Authors: Josephine Humphreys

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Dreams of Sleep, 1984

Rich in Love, 1987

The Fireman’s Fair, 1991

Nowhere Else on Earth, 2000

Nonfiction:

“My Invisible Self,” in Alex Harris, ed., A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood, 1987

“A Disappearing Subject Called the South,” in Dudley Clendinen, ed., The Prevailing South: Life and Politics in a Changing Culture, 1988

Biography

Josephine Humphreys (HUHM-freez) is a major southern fiction writer who is often ranked with Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor. She has become known for dealing primarily with family relationships in a changing society. Her own family was a prominent one, connected for generations with Charleston, South Carolina, which is her home and the setting of her fiction. Her great-great grandfather was the Confederate secretary of the treasury. Humphreys and her two sisters grew up on the “peninsula,” the small historic area of Charleston. Their mother, in particular, emphasized the importance of tradition, but the girls had an enlightened upbringing and were raised to believe that women could do anything they wished. When Josephine was four years old, her parents predicted that she would be the writer of the family, and she was also encouraged by her grandmother Neta. In her essay “My Invisible Self,” which appeared in A World Unsuspected: Portraits of Southern Childhood, Humphreys recalls that when she was thirteen, her grandmother Neta asked her to write some stories for her. This was the moment when Humphreys realized that she was indeed a writer. Two decades elapsed, however, before she made a full commitment to her art.{$I[AN]9810001825}{$I[A]Humphreys, Josephine}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Humphreys, Josephine}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Humphreys, Josephine}{$I[tim]1945;Humphreys, Josephine}

Humphreys attended Duke University, where she studied creative writing with William Blackburn and Reynolds Price. After graduating in 1967 as a Phi Beta Kappa, she enrolled in a broad graduate program in English literature at Yale University. She never felt at home in New Haven, however, and in 1968, after receiving her M.A., she returned to the South.

For her doctoral studies Humphreys chose the University of Texas at Austin, in part because members of her family had a Texas background, but, even more important, because a classmate from Duke, Thomas A. Hutcheson, was in law school there. Humphreys and Hutcheson were married on November 30, 1968. Two years later the couple moved to Charleston. There Hutcheson practiced law, while Humphreys taught at Baptist College and produced two sons, who to her amazement became the delight of her life. During the next seven years Humphreys was so busy with teaching and her family that she had little time for writing. At the age of thirty-three, when the hectic pace of her life began to affect her health, she decided to resign from her teaching job and spend all of her time writing.

After one year Humphreys, finding that she was too easily distracted at home, began to rent office space in the historic Confederate Home in downtown Charleston. Here, after five years, she completed her novel Dreams of Sleep. Reynolds Price recommended the work to his own agent, Harriet Wasserman, who arranged for its publication. Humphreys’ insightful story of an unhappy marriage, which is saved through the efforts of a sympathetic mother-in-law and a wise young girl, was critically praised for its appealing characters, evocative setting, and language and style. Critics also pointed out the author’s insight into the changing social configuration of her community. In 1985 Dreams of Sleep won the PEN/Ernest Hemingway Prize for the best American first novel, and that same year Humphreys was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. She also received a Lyndhurst Fellowship for 1986-1988.

Humphreys’ next novel, Rich in Love, is again set in the Charleston area and again deals with a family in difficulty. In this work, however, the narrator-protagonist is a sensitive high-school girl faced with the desertion of her mother, the despair of her father, and with the misery of an unhappily married sister. Though assessments of this novel varied, critics praised Humphreys’ use of humor and her insistence on resolving problems.

Humphreys’ third novel, The Fireman’s Fair, was ready for a final revision when Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston in September, 1989, altering the landscape forever. Deeply affected, Humphreys decided to rewrite the book and set the story of personal disasters in the period when residents of South Carolina’s Low Country were dealing with the aftermath of natural disaster. In the work that resulted Humphreys again moves from chaos to order, describing the annual Fireman’s Fair, held despite Hugo, during which the major characters rearrange their relationships and prepare to move on.

Humphreys’ next venture was an unusual one. Hearing about a black woman who wanted help in writing a book, Humphreys looked her up, found her story compelling, and ended up taping and transcribing it and sending the manuscript to her own agent. The result was Gal: A True Life, published in 1994 under the pseudonym of Ruthie Bolton, which proved to be a critical and financial success.

Humphreys’ fourth novel, Nowhere Else on Earth, is a change of pace as an historical novel. Set during the Civil War, it is the story of the Lumbee Indians of Scuffletown, North Carolina. Narrated from a retrospective point of view by Rhoda Strong, it tells of the Indians attempts to avoid the depredations of both the Confederate and Union armies.

Josephine Humphreys’ fiction is insightful, meticulously written, and filled with fascinating characters. Perhaps its most appealing quality is a generosity of spirit that accepts people as they are while trusting them to better their lives and those of others.

BibliographyGraybill, Mark S. “Reconstructing/Deconstructing Genre and Gender: Postmodern Identity in Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country and Josephine Humphreys’s Rich in Love.” Critique 43, no. 3 (2002): 239-259. Analyzes ways in which Humphreys and Mason appropriate traditional forms for nontraditional purposes.Millichap, Joseph. “Josephine Humphreys.” In Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993. A comprehensive study of the author.The Mississippi Quarterly 47 (Spring, 1994). A special section on Humphreys contains a number of essays.O’Gorman, Farrell. “Languages of Mystery: Walker Percy’s Legacy in Contemporary Southern Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal 34, no. 2 (2002): 97-119. Views Humphreys as an heir to Percy’s literary legacy.Walker, Elinor Ann. “Cold Parody and Subtle Historian: Reading Walker Percy’s Legacy in Josephine Humphreys’ The Fireman’s Fair.” Southern Literary Journal 31, no. 1 (1998): 51-69. Focuses on Humphreys’ literary inheritance from Percy, especially in her depiction of male characters.Walker, Elinor Ann. “‘Go with What Is Most Terrifying’: Reinventing Domestic Space in Josephine Humphreys’s Dreams of Sleep.” Studies in Literary Imagination 27, no. 2 (1994): 87-104. Argues that in her first novel, Humphreys depicts the fragmentation of Southern society as an opportunity for the redefinition of the self.
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