Book Reviews - Summer 2019

Southern Secrets

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Three very different women haunted by the past

By Nancy Isenberg | June 3, 2019
Grace and Katharine Lumpkin. The sisters, each in her own way, reacted to the South’s Lost Cause mythology.
Grace and Katharine Lumpkin. The sisters, each in her own way, reacted to the South’s Lost Cause mythology.

Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall; Norton, 690 pp., $39.95

Why should we care about three sisters who never achieved lasting fame? Elizabeth, Grace, and Katharine Du Pre Lumpkin are largely unknown today. None of them married a president. They weren’t heiresses of Gilded Age tycoons or stars of the silver screen. Although contemporaries of Amelia Earhart, they did not make headlines by flying off on daring adventures. Their stories were not even tragic in the classical sense—they did not die young.

But the Lumpkin sisters do matter, because their lives tell a regional tale of southern female identity. Born in the New South during the late 19th century, they were raised in a highly literate family devoted to Lost Cause mythology, which celebrated the Confederacy as a noble defense of a way of life. Although the eldest, Elizabeth, became a recognizable southern matron, the two other sisters charted distinctly different paths: Grace made a name for herself as Communist labor activist and writer; Katharine pursued an academic career, becoming a pioneer in southern women’s history.

The real story here concerns the difficulty that these educated women had in breaking free from their troubled relationship to the South. The Lumpkins present an uncomfortable mixture of rebellion and acceptance: rebellion against southern racism and the requirement of female subordination; acceptance of the conservative notion that it’s a woman’s duty to protect her family’s honor. Though Grace and Katharine fled to the North and became outspoken political critics and sexual radicals (and even the more conservative Elizabeth craved the public stage as an orator and actor), none of them escaped the weight of the past. Family secrets haunted these women, no matter how far they ranged from their southern roots. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s triple biography conveys the tortured feeling of a southern novel, for one reason: the sisters never truly freed themselves from the powerful hold of the family’s patriarch, William Lumpkin.

Having lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, William Lumpkin imbued his seven children with the lore of the family’s antebellum plantation grandeur. When the Lumpkins moved from Georgia to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1898, he aimed to find the ideal neighborhood and send his children to the right schools. He trained them to exploit their education, social connections, and especially their imaginations so as to stand out wherever they went. Two sons entered politics, another the Episcopal ministry. For their part, the daughters sought literary fame. Their individual reactions to their upbringing may have differed, but the common denominator was making a name for themselves as southerners.

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