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Unsentimental Biographer
Hubert McAlexander chronicles the lives, times and works of two Southern authors

by Kathleen Cason


Intro  |  A Mississippi lady  |  Writing a writer's life  |  
Patience and Fortitude

McAlexander's biography of little-known Mississippi writer Sherwood Bonner (1849-1883) is a page-turner. Disappointed by marriage and motherhood, Bonner deserts her husband and daughter to become a writer in Boston. Her story includes a remarkable circle of friends, a stint as secretary to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a divorce, hints of an affair and death at a young age.

Bonner's best work

Like Unto Like (1878)

Short Stories
Suwanee River Tales
(1884, reissued 1972)
Dialect Tales and Other Stories
(1883, reprinted 1990)


Hubert McAlexander never set out to be a biographer.

For nearly as long as he could remember, he wanted to teach English. It was a logical choice for him, given the influence of a "splendid English teacher" in his hometown of Holly Springs, Miss. — a hamlet tucked between Memphis and Oxford, between the birthplace of the blues and the home of William Faulkner.

Becoming a biographer was just chance.

The idea took root when McAlexander was preparing a review for a scholarly journal. The UGA English professor discovered that biographical sketches of 19th century Southern writer Sherwood Bonner were meager and often erroneous.

On the one hand, he considered putting the record straight. On the other, he wondered how many biographies of this minor author the world really needed.

Certainly one good one, he decided.

The result was a page-turner — the story of a well-heeled Southern lady who came of age in Mississippi during the Civil War. Disappointed by marriage and motherhood, she deserted her husband, abandoned her infant daughter and fled to Boston to pursue a literary career. Moderately successful as a writer, her story includes a remarkable circle of friends, a stint as secretary to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a divorce, hints of an affair and death at a young age.

"I hate to say this but biography was what I was made to do," McAlexander said.

And he was especially made to tell this particular story. McAlexander used his knowledge of Southern literature, his knack for crafting a good tale and a lifelong interest in history, family and culture to pen a gripping biography.

McAlexander is a scholar and teacher of American and Southern literature who, some say, even looks like Faulkner in his later years. Often described as "the epitome of the Southern gentleman," he lives in historic Dominie House — a Scottish term for teacher — near a local Athens landmark, "The Tree that Owns Itself." He has received nearly every honor the university bestows for teaching — Outstanding Honors Professor (four times), Sandy Beaver Teaching Professor (twice) and the Josiah Meigs Award, the highest UGA honor for teaching.

His research has garnered accolades as well. In 2002, he received the UGA Creative Research Medal, was nominated both for a Pulitzer Prize in biography and for Georgia Author of the Year in Creative Nonfiction and was named a finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

"I think the passion that Hubert brings to his research is also the passion you see in his classroom," said fellow UGA English professor Fran Teague.

And that passion, which spurred him to write Bonner's life story, sustained a 20-year journey into researching and writing biographies. Ultimately, that journey would lead to the Pulitzer nomination, which McAlexander received for a biography of Southern author Peter Taylor.

Just as no two life stories are alike, the two biography projects were poles apart. McAlexander's subjects — Sherwood Bonner and Peter Taylor — were both authors from the Mid-South, but the similarity ends there. Bonner remains obscure; Taylor widely praised. Bonner was a minor character in 19th century literature; Taylor a major player in 20th century American letters. And when it came to finding clues about their lives, the paper trail for Taylor was a feast, for Bonner a famine.

However, "in each case, I wrote about people who had decided social magnetism, both of them. You find that out in source after source," he said.

And each biography lends new perspective on the literature and culture of the period.


Intro  |  A Mississippi lady  |  Writing a writer's life  |  
Patience and Fortitude


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