had to conceal any message of questioning and certainly outright defiance. “Anything that felt radical,” Jones writes, “was suppressed, masked, or transformed into the familiar paradox of the strong southern woman arguing for her own fragility.”38 Southern women in general and southern women writers in particular were vulnerable to the conflict that resulted from trying to reconcile the myth of the southern lady with the reality of being a southern woman. The distance between myth and reality—between social expectation and lived experience—motivated writers who were acculturated to defer, submit, and suffer in silence rather than question the culture that entrapped them.
Jones found that these writers managed through fictional characters to express rebellion while also masking it. But there were consequences for questioning, even from behind the protection of a mask. Even with the outlet of writing, they never escaped the divided psyche that resulted from “the dual life” Kate Chopin wrote about: “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.”39 Each writer experienced the ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction that characterize Harris's works. Jones explains (p.9) the phenomenon: “Here may be located another thread in the curious paradox of southern women, conservative as an ideal and often radical in feeling, soft and gentle in manner with a vein of iron within …. [O]ne can suggest the outlines of a tradition of liberalism—often veiled rather than direct—in southern women's writings.”40
One reviewer's caustic words about Ellen Glasgow and Frances Newman explain why southern women might have been reluctant to be direct in their writing. According to Elmer Davis, “the South must begin to realize that its only salvation lies in taking the girl babies of good family who look as if they have brains, and drowning them as soon as possible after birth.”41 It is little wonder that women writers had difficulty finding their voice. Such sentiments illustrate how challenging it could be for southern women who happened to be bright, such as Glasgow, Newman, and Harris.
Harris's experiences were similar to those of other southern women writers. Harris could be called, as Clara Juncker called New Orleans writer and local historian Grace King, an “inadvertent” feminist. Like King, Harris criticized women who sought and gained public roles. However, each “expressed feminist sentiments in her fiction through her exposure of women's limited choices.”42 To the extent that one can attribute feminism to Harris, it can be described as one critic described Ellen Glasgow's feminism: “temporary, ‘spiritual,’ and apolitical.”43
Harris's works shared with Georgia writer Frances Newman's what reviewers called a masculine voice.44 Although Harris admitted cultivating one, Newman “paradoxically assert[ed] that her own literary value rested in her distinctly female voice.”45 Harris and Newman felt like misfits because they chose to be writers, and both thought that writing undermined charm and femininity because it required a developed intellect. Each suffered from the effects of the “split between lady and mind.” If Harris went out of her way in her writing to mask her discontent with the constraints of ladyhood, the titles of two of Newman's novels, if not the books themselves—The Hard-Boiled Virgin (1926) and Dead Lovers Are Faithful Lovers (1928)—demonstrate her willingness to challenge the norm more openly.
But Newman and Harris held similar views about women: both were averse to any notion of a common bond of sisterhood, and each felt that women should not be involved in public life. They both satirized and valorized women. About men they were equivocal. Harris shared with Newman a “terrible insecurity in her letters to men” and, like Newman, experienced a “dependence upon male encouragement and approval for her writing.” On the other hand, both women showed “surprising cockiness” at times.46 Each (p.10) struggled with, feared, and suffered from her defiance of internalized ideals, which explains their reticence to drop the mask and more directly confront the constraints of southern ladyhood.
