SHIRLEY ABBOTT — Feminist Daughter of the South

SHIRLEY ABBOTT — Feminist Daughter of the South

By Eleanor J. Bader

We’ve come a long way in examining the mother-daughter relationship but still need to examine the father-daughter relationship.

Once ashamed of her roots, a white Arkansan now sees them as a source of pride and strength

First, there was Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South (Ticknor & Fields, 1983), Shirley Abbott’s stupendous memoir of growing up in 1940s’Arkansas, a daughter of Southern womanhood, writing a book about people who are tough, calculating and alternately sweet, simple and smart. Now, there is The Bookmaker’s Daughter (Ticknor & Fields, 1991), a more personal book, looking at the fatherdaughter bond and the way manhood’s reach affects those in its orbit. Both books are staggeringly beautiful tributes, critical and focused, honest and forthright.

“I came to New York in 1956, just out of college,” she tells me, traces of her Southern roots still evident in her speech. “First I worked at Henry Holt and Company. I forget what I was called, something as lofty as editorial assistant. Then I applied for a Fulbright. I got it and went to France. I came back besotted with French culture and started grad school at Columbia, intending to get a Master’s in French. I thought I’d teach. But one day, while sitting in the grad lounge, I realized I didn’t want to teach French. So I left, never completing the degree. It was a wonderful year, reading French literature, but it wasn’t going to advance any career goals.”

Tentatively reaching for a toehold into the world of letters, Abbott took a job at Horizon Magazine, a brand new publication devoted to history and the arts. She stayed at Horizon until 1976, leaving shortly before the magazine folded, and after climbing the rungs from fact checker to photo researcher to editor. “I loved the job,” she says. “To work at a job where you get an education every day is a rare, rare thing. It was there that I learned my craft as an editor and eventually as a writer. All my life, since childhood, I had wanted to be a writer.

“As a child I scribbled and wrote all the time, but I had no idea what it meant to be a writer. I didn’t know you had to have something to write about, a material within you to draw on. It never occurred to me that my own background could be my material.

“I was a white woman from Arkansas. When you said you were from Arkansas in the late 1950s, people saw Little Rock. They saw Governor Faubus closing the schools rather than admit Black children and they saw Eisenhower bringing in the National Guard. The integration of Carter High was a watershed in my life. It asked me which side I was on.

“I went to see my parents in the summer of 1957, after the Guard had reopened the schools so that those 12 Black children could be led in. The rage I saw around me, in people who had until then spoken in sweet Southern voices….Here they were, offering to go out in the streets with guns. I had never been confronted with this kind of racism before. I looked around ! and said, ‘I hate this place. I want no more to do with this.’ It became hard to admit where I came from. New Yorkers would look at me and ask when I attended my last lynching. The racism of the North hadn’t been brought to my attention yet.”

Instead, Abbott got caught up in the magic, the literary glitter with which New York’s reputation is gilded. Part of the allure was the allure of the city, something fueled by Abbott’s father’s tales of life in Chicago, a place where art was accessible to the masses, where theaters brought famous actors to the stage, where music of all kinds was available. Not wanting to replicate his experience, Abbott sought Eastern shores. “New York was where publishing was. I knew a lot of writers lived here and I thought if I was around writers I’d become one. New York in those days, the 1950s and ’60s, was still a very romantic place. When I saw Washington Square I went out of my mind. This was it.

“Still, I went for years thinking my background was unmentionable. It was a long, painful process. I didn’t just wake up and say ‘Oh, I’ll write about my background.’ I started writing Womenfolks with the idea of interviewing women like Rosalyn Carter and Loretta Lynn. But I realized this was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about Southern women I knew, my mother and my Aunt Laura, the woman who sent me the mandate to find out who we were and where we came from. Laura had moved to Oregon when she was around 40 and had begun to think about the culture of Arkansas while she was there. She was a waitress, she did whatever. I got in touch with her when my mother was dying and she started writing to me. After Mother died, Aunt Laura and I continued to correspond. She told me about the Cherokees in our background. Laura went and did the genealogy, not completely, but she sent me the fruits of her research. She literally said to me ‘Now, this life we came out of is unique. You find out how. You’re in New York with that great library and you can do the research.’ She was the major impetus for that book.”

