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The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > First-Person Narratives of the American South

[Detail] Hezekiah J. Crumpton and Washington B. Crumpton.

Introductions and Prefaces | Letters | Memoirs and Autobiographies | Diaries | Public Oration

The materials in First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920, lend themselves well to a study of American rhetoric and prose. Indeed, the years covered by the collection are from a unique period in American letters -- just before radio, television, and other modern means of communication changed the literary landscape. Like the rest of the country, southerners wrote letters, kept diaries, delivered speeches, and composed memoirs, all of which abound in the collection. Though each form offers different advantages to a researcher, all forms were part of a tradition of personal, reflective writing at the height of its popularity.

Introductions and Prefaces: Establishing the Truth

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century reading audiences were as attracted to true or real-life stories as are today's audiences. Many of the collection's narratives include an introduction or preface that defend the work's veracity. Because so many of the collection's documents contain an introduction or preface, readers can simply browse under Subject Index headings of their choice to find interesting examples. These documents-within-documents establish a contemporary perspective on the work that helps to place the document more clearly in the context of its reading audience.

In most cases, a well-respected member of the author's community wrote the preface. Of course, in some cases, the author, posing as a third party, may have written the introduction to his or her own work. For instance, the author of the introduction to Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, identified only as a "Friend of the South," testifies to his limited role in the publication of the infamous Confederate spy's life story:

I took the manuscript, promising to look it over, and return it with an estimate of its merits. I have done so; and hence the publication of "Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison." The work is entirely her own, with the exception of a few suggestions in the shape of footnotes - the simple, unambitious narrative of an enthusiastic and intrepid schoolgirl, who had not yet seen her seventeenth summer when the cloud of war darkened her land, changing all the music of her young life, her peaceful "home, sweet home," into the bugle blasts of battle, into scenes of death and most tumultuous sorrow.

Pages 2-3, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison

  • Why do you think that the preface assures that "the work is entirely her (the author's) own"?
  • What is the preface author's tone in this passage? How might it influence a reader's expectations and reactions to the narrative?
  • What methods might a researcher use to find out if Belle Boyd wrote her own introduction?
  • What segment of Belle's reading audience would have been interested in her book's introductory statement? Why?
  • How are introductions different today?
  • How do modern writers, performers, and artists seek to establish authenticity?

A great number of the documents in the collection are memoirs and autobiographies that were published decades after the events that they describe. The introductions to these works generally include statements that argue the work's value, describe its composition, and extol the author's virtues.

Notable among these documents are the Memoirs of W. W. Holden, the introduction to which informs the reader that the narrative was dictated following an attack of paralysis which soon after killed the author. David Johnston's The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War is introduced by a Methodist minister who informs the reader that, although now friendly neighbors, the two men served on opposite sides during the war. Bethany Veney's narrative, introduced by the Rev. Bishop Mallalieu, offers the ex-slave's story as an example of the evils that slavery necessarily entails.

  • How might the knowledge that a memoir was dictated after an attack of paralysis and just before the author's death affect one's reading of it?
  • What is the effect of prefacing a story about the Civil War with a message of reconciliation? Why might the writer or publisher have decided to do this?
  • What might be the differences between an introduction to a living author's work and an introduction to a deceased author's work?
  • Why might the author of an introduction want to tell the reading audience about him- or herself?
  • What types of documents would include didactic introductions?
  • What types of documents would be more likely not to have an introduction or a preface?