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AUTOBIOGRAPHY . Autobiography is a form of religious literature with an ancient lineage in the Christian, Islamic, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It became an increasingly common and significant form of discourse in almost every religious tradition during the twentieth century, and its many forms and recurring themes raise crucial religious issues. This article first discusses Christian and Islamic autobiography, then turns to examples of life writing in Asian and Native American cultures, and finally discusses the religious significance of this literary genre.

The question of how to define autobiography is highly contested. By its most precise and restricted definition, autobiography is, according to Philippe Lejeune's On Autobiography (1989), "a retrospective prose narrative that someone writes concerning his own existence, where the focus is the individual life, in particular the story of his personality." Many scholars follow Karl Weintraub in seeing "true" autobiography as tied to the development of the ideas of individuality and historicity, and therefore as an essentially Western form of discourse. Yet there is a great deal of writing that intentionally reveals the author's character in different ways than classical Western autobiography, and these representations of the author's self will be considered here as forms of religious autobiography. In the West, many examples of life writing do not fit all aspects of the traditional definition, such as memoirs of only a portion of a person's life, accounts in poetry, and diaries and journals that reflect day-by-day introspection rather than a retrospective view of an entire life. Many non-Western texts disclose the author's religious experiences, although they are usually less concerned with distinguishing the author's uniqueness or singularity than they are with exemplifying a collective sense of identity, a community's values, or the common human condition. One must be flexible in recognizing the diverse forms of writing about the self in the world's religious traditions and discern both similarities and differences in relation to the classical Western tradition of autobiography. What makes an autobiography religious is the author's attempt to describe and evaluate his or her life from the perspective of the author's present convictions about what is ultimate or sacred.

Classic Christian Autobiographies

Augustine's Confessions, written between 397 and 401, is the fountainhead of Christian autobiography. Augustine (354430) showed later writers how to interpret the self in relation to the models and norms of Christian tradition, including biblical figures such as Adam, Moses, Jesus, and Paul. Augustine's self-disclosure is indebted to two biblical genres: the Hebrew psalms and Pauline letters. Confession for Augustine denotes both acknowledgment of sin and confession of praise to God. The entire book is directly addressed to God, as Augustine speaks in the second person to the source of all being and the One who knows him better than he knows himself. The most famous sentence in the Confessions is essentially a plot summary: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in You." Augustine attempts repeatedly to place his faith in something other than God: his career as a teacher, the Manichee religion, the love of a woman, or his dear friends. Finally, after these idols have failed to satisfy his yearning, and after protracted intellectual struggle, he commits himself to God and attains the serenity that he asserts can come only from a correct understanding and wholehearted trust in God. As a conversion narrative, the Confessions became a model for both long-drawn-out religious change and a sudden crisis such as Augustine dramatizes in Book 8. It can be argued that the very nature of autobiography is tied to the structure of the conversion narrative as the story of how the story's protagonist became the narrator of the story, the person whose present understanding provides the norms by which past actions are judged. Yet one must be wary about imposing this paradigm on all texts, especially ones from religious traditions other than Christianity.

Many of the central themes of Christian autobiography are rooted in Augustine's Confessions. A searching, self-critical conscience shapes the introspective, moralizing tenor of many later Christian works. Augustine's account of memory and time in Books 1013 analyzes the deeply problematic nature of self-knowledge and his continuing dependence on God in the act of composition. Augustine showed the interdependence of the writer's life story with central philosophical and theological questions about the nature of truth, agency, textuality, faith, and ultimacy. The theme of providence is a crucial aspect of Augustine's legacy, for he demonstrated how a faithful Christian may discern God's guidance of his life through trials, sin, and suffering.

Among the most important autobiographical works in Christian tradition are the writings of medieval mystics including Teresa of Ávila, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius of Loyola, and Margery Kempe. These works are characterized by an intense focus on the life of prayer and vision to the relative neglect of details of ordinary social life. Abelard (10791142) wrote The History of My Misfortunes to try to understand his adversities, defend himself against false accusations, and model Christian virtues. In contrast to Augustine's self-accusation, Abelard's work is largely an apology, a defense of his character. Petrarch (13041374) composed three imaginary dialogues with Augustine entitled the Secretum, examining his own life's pursuits in the light of Christian norms in preparation for death. The essays of Michel de Montaigne (15331592) offer a thematic rather than chronological account of the writer and a constantly changing self-awareness rather than a stable and permanent sense of identity. Montaigne is skeptical of religious certainties and understands himself in the light of classical texts rather than the Bible. There is a crucial ethical dimension in Montaigne's criticisms of arrogance and presumptuousness in all areas of life, including matters of religious controversy. He shows how religious and political theories usually neglect the physical realities of human existence, pointing out that even "on the loftiest throne in the world we are still sitting on our own rump."