Still, Abbott says that writing the book took tremendous effort, effort centered around accepting her roots as central to her being. “It was like dragging a reluctant actor out on stage. I was the actor and I was also doing the pulling. But I believe this is a kind of metaphor for the experience of many women, for the experience of writing women’s history. In my generation it was a struggle for women to admit that what they knew was worth knowing and saying. That’s the most important thing the feminist movement brought me: We finally began to say “What I know is worth something. It’s worthwhile to examine our feelings.'”

Nonetheless, receiving validation for these insights did not come easily. Although Abbott had secured a contract from Random House to write Womenfolks, when the editors saw that the workin-progress was centered as much on regular folks as on famous Southern women, they nixed the deal. Abbott recalls feeling crushed by this rug being pulled from under her. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be a writer. I’m dead.’ I had no resilience at all. But my agent helped me stop despairing. She said it might take a while, but she’d find a publisher.” Luckily, an editor at Ticknor & Fields was interested in Southern writing.

His enthusiastic response helped Abbott complete Womenfolks, but still there were ghosts to contend with. Although her father died in 1966 and her mother in 1968, neither parent’s impact on her was fully clarified until more than a decade later. “When I moved to New York I would tell myself I wasn’t listening to my father anymore. I was an independent person. My mother wasn’t running my life, I was. You have to do that. When my father died, I was so happy to be rid of him and his complaining, his making me feel guilty, his making my mother miserable. I was sorry to lose my mother. We’d come to an agreement. But I didn’t think about her much until I had children of my own and suddenly it was as if she was sitting in every chair in the house. I thought, ‘How did this sneak up on me?’

“It contributed to my writing the first book, this need to sort this out before it overwhelmed me, not in the sense that it was driving me crazy, but the feelings you have when you have children put you in one ethical dilemma after another. The kid misbehaves, how am I going to deal with it? Will I ignore it? Will I walk out of the room? Will I punish him? You can’t not deal with it. I got interested in where my ideas were coming from. Why did I feel so guilty about going to work when I knew if I didn’t we’d be living on a street corner? I had to think it through.

“But I still was not thinking very much about my father. After I had written Womenfolks and was thinking about what to do next, I tried a novel but it wasn’t very good. Somehow, at that time, my father came back into my life and sort of demanded my attention. Perhaps it was because I was having a hard time with my husband and I was worried about how my daughters would be fathered. I suddenly realized my own father was not gone. I found myself thinking day-in and day-out, reading till my eyes fell out, living my life as if it were one long book. Suddenly the pun about the bookmaker came to me.”

Hat Abbott, Shirley’s father, was a reader and would-be scholar who made his money taking bets on horses and paying off the winnings — bookmaking. Controlling and needy, he was also loving and gentle with his only child. “I remembered how he kept telling me that he didn’t want a son, he wanted me. I realized how important and wonderful that was. He was bad and miserable in so many ways, but he valued me because I was his daughter. Not that it gave me a mandate for self confidence. I don’t have the habit of command. I’m always doubting and questioning myself and what I do or say. Still, it seems that under the good and creative influence of the women’s movement, we’ve come a long way in examining the mother-daughter relationship but still need to examine the fatherdaughter relationship.

“My mother got such a bad deal out of life,” she adds. “None of her dreams came true. I have a feeling of regret about her. She would have liked an education. But I feel at peace with them both, at least as much as a person feels at peace about anything.”

Meanwhile, Abbott has attempted to introduce both her children to Southern life and culture. “I return South quite a lot, just to visit. I’ve learned that Arkansas is not just the home of the racist. If people understood Arkansas better, they’d understand the U.S. better. People there are courageous, honest, and generally speaking, it’s hard to find better people. They’re so sweet. They don’t mistrust you because you’re from someplace else. And they have really interesting things to say. This is a state that has never had money, a kind of colony that produces agricultural products that are shipped to other places. It’s the developing world.”

