Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow (2020)

Wallach, Jennifer Jensen. Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008. 192p bibl index, ISBN 9780820337029 eBook, $13.77)

Jennifer Jenson Wallach ambitiously illustrates the varying complexities in thoughts of the Jim Crow South and its shared experiences through the lens of literary memoirists and social historians in Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow. Wallach brings the reader along the journey of what history versus memoir means to retell one of the most racially charged eras in American history while also highlighting that fact versus memory can create unity and division in the narrative. The book’s central thesis is that despite shared proximity and commonality with southern racial and race relations heritage, Jim Crow’s experience cannot be explained or retold with one monolithic principle. This phenomenon happens regardless of historical facts or events recalled via memory.

Throughout the book, Wallach introduces six authors’ ideas and experiences about the south based on southern and periodical civil rights experiences. In part, Wallach does an excellent job presenting this thesis based on the conversations and narratives she collects within each chapter presented. Chapter One establishes the thesis in the discussion regarding the subjectivity versus the experience of history. She even explains the complexities of the narrative by stating that “there is a certain amount of tension between historical monographs, which claim to describe a particular time period objectively, and autobiographies, which can only meaningfully claim to document the peculiarities of one life” (p.13).

In Chapter Two, Wallach explores literary devices used in memoir and autobiographical work that often bridges the narrative between historical fact and memory. She emphasizes that “the creative writer’s use of symbols, literary language, irony, metaphors, and allegory enables her or him to describe more accurately how a complex historical reality looked, smelled, sounded and felt” (p. 55). Chapter Three and Four collectively examine the perspective of the Jim Crow South’s experiences between black and white authors and historians. At this point, Wallach even realizes that ethnicity and experience also play a role in the retelling of shared experience and can influence the way a memoirist or autobiographer expresses their account.

In the final chapter of the book, Wallach recounts the experiences of each author and historian presented within the text and reflects why each author’s adaptation of the Jim Crow south was uniquely contributory to the body of southern heritage discussion. She also closes out the discussion supporting her thesis by explaining that “the social and emotional reality of Jim Crow exists solely from the standpoint of the historical agents who created and sustained it, and an understanding of this reality is unattainable without recognizing their distinct individual perspectives” (p.154).

Wallach demonstrates strength in Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow by presenting diverse examples of writers with a relationally shared experience and providing historical context to those experiences and how and why they arrived at given points. Also, Wallach does an exemplary job in explaining the memoirist and historian relationship. Naturally, Wallach’s weakness in the book pertains to the lack of a conclusive perspective of the Jim Crow south experience. Other weaknesses presented with Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow include the dynamic of only featuring black and white authors and their experiences with the Jim Crow South. Lastly, highlighting the stereotypical black experience when retelling Jim Crow southern history outside of the minority account presents itself as a weakness for the book.

Overall, I believe Wallach’s Closer to the Truth Than Any Fact: Memoir, Memory, and Jim Crow is a great reference book regarding exploring the experiences of such a pivotal and life-altering era known as Jim Crow. Should Wallach continue further exploration on Jim Crow’s topic, it would be impactful also to include the narrative of authors and contributors of different cultural backgrounds outside of the traditional scope. Also, the effects of Jim Crow outside of the United States’ southern region would be another area where Wallach could explore. It is naïve to report the south’s story as the majority prejudiced area in the United States. Moreover, other reflections and historical accounts must be included so that Wallach and other memoir and historical enthusiasts can add those contributions to the conversation.