A brief comparison of Harris with Virginia writer Ellen Glasgow, the most famous southern woman writer of their generation, helps further set Harris in context. Called by Julius Rowan Raper the “enigmatic woman who cleared the ground for the South's literary rebirth,” Glasgow was four years Harris's junior.47 The two writers reveal in their autobiographies foundational similarities as well as crucial differences.48 In 1904, a time when few southern critics were willing to applaud writers who consciously broke from the past, Harris credited Glasgow with being a writer ahead of her time and commended her ability to see beyond the “flower-decked past” that had trapped other southern novelists.49
Harris and Glasgow were both shaped by lives marked with tragedy and loss. They shared the experience of having no formal education and of being self-taught. Each had an appreciation for evolution (though Glasgow developed a more sophisticated understanding of evolution earlier in life than did Harris) and a desire to find a way to move beyond the constraints of the past without disavowing their southern identity and its agrarian roots. They shared a lukewarm commitment to woman suffrage, and neither believed legislation would have a significant influence on the innate double standard. They held similarly negative ideas about human nature. Each wrote about having mystical experiences and a deep appreciation of the natural order. They shared a passionate commitment to the life of the mind. Finally, as did most other southern women writers, they endured an “unresolved struggle … between the desire for official approval and ‘a normal life’ on the one hand and for a release from the demands of conformity on the other.”50 Each was known in her day as “a bundle of contradictions.”51
However, Harris and Glasgow differed in crucial ways. Harris came from an agrarian background and grew up in genteel poverty, while Glasgow's father was a successful businessman, allowing Glasgow to live with a degree of financial security throughout her life. Glasgow had nine siblings; Harris, two. Harris married and had children; Glasgow did not. Beyond the material differences and domestic circumstances, however, the most significant difference between the two writers related to gender identity. Glasgow was far more at home in her female skin than was Harris. Harris's struggle with gender identity was a constant refrain in As a Woman Thinks, the second of her three autobiographies, published in the mid-1920s, during a time when she wrestled most intensely with the contradictions in her thinking about (p.11) gender. If she knew she had made her living glorifying traditional domesticity, Harris admitted her strong conviction that women were “not normal as men are normal” and was forever struggling against “a futile instinct to escape from” being a woman, from not ever being “contented and at home” in herself.52
In contrast, “a determining element in Ellen Glasgow's mind,” Anne Jones writes, “was her own femaleness.”53 Merrill Skaggs attributes part of Glasgow's success as a writer to her ability to hold on to her female identity in spite of the pressure at the time to find a masculine voice: “Glasgow proved in her lifetime of professional work that a woman could earn the applause of her friends and the respect of her peers without sacrificing her ‘femininity’ or bowing her will.”54 Even if Glasgow was not able, as was common for women in her day, to reconcile the “tension between romanticism and realism,” or the clash between expectations from the myth of the southern lady and the reality of being human, the evidence that it did not rob her of her female identity comes through clearly in The Woman Within.55 Harris reveals the opposite in many writings, but most especially in As a Woman Thinks. Chapters 3 through 6 explore some of the reasons why Harris felt first compelled to assume a masculine voice, and then her deep ambivalence later in life at having done so.
Arguably, Glasgow's relative satisfaction with her gender identity and the fact that Harris considered her gender an “accident” that she needed to “overcome” explain another essential difference between the two women.56 Glasgow's writings reveal someone made deeply empathic by her own suffering, a person who related intuitively to the suffering of others, whether human or animal. Two passages from her autobiography capture the point. “What did individual pain [her own] matter in the midst of a world's misery?” Glasgow asked. “A sensitive mind,” she wrote, “would always remain an exile on earth.” Known for her acute sensitivity to suffering, whether in human beings or animals, Glasgow “decided that it was easier to suffer than to make suffer.” And again she claimed to have “always felt the vast impersonal anguish of life more deeply than I had felt my own small—yet vast—personal misery.”57 In her poem “The Freeman,” published at the turn of the century, Glasgow wrote that she found freedom by surrendering to despair: “Hope is a slave. Despair is a freeman.”58 Dorinda Oakley, the central protagonist in Glasgow's most acclaimed novel, Barren Ground, “was able to take risks” because “she had the courage of desperation and that had saved her from failure.”59
Harris could understand human suffering on an individual level, and (p.12) she certainly lived in desperate straits at a point in her life, but the general suffering of humanity was likely something she did not feel until the last years of her life. Her writing until then was void of genuine empathy for those beyond her immediate family, friends, and in some cases, neighbors. Dispassion, antipathy, and a judging attitude rather than compassion and empathy characterize her writings about human suffering. Possible reasons are examined primarily in Chapters 2 and 3 of this book. In part, a negative view of human nature explains her reactive ideas. Harris believed that the downward pull of human nature both directly and indirectly caused suffering.