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Protestants wrote prolifically in many genres: diaries, captivity narratives, community histories, and conversion accounts. John Bunyan (16281688) was the most influential Protestant autobiographer. Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666) was written while Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching to the Baptist community of Bedford, England. Bunyan never goes through a decisive conversion culminating in final serenity, but instead undergoes a protracted pattern of doubting his salvation, searching the Bible for clues, and being reassured that he is indeed one of the elect. Then the cycle begins again. Bunyan's narrative shows the anxieties that shaped Puritan religious experience, an interest in the mundane details of an ordinary Christian's life, and a relentless Protestant focus on the Bible as the key to interpreting every experience. Later Protestants, including Thomas Shepard, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, Elizabeth Ashbridge, George Fox, Jonathan Edwards, and John Woolman also sought to discern God's will or providential design for their lives, and they took biblical figures as models or metaphors for their experience. A period of wandering in the wilderness, an episode of being a prodigal son, or entrance into a promised land became the lens for interpreting incidents in their lives. These works are highly introspective, scrupulously probing thoughts and behavior for hints of sin. Puritans and Quakers used their own stories didactically to instruct others about their central convictions and to model the expected pattern of a believer's life.

Christian Values in Modern Western Autobiographies

Christian values and beliefs continue to influence many autobiographers with secular concerns. Benjamin Franklin (17061790) describes his "scheme of perfection" based on a theory of the virtues and his multifarious endeavors to improve Philadelphia, largely discarding theological convictions. Franklin was a Deist with little interest in doctrine or denominational loyalties. His autobiography shows how Christian moral values could be expressed in practical activity and a narrative of character building, as well as utilitarian and pragmatic modes of thinking that were hostile to an otherworldly orientation.

In The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Christian metaphors shape the thought of a man who has moved far from Augustine's self-accusation and dependence on God's mercy. Rousseau imagines a scene at the Last Judgment when he will present his autobiography to God and receive approval for his truthfulness. It is not God, however, but his readers and his own guilty conscience that Rousseau tries to persuade of his essential goodness. His moral standard is not virtuous behavior but sincerity, utter truthfulness about himself: "I have displayed myself as I was, as vile and despicable when my behavior was such, as good, generous, and noble when I was so." Rousseau defiantly challenges any reader to reveal his heart with equal candor and then say, "I was a better man than he." When he describes a number of rather distasteful deeds, Rousseau asserts that it was always an embarrassing social situation that forced him to act against his benevolent inclinations. Human nature is essentially good, he argues, and the errors people make are not attributable to selfishness or sin but to the inhospitable and false environment of modern society, which creates a struggle for status that corrupts the innocent child of nature. Although there are many prior examples of life writing with a focus on nonreligious matters, Rousseau marks the beginning of secular autobiography haunted by spiritual anxieties. The social struggles of the self displace the religious journey of a soul, and it is not movement toward God's salvation but the author's achievements and encounters in society that decisively shape the plot of his story. There is a crucial religious dimension in Rousseau's struggle to understand the meaning of his life in terms of a secular response to the problem of evil. He believes that his explanation of why he is persecuted illumines the fundamental nature of the human condition. If Rousseau abandons the substance of Christian faith, he retains its metaphors and imagery and the yearning for an ultimate judgment and justification of his character. This desire is continually frustrated, and The Confessions dramatically displays the increasing paranoia and self-deception that marked Rousseau's final years.

