Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact
Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow

Jennifer Jensen Wallach

How should historians use autobiography?


"Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact is a quietly but uncommonly ambitious work . . . . I look forward to periodically rereading it and wrestling with its conclusions."
Journal of American History

"Wallach's lucidly written essay offers much food for thought, both for scholars of history and life writing and for general readers trying to recapture the flavor of the past."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Historians and particularly history students will find many valuable insights in this book. Wallach lays out a theoretical framework for understanding memoirs as source material and then does an excellent job of putting that theory into practice."
—Steve Estes, author of I am a Man: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement

"Wallach's interdisciplinary training allows her to demonstrate how attention to language, symbolism, allegory, and other literary devices can uncover more historically relevant content in a memoir than a mere surface reading would allow. This is a well-written and well-argued response to a single question: How should historians handle literary memoirs as historical sources?"
—Jennifer Ritterhouse, author of Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race

Readers of Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact—and they should be legion—will be treated to two books in one. Jennifer Jensen Wallach provides both a plea for the unique importance of literary memoirs and an insightful analysis of six memoirs, all of which focus on the South of segregation . . . Anyone interested in the segregated South or who assigns these memoirs to students will profit from Wallach’s skillful and complex reading of them.
Journal of American Ethnic History

"Singularly sensitive, well argued, and closely attuned to the many manifestations of southern rage."
Journal of Southern History

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Although historians frequently use memoirs as source material, too often they confine such usage to the anecdotal, and there is little methodological literature regarding the genre’s possibilities and limitations. This study articulates an approach to using memoirs as instruments of historical understanding. Jennifer Jensen Wallach applies these principles to a body of memoirs about life in the American South during Jim Crow segregation, including works by Zora Neale Hurston, Willie Morris, Lillian Smith, Henry Louis Gates Jr., William Alexander Percy, and Richard Wright.

Wallach argues that the field of autobiography studies, which is currently dominated by literary critics, needs a new theoretical framework that allows historians, too, to benefit from the interpretation of life writing. Her most provocative claim is that, due to the aesthetic power of literary language, skilled creative writers are uniquely positioned to capture the complexities of another time and another place. Through techniques such as metaphor and irony, memoirists collectively give their readers an empathetic understanding of life during the era of segregation. Although these reminiscences bear certain similarities, it becomes clear that the South as it was remembered by each is hardly the same place.

Page count: 192 pp.
Trim size: 6 x 9


List price: $42.95

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List price: $22.95

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Jennifer Jensen Wallach is an associate professor of history at the University of North Texas. She has also taught at Georgia College and State University and Stonehill College.