Harris and Glasgow held similarly negative views about human nature, although they thought differently about the cause-and-effect relationship between human nature and cultural circumstance. Glasgow believed that circumstances brought out the worst in humans, while Harris believed volition to be the chief culprit, and individual responsibility the deciding factor, in people's fate. Because she believed herself to be a self-made woman, Harris defaulted most often to meritocracy. Her life proved to her satisfaction that there was nothing hard work, thrift, courage, and patience could not overcome. The fundamental difference in the way Harris and Glasgow viewed human nature may explain why Glasgow's understanding provoked empathy and a sense of kinship, while Harris's provoked fear and aversion.
Harris never let go of the belief that she was a self-made woman, that the hard-won liberty she gained from making her own money and bringing her family out of destitution in 1899 (when her writing career began) was the result of a Providence provoked to action by her driven spirit. She had, she believed, developed an “instinct for personal liberty,” which explained to her why she gained and kept it.60 Letters to her daughter especially are filled with determination never to be compromised again by any man or circumstance, always to have and hold on to the personal liberty she acquired from that pivotal experience in 1899.
Harris demonstrates how precarious the struggle to claim personal liberty was for women who felt ambivalent about aligning themselves actively with the feminist cause. For many women writers who came of age in the late nineteenth century or were born to the generation that came of age then, their works reveal a common experience of paradox, ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction. Whether or not works of any of the women writers merit “resurrecting” for their literary value, their messages of defiance, however veiled, make their writings valuable for further investigation. (p.13) “In rhetorical and aesthetic theory,” writes Joan Scott, “paradox is a sign of the capacity to balance complexly contrary thoughts and feelings and, by extension, poetic creativity.”61 If the contradictions and equivocations in Harris's works make her a challenging subject, her defiance, as it waxed and waned over time, makes the challenge worthwhile.
The historical context also helps to explain some of the contradictions in Harris's thinking. Harris was not alone in her confusion, stark as it could be at times, as it was a mark of the New South. C. Vann Woodward devoted an entire Chapters of Origins of the New South to “the divided mind of the South.”62 Harris came of age as a writer during an era deemed Progressive but which was, in the South more than anywhere, as much a reaction to potential progress as anything else.63 The strongest motive in progressive reforms in the South resulted from determination to retain race, class, and gender hierarchy, whatever the cost. Harris was part of a generation whose “fate” it was, Daniel Singal writes, “to be trapped in an intellectual no-man's land between the thought of two centuries, a position that sometimes augmented, but more often crippled, their final accomplishments.”64
Born shortly after the end of the Civil War to parents of the Old South, Harris was forced to find a way of being in the New South, itself a time and place marked by contradiction. She shared a “common dilemma” with others Singal calls “post-Victorians,” or the generation of southerners who came of age in the decades after the Civil War. Singal examines historian U. B. Phillips, economist Broadus Mitchell, and writer Ellen Glasgow to illustrate a point about the time in which they lived. The changes modernization brought inevitably resulted in contradictory thinking for any coming of age in its path, but it was especially so for southerners after the war, where defeat and devastation brought challenges not faced elsewhere in the country.
The changes required to modernize the South threatened everything southerners held sacred. Was it possible to industrialize while holding on to agrarian values? New South proponents took up the challenge, trying awkwardly, and ultimately failing, to pull the region out of the field and into the factory. They focused on the benefits of industrialization, namely, the material wealth to muscle the region back into a central role in the country's development, while catering to those who needed a Lost Cause as a means of holding on to a past that never existed.65 Veneration and glorification of the past was a safe outlet for a defeated people who needed something of the past to hold on to while they were being pushed toward a future that appeared frighteningly void of values. For people like Harris who questioned (p.14) both the inevitability and rightness of industrialization as well as the empty sentimentality of the Lost Cause, there was no alternative. They had to make it up as they went along.