In the nineteenth century many "versions of deconversion," as John D. Barbour puts it in his 1994 work of that title, describe the loss of faith. This experience is often the result of profound religious doubt and moral reflection and is described in terms of Christian motifs such as a central event of crisis, analysis of the subjective experience of faith, and a transition to a new community with a new language for describing oneself and the world. Such writers as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Leo Tolstoy, and Edmund Gosse wrote powerful accounts of the reasons for which they abandoned a particular form of Christianity and sought meaning elsewhere, as in aesthetic experience. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the theme of deconversion continues to be important in autobiography as writers explore religious doubts, assess the practices of religious communities, and struggle to reconcile belief in historic Christian doctrines with other intellectual and moral convictions, for instance, about scientific theory or the rights of women.

Among the most compelling modern autobiographies by Roman Catholics are John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864); Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness (1952); and the many letters, journals, and essays by Thomas Merton (19151968). Influential Protestant works include medical missionary Albert Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought (1933); C. S. Lewis's conversion narrative, Surprised by Joy (1955); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (1951), a posthumously published collection by a German theologian imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. Conversion narratives continue to be a popular genre, and in recent decades they are often linked to the theme of recovery from various forms of addiction or abuse. Christian women and persons of color address the reasons that they remain committed to a tradition that has frequently been misogynistic and racist. They criticize oppressive aspects of Christian thought and practice and retrieve minority perspectives that may offer a helpful corrective in the ongoing struggle for justice within Christian tradition and in the larger society.

Islamic Autobiography

Autobiographical writing in Islamic culture began in the ninth century and is influenced by even older traditions of biography such as the sīra (exemplary life story) and tarjama (biographical notice included in a larger work). Islamic works of hagiography are especially concerned with the chain of transmission of authority back to the Prophet. Some of the earliest autobiographies composed in Arabic are essentially self-authored examples of these biographical genres. Because Islamic historians valued eyewitness accounts so highly, autobiography was usually seen as a reliable and significant source of knowledge for posterity. In Interpreting the Self (2001), Dwight Reynolds identifies over one hundred Arabic autobiographical texts written between the ninth and nineteenth centuries ce and translates thirteen representative works into English.

Often a particular verse from the Qurʾān provided religious justification for self-representation: "And of the blessings of thy Lord, speak!" (93:11). Telling one's story was an act of thanksgiving, gratitude, and praise for the generosity of Allah. Writers often referred to the example of respected figures of the past or traced the spiritual lineage of the author's teaching. Most Islamic autobiographies are highly didactic, and the purpose of moral instruction legitimates depicting the self. Muslim writers often present themselves explicitly as models for the reader's emulation.

As in other traditions, an emphasis on a particular religious theme is often associated with a distinctive category or genre of autobiographical writing. Conversion narratives recount how a Christian or Jew became a Muslim or how a relatively indifferent Muslim was moved to greater piety, ascetic practice, or the ūfī path. Narratives of pilgrimage recount the life-transforming effects of the journey to Mecca. ūfī texts explore mystical states and the ascent through spiritual stations. The Mughal Empire in India yielded numerous autobiographical texts such as the sixteenth-century Bāburnāmah, or Book of Bābur, written by the founder of that empire.

The most famous classical Arabic autobiography is al-Munquidh min al-dalāl, by al-Ghazālī (10581111 ce [450-505 ah]). This work recounts a spiritual crisis that has intrigued Western readers and is often compared to Augustine's Confessions. Literally translated as "What delivers from error," this work is rendered in a 1992 English translation as The Confessions of al-Ghazālī. When al-Ghazālī experienced a total breakdown that left him unable to speak, he undertook a ten-year period of wandering and seclusion. He found serenity in the ūfī emphasis on the heart and intuitive knowledge rather than intellectual argument. Al-Ghazālī correlates his account of his spiritual search with polemical arguments against other Islamic theologians and philosophers.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslim autobiographers were influenced by traditional forms and themes and were also shaped by Western literature, especially the novel. After the Egyptian scholar Tāhā usayn's al-Ayyām (1929; An Egyptian Childhood [1932]), it was possible to explore in an author's life the uneasy encounters between Islamic culture and the modern secular world. In the twentieth century, autobiographies such as Muhammad Asad's The Road to Mecca (1954) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) were composed in English and European languages by converts to Islam.