Does she ever think of returning? “I’m afraid New York is home now,” she laughs. “I think sometimes, ‘I should leave.’ It’s heartbreaking to confront the dirt, decay, homelessness and polarization between the classes. New York is getting to be like Northern Ireland. Sometimes I think it’s time to go home, to get a teaching job at the University of Arkansas if they offered me one. In some ways I feel it as an obligation, to see a bunch of kids, who are thinking like I did: ‘How can I get out of this?’ and talk to them.”

Such a move, however, seems unlikely. Abbott is presently a medical writer in the New York office of the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter. There four days a week, “that extra day” gives her enough time to work on her own writing. Current plans? “I’m working on a number of assignments that arose out of The Bookmaker’s Daughter,” she says.

Another book? I ask. Abbott just smiles. Is it politeness? Southern reserve? Her characteristic down-to-earth humility? “I need to spend a few weeks thinking about that,” she says. I, for my part, will wait, eager to read whatever gem next appears from her font of creativity.

Homeplaces, those complex locales filled with joy and pain, confusion and straightout fact, are the fodder for Mary Ellis Gibson’s excellent anthology, Stories of the South by Women Writers. Here, 18 short stories by eight writers, four African-American and four white, allow us to peek into psyches and souls, hearts and minds, of families and friendship networks. Along the way, attitudes — on race, sex, coming of age, violence, death, you name it, it’s all here — are put to the test and scrutinized. But the lens through which perceptions are filtered is Southern, and invariably, delightfully, skewed.

In her introduction, Ellis Gibson writes that she agrees with Reynolds Price’s observation that “if any single characteristic distinguishes Southern literature from the literature of other regions, it is the importance of race.”

Nowhere is race, or racism, more poignantly described than in Opal Moore’s “A Pilgrim Notebook.” Ben, an emigre to the American North, returns to his place of birth to witness, 31 years after the fact, his football buddy’s induction into their college’s Hall of Fame. “The past is never past,” he muses. “The past is like one of those big redwoods. You cut off the top and leave what you can’t get at. Even safe inside his car, safe inside his era, he’s felt as if he were running — only steps ahead of some ancestor African — disoriented, afraid, rough feet clouded in red dust, running in circles. He’s sworn that he would never return to Mississippi. But in the end, it didn’t matter. The world was Mississippi.”

Like Ben, Sarah, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s oft-anthologized “A Sudden Tri p Home in the Spring,” is aware, always, of her outsider status. An art student, her work involves carving the faces of women, strangers and kin, and ignoring the myriad countenances of men. Suddenly, upon returning home, she understands why: It is the face of defeat that she cannot bear to replicate.

But it is not only women of color who write about race. Elizabeth Spencer’s 1987 story, “The Business Venture,” like the previously cited two, looks racism squarely in the eye, but from the mindset of a white, upwardly mobile, middleclass constituency. Here, NelleTownsend does the purportedly impossible. A single woman, she starts a dry cleaning business with the help of Robin, a Black male. While tongues wag, race and gender issues are brilliantly intertwined: “Just that they’re saying things about Nelle and that Black, Robin, works for her,” says one member of the group. “Well, they’re in the same business,” I venture. “Whatever it is, people don’t like it. They say she goes out to his house after dark. That they spend too much time over the books….Nelle’s gotten too independent is the thing,” said Pete. “She thinks she can live her own life.”

Living one’s own life, in some cases copying the manners and mannerisms of the community and eschewing rebellion, as in two of Shirley Ann Grau’s stories. “Flight” and “One Summer,” or living a life more-or-less of one’s own invention, as in Molly Best Tinsley’s “Zne” or Elizabeth Spencer’s “First Dark,” is the imperative of Homeplaces. And it is an i perative that works.

Homeplaces is an ambitious book, one that reflects changing politics and changing social mores. “As the South has been redefined by urbanization, suburbanization, changes in women’s roles, integration and the continuing struggle against racism, Southern writers have taken the measure of these changes,” writes Ellis Gibson. Homeplaces proves her correct, and is a must-read for anyone interested in the burgeoning genre of Southern women’s fiction. —E.J.B

HOMEPLACES: Stories of the South by Women Writers edited by Mary Ellis Gibson (University of South Carolina Press; $29.95 hardcover, $14.95 paperback)

© 1998 2010 On The Issues.