Harris's works reflect someone borrowing eclectically from one mentor and then another, as did, in many ways, the “post-Victorians” whose legacies, unlike hers, have survived. Their legacies survive not because their proposed solutions to the ill effects of modernization and to the banal culture of the Lost Cause worked, and certainly not because they addressed race relations as the region and eventually the nation's most urgent problem, but rather because each of them has been considered among the first from the region to offer something new to their particular fields: Phillips, a new historical methodology; Mitchell, a class interpretation of the region's past; Glasgow, a Darwinian approach to the region's history. Harris offers another example of how her generation faced and tried to reconcile the dilemmas of modernity.
Telling the story of a person's life is a daunting task under any circumstances.66 “Actual lives are messy, often boring, and always plotless,” writes biographer Jay Parini.67 According to Mark Twain, biography is merely a facade. “What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words,” he wrote. “His real life is led in his head, and it is known to none but himself …. Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—the biography of the man himself cannot be written.”68 Nonetheless, this interpretation of Harris represents an effort to examine what Twain called her “real life,” the one she “led in [her] head.” Unlike Talmadge's fairly conventional biography of Harris, which covered her life chronologically, this one interprets chiefly her intellectual development.
Not generally sentimental, Harris could be so about her legacy. Among other evidences, she left explicit instructions for a memorial chapel to be built and maintained in her honor. But she hoped more than anything that her writings would safeguard her legacy. She wanted to be remembered as one whose words lived on to inspire, console, or enlighten—to be remembered, she told a reader, by “the effulgence of some sentence I have written, by which the very lonely, lost, and undone might find their way in the dark.”69 She discovered from readers' response to her first autobiography “how exactly alike we all are inside,” and although this realization did not fully undermine her prejudices, the seed of the insight that people are “exactly alike inside” fueled her questioning mind.70 The discovery from reader response that so much of her experience resonated with readers all over the country and beyond made Harris examine what it was that all humans (p.15) shared. That and extraordinarily eclectic, unorthodox religious ideals challenged her otherwise “extreme reactionary” opinions and help to explain many of the contradictions in her writing and her personality. Clearly, Harris hoped that her legacy would be her having conveyed with words the archetypal “human heart.” To the extent that she has one, her actual legacy beyond a few local admirers is as irresolute and contradictory as she was.71
A few years before her death, Harris wrote to Hamilton Holt that she wanted “to be remembered and loved a little” for providing an outlet for readers, for allowing them to “speak their hearts through me.” That was all she wanted in her “last years … and nothing at all afterwards—[except] to escape the brilliant damnation of modern biographers!”72 After a close call with Charles Dobbins, a biographer writing during her lifetime, who was not as careful with her story as she would have liked, it is not surprising that she expressed appreciation for biographers who protected “the feelings of the dead.”73
But Harris, in any case, did not care for flattery. “She despised flattery but loved praise,” a nephew said. “And she had a sixth sense that separated the two!”74 She was her own harshest critic, whether it was her work or her motives she critiqued. Harris could be disarmingly candid about both, and self-revealing, some might argue, to a fault. She had a passionate devotion to her family, to her friends, to words and ideas, to her beloved home, to Georgia, to the South, and to the country. More than a subject of history, she was in very many ways a “woman remarkable in her own right.”75
This interpretation of Harris's life seeks the balance suggested by Jacquelyn Hall, who wrote about “the importance of leavening politics with poetics. Politics demand that we choose a side, take a stand. Poetics demand that we hold seemingly contradictory beliefs at the same time, that we embrace multiple levels of meaning, that we think metaphorically … that we acknowledge the ways in which beauty and tragedy, good and evil are entwined.” Inviting us to consider the value of paradox, Hall writes: “The politics of history usually entail an Olympian stance toward our subjects, who cannot talk back, who are dead and gone. Poetics require a different stance, one that … implicates us in the history we write.”76 Or, one that requires the historical biographer to grapple with paradox, complication, and complexities of character—not to solve a riddle, but rather to gain an understanding of the processes people utilize in the effort to achieve meaning in their lives.
