Of Genteel Hardness.
L. W. D.
Vol. 12, No. 5, 1990, p. 16
Ely, An Autobiography, by Ely Green. Foreword by Bertram Wyatt Brown, Introduction by Lillian Smith, Afterword by Arthur Ben Chitty. (University of Georgia Press, 1990, xxiv, 246 pages.).
Here is a book that can be read for any number of reasons, beginning with simple pleasure. The present edition is a third incarnation. The first was published by Seabury Press in 1966, with Lillian Smith’s introduction. It was followed in 1970 from the University of Massachusetts Press by Ely, Too Black, Too White, edited and with a foreword by Elizabeth N. and Arthur Ben Chity (the latter having been the book’s discoverer and patron).
Unlike either the 1966 edition or this present one, that of 1970 was of Mr. Green’s whole autobiography. He had lived his first two decades in and around Sewanee, Tennessee. That time is the subject of this edition. In 1912, he fled in fear of his life to Texas. He lived there end elsewhere until 1968. Late in life, this semi-literate man began writing his memoirs. He wrote with a wonderful sense of composition, actions and feelings both tautly expressed. The post-Tennessee part is triple the length of this. I have not read it. Having now read Ely, An Autobiography, I am resolved to do so presently.
There may be no ocher place anywhere quite like Sewanee, and at the turn of the century when Ely Green was a boy and then a young man it was no less distinctive. Ely’s father was of the white elite–and most of the town seems to have known his identity; his mother was a black housemaid. Hence the title of the University of Massachusetts edition. Neither the place nor person is, therefore, typical, and so the reader becomes primarily absorbed in this remarkable man’s recollection of his growing up, of his realization of self within a society that gave him no identity, or none that he would accept. But because he did live within the black society, the book is also revelatory of the hardness of that, even in what may well have been the most genteel spot in the South.–L.W.D.