April 5, 2011

King: our only possession in life

On April 5, 1890, Harper's Bazaar published "The Self-Made Man" by Louisiana native Grace King. One of her earliest works (which she never republished in her later career), the simple sketch features a narrator who meets a professor who is clearly proud of his self-education. The conversation in the hotel where they meet is dominated by the man, who explains his mediocre life in detail. Often in his long monologue, he finds ways to criticize or disparage his wife and praise himself as superior. When his wife finally appears in the story, she is sensitive and refined — and ironically unappreciated by her self-possessed husband. King, then, satirizes the concept of the "self-made man," implying that achievements seem to omit humble beginnings and, most importantly, make us forget humility in general.

The story lacks the decidedly Southern color of King's later works, particularly her famous Balcony Stories (1893). Like her contemporary Kate Chopin, King was known for her depictions of Creole life. One critic referred to her stories as being "like pictures in their vivid intensity."

In contrast to her professor character, King was born into an aristocratic Southern family, though they were later impoverished by the Civil War. Her 1932 autobiography, Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, begins:

The past is our only real possession in life. It is the one piece of property of which time cannot deprive us; it is our own in a way that nothing else in life is. It never leaves our consciousness. In a word, we are our past; we do not cling to it, it clings to us.

*For the information in this post, I turned to Grace King: A Southern Destiny (1983) by Robert Bush.

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