Finally, with regard to the book's organization, to borrow again from Mark Twain, not only is it impossible to tell more than a “wee little part” of (p.16) a life story, but there is no seamless way to tell even that small part. Readers who prefer chronological coverage will be disappointed with this book's thematic structure. A chronology that identifies pivotal events and publications is included. Chapters 2 examines traditional biographical details, family relationships, and events relevant to Harris's intellectual development and political ideology. The crucial role and abiding influence of editor Paul Elmer More, one of her first mentors, is the topic of Chapters 3. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 address the role of culture, especially gender, but also race, class, and other variables, in shaping Harris's political and social ideology and her strong sense of personal identity. Chapters 7 examines the role a writing career played in molding Harris, and Chapters 8 examines religion as a central and cohesive force in Harris's development.
(1.) W. F. Bigelow to CH, August 21, 1931, CHC.
(2.) CH, “Fiction, North and South,” 273.
(3.) CH to Mrs. Strong, April 22, 1922, and CH to Medora Perkerson, September 14, 1931, CHC. She wrote that the best of her writing was “poor stuff considered from the literary point of view.” HP, 7.
(p.186) (4.) Al Harris, speech at dedication of memorial chapel, June 5, 1936, CHC.
(5.) HH to CH, October 19, 1906, February 11 and 13, 1909, CHC. For an example of the sort of response Harris received see John C. Spangler to CH, October 7, 1906, unsigned letter to CH, October 18, 1906, and Joel Chandler Harris to CH, October 9, 1906, CHC.
(6.) PEM to CH, December 17, 1906, CHC. Paul More, one of Holt's coeditors and one of Harris's most influential mentors, was decidedly not a liberal thinker. More considered Holt a radical. More wrote Harris about Holt: “Take it all in all, our friend Holt is the mildest-mannered cut throat that ever herded with Socialists and anarchists.” HH to CH, October 26, 1906, CHC. In the years of their early association Holt would have been considered a “radical” compared with Harris's “extreme reactionary conservative” views.
(7.) HH to CH, October 26, 1906, CHC.
(8.) See Holt, “Circuit Rider's Wife,” 871. Parts of the article from 1924 (Holt, “A Circuit Rider's Wife in Literature”) show up verbatim in his speech he delivered in 1936 at the memorial services.
(9.) John Paschall, speech at dedication of memorial chapel, June 5, 1936, CHC.
(10.) CH, MBH, 12; M. M. Marshall, “Every Women”; CH, “The Walking Delegate Novelist,” 1913; Jack London to CH, September 17, 1906, CHC (excerpts from correspondence between Harris and London can be found in Ennis, “Circuit Rider's Wife”); Harvey Wickham to CH, December 6, 1926, CHC; CH to GHL, October 12, 1912, LP; Alfred Gibson to CH, June 11, 1931, CHC.
(11.) Dobbins, “Corra Harris,” 76. Though Dobbins was writing here specifically about Harris's religious ideas, the sentiments reflect his conclusions about her in general.
(12.) CH, MBH, 12.
(13.) CH to HH, April 23, 1931, CHC. She admits to her contradictory and inconsistent nature in many places. A letter to Paul More captures her awareness most succinctly. After writing a very unflattering image of what she perceived having her own children would do to her daughter, Faith, Harris confessed to Paul More that she knew her opinions where her daughter was concerned were “very inconsistent with the doctrines I preach about marriage, etc.—But who on earth ever made a doctrine for his own consumption? None but a fool or a crank!” CH to PEM, October 14, 1907, PEMP.
(14.) Mims, introduction to The Recording Angel.
(15.) Cash, Mind of the South, 115.
(16.) Brinkley, “American Conservatism,” 409.
(17.) CH, “Answers to Correspondents,” Atlanta Journal, October 3, 1934; Talmadge, Corra Harris, 6, 122–29.
(18.) HH to CH, October 26, 1906, CHC. For a treatment of Holt's role in establishing the national reputation of the Independent and for the reach of the magazine, see Hitchens, “Peace.” Also see editorial, Independent, January 3, 1907, 51. Quote on the Independent as “the best weekly in the country” from Dakin, Paul Elmer More, 87, 98.
(19.) CH, HP, 174.
(20.) For an example of such critiques see CH, “Heroes and Heroines in Fiction” and “Neurotic Symptoms in Recent Fiction.” Harris published in the Independent throughout the 1910s with increasing insight into the ill effects of the New South creed and Lost (p.187) Cause mythology on southern literature. The quote about Dixie as a time and place that “never existed” came from a later article, “The South,” 177. Harris's most direct criticism of the Lost Cause is found in “Patriotic Criticism in the South.”
(21.) For critiques of Harris as southern critic, see Ayers, Promise of the New South, 105, 168, 173, 335; Mixon, “Traditionalist and Iconoclast”; P. Schmidt, “Harris's The Recording Angel”; Simms, “Corra Harris on the Decline of Southern Writing,” “Corra Harris, William Peterfield Trent, and Southern Writing,” and “Corra Harris on ‘Literalism’ in Fiction.”
(22.) CH to FHL, June 22, 1917, CHC. When two male instructors from the University of Georgia visited Harris in the 1930s to offer “some liberal views on the Negro question, she set them right with a lecture they still remembered thirty years later.” Talmadge, Corra Harris, 141.
(23.) Bradbury, Renaissance in the South, 9. See Baym, Woman's Fiction, and Tompkins, Sensational Design, for examples of some who have rehabilitated the genre.
(24.) Bingham and Underwood, Southern Agrarians, 6, 15, 16. Kreyling and Yaeger are among literary scholars showing concern for the political implications of the Agrarians' writings.
(25.) See Inge, “Fugitives and Agrarians,” for more on the relationship between Fugitives and Agrarians.
(26.) On the Southern Renaissance and the role of the Southern Agrarians see Bradbury, Renaissance in the South; Conkin, The Southern Agrarians; Danbom, “Romantic Agrarianism”; Grammar, “Reconstructing Southern Literature”; King, A Southern Renaissance; Kreyling, Inventing Southern Literature; and Singal, The War Within.
(27.) Cobb, Away Down South, 117, 121.
(28.) Julius Rowan Raper also credits the Harlem Renaissance with helping “prepare the soil” for the Southern Renaissance. Glasgow's Reasonable Doubt, 87n14.
(29.) Bingham and Underwood, Southern Agrarians, 6, 15, 16.
(30.) A. G. Jones, “Women Writers,” 278; Fought, Southern Womanhood and Slavery.
(31.) For studies examining women and the Agrarian movement, see Caldwell, “Glasgow and the Southern Agrarians”; Manning, “Agrarianism, Female-Style.”
(32.) Bradbury, Renaissance in the South, 3.
(33.) Manning, “Southern Women Writers,” 243–44. Hall utilizes Pierre Bourdieu's work defining an intellectual field as one that stretches well beyond the “tradition of ‘formal readings’” to include a “semi-autonomous ‘space of possibilities.’”; Hall, “Women Writers,” 9.
(34.) Manning, “Southern Women Writers,” 243–44.
(35.) “The material history they examined, the imaginative perspective from which they viewed it,” writes LeRoy-Frazier from her analysis of Kentucky/Tennessee author Caroline Gordon, “and the literary and cultural conclusions they drew often differed radically from what has come to be perceived as the quintessential Southern Renaissance confrontation between old and new.” “Saving Southern History,” 62.
(36.) Manning, “The Real Beginning,” 40. Anne Firor Scott writes about the value of women's “fiction of dissent” in “Women in the South,” 31.
(37.) Manning, “Southern Women Writers,” 247.
(p.188) (38.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 45.
(39.) Chopin, The Awakening, 893.
(40.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 24–45.
(42.) Manning in “The Real Beginning” cites Clara Juncker, “Grace King: Feminist, Southern Style,” 48.
(43.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 235.
(44.) J. W. Scott, Only Paradoxes, 3, 5, 11.
(45.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 275.
(47.) J. R. Raper, “Ellen Glasgow,” 128.
(48.) Glasgow, The Woman Within; CH, MBH and AWT.
(49.) CH, “Patriotic Criticism in the South,” 549. Harris was writing about Glasgow's novel The Deliverance (1904).
(50.) Kaufman, “Ellen Glasgow,” 48. Anne Jones writes about internal conflict, paradox, and irresolution in Glasgow's life and writings in Tomorrow Is Another Day, 260–65.
(51.) Skaggs, “Ellen Glasgow,” 336.
(52.) CH, AWT, 247.
(53.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 236.
(54.) Skaggs, “Ellen Glasgow,” 342.
(55.) A. G. Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day, 265.
(56.) CH, “Robin Hood Roosevelt,” CHC.
(57.) Glasgow, The Woman Within, 241, 271, 295.
(58.) Glasgow, The Freeman, 13–14.
(59.) Glasgow, Barren Ground, 269.
(60.) CH to FHL, 1916, box 7, folder 9, CHC.
(61.) J. W. Scott, Only Paradoxes, 3–5, 11. Scott explains why “paradox, contradiction, and ambiguity” have been and remain central defining elements in women's struggle for equality.
(62.) Woodward, Origins of the New South, 142–74.
(63.) For different views of the Progressive Era see Hofstadter, The Age of Reform; Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism; and Abrams and Levine, Shaping of Twentieth-Century America. Other general works on the era include Hays, The Response to Industrialism; Wiebe, The Search for Order; and Hawley, The Great War. For a look at the competing ideologies, see Conn, The Divided Mind; Lears, No Place of Grace; and Susman, Culture as History. For a treatment of the complexity and paradoxical nature of labor reform for women see Kessler-Harris, Out to Work; and Woloch, Muller v. Oregon.
(64.) Singal, The War Within, 36.
(65.) For the active role women played in the Lost Cause see Whites, “Stand by Your Man,” 137.
(66.) For works on the art and practice of writing biography and the questions postmodern analysis has brought to the genre, see Alpern et al., Challenge of Feminist Biography; Ascher, DeSalvo, and Ruddick, Between Women; Carol Brightman, “Character in Biography,” Nation, February 13, 1995, 206–10; Hall, “‘You Must Remember This’”; Iles, (p.189) All Sides of the Subject; Nye, The Invented Self; Painter, “Writing Biographies of Women”; Parini, “Biography”; and Stanley, “Biography as Microscope.”
(67.) Parini, “Biography,” A72.
(68.) Twain, Complete Works, 1:2.
(69.) CH to George Fitzpatrick, October 6, 1933, photocopy provided by Mr. Jodie Hill of Marietta, Georgia.
(70.) CH to GHL, November 3, 1923, LP.
(71.) The Corra Harris Garden Club started in 2000 in Cartersville, Georgia, boasts the largest membership of any garden club in the state. Visit with Marilee Henson, president of the Corra Harris Garden Club, and Jodie Hill, current owner of the Harris home place, In the Valley, July 29, 2006. Hill bought the property in the mid-1990s and restored it as nearly as possible to what he could ascertain was the state it was in when Harris died in 1935.
(72.) CH to HH, April 23, 1931, CHC.
(73.) CH, untitled “Candlelit” column, Atlanta Journal, August 19, 1932. Dobbins wrote a master's thesis at Columbia University about Harris in 1931. CH to Medora Perkerson June 15, September 14, 1931, and Charles Dobbins to CH, June 18, 1931, CHC, reveal some of Harris's discontent. Chiefly, she was not happy that Dobbins exposed family secrets about her husband's suicide attempts and revisited her works from the “hot days of my youth on the negro question.” However, once the biography came out in the Journal and was “so well received,” Harris wrote Perkerson that “The thing is not so bad, really creditable, especially the quotations from the works of Corra Harris.” Afterward she felt “a bit ashamed of my resentment” at what she initially regarded as his betrayal. CH to Medora Perkerson, September 14, November 21, 1931, CHC.
(74.) Al Harris, speech at dedication of memorial chapel, June 5, 1936, CHC.
(75.) Edwards, foreword to CRW, xxvii.
(76.) Hall, “‘You Must Remember This,’” 441–42.