There is virtually no autobiography in Hindu tradition until the twentieth century. Various explanations have been offered for the relative lack of interest in self-representation: the Indian love of philosophy and general absence of historical writing; the cyclical view of time; and the deemphasis on the individual in the search for universal truth. Whatever the explanation, there are few examples of first-person life narratives in classical Hindu tradition, although there are rich personal references and expressions in the writings of sant -poets such as Kabir (fifteenth century) and Tukaram (seventeenth century).

Western literary influences and an intended Western audience shape the first modern Hindu autobiographies. Swami Vivekananda (18631902), the heir of the mystic Sri Ramakrishna, attained renown at the first World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. His letters, while not a complete narrative of his life, reveal his distinctive personality to his disciples in the Ramakrishna Mission and to potential supporters both Indian and Western. Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), by Paramahansa Yogananda, has been published in many editions and languages. Yogananda (18931952) was a Bengali who came to the United States in 1920 and spent many years teaching yoga, lecturing, and promoting his Self-Realization Fellowship. His autobiography focuses on encounters with saints, gurus, and yogis who taught and inspired him.

The outstanding example of autobiography by a Hindu is Mohandas Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927). This work was originally written in Gujarati and published in 1925 in weekly installments in a nationalist journal. It was soon translated into English and many other languages and played an important role in the political movement for Indian independence. In the introduction, Gandhi discusses his ambivalent relationship to the Western idea of autobiography. He quotes a friend's doubts about doing this kind of writing:

"Writing an autobiography is a practice peculiar to the West. I know of nobody in the East having written one, except amongst those who have come under Western influence. And what will you write? Supposing you reject tomorrow the things you hold as principles today, or supposing you revise in the future your plans of today, is it not likely that the men who shape their conduct on the authority of your word, spoken or written, may be misled?"

Gandhi responds that it is not his purpose to write "a real autobiography." Rather, "I simply want to tell the story of my experiments with truth, and as my life consists of nothing but these experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography." His narrative recounts the story of a soul's striving for satya (truth), which was Gandhi's "sovereign principle," equated with God. Gandhi orients his life story to the truth as he understands it, yet he also presents his life as an experiment open to revision and further clarification. The writing of a spiritual text that has "the shape of an autobiography" requires the practice of the virtues of truthfulness, humility, courage, and discerning moral judgment. Finally, however, it is a work about satyagraha (the force of truth), not personal virtue: "My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha, not to say how good I am."

Autobiographers from Hindu tradition have often used this form of discourse as part of their effort to proselytize in the West. In addition, dalit literature by members of "untouchable" castes and conversion stories to other religious traditions voice criticisms of traditional Hindu social structure and raise important questions about what beliefs and practices are central to Hinduism and what may be changed. Autobiography thus plays a powerful role in contemporary ethical critique and reflection on the nature of Hindu identity and society and their controversial relationship to the nation of India.


With one significant exception, Buddhist cultures did not produce autobiographical literature until the twentieth century. The reason for this absence has been explained in various ways: the concept of the self is viewed by Buddhists as an illusion; calling attention to oneself is seen as egotistical; and the ideal of sudden enlightenment precludes interest in what leads up to the moment of awakening. These simplistic explanations do not probe deeply enough into the cultural contexts that inhibited Buddhist life writing in India and China and fostered it in Tibet.

Janet Gyatso's Apparitions of the Self (1998) examines the Tibetan genre of "secret autobiography" (rangnam ) as composed by such visionary lamas as Jigme Lingpa (17301798). This literary tradition focuses on the way a spiritual master attained liberation through visions, yogic practices, and memories of past lives. Such texts do not record all the factual details that the genre of "outer" autobiography would narrate. Like spiritual autobiography in Puritan and Catholic traditions, rangnam deals with what is interior and most important: the ways in which the subject understands ultimate reality as a result of personal experience. In Tibet, visionaries discovered so-called Treasures revealed in previous lives that they retrieve and transmit to disciples. The autobiographical dimension of these texts consists in the visionary's demonstration of his awesome powers, profound meditative experiences, and unique insights into the elusive nature of subjectivity. Rangnam legitimized a lama's authority, inspired confidence in disciples, and distinguished among competing interpretations of Buddhist thought.

According to Gyatso, Buddhism nurtured autobiography in Tibet because of particular historical factors that were not present in India or China. Tibet's tradition of self-written life stories dates to the eleventh century. Unlike India and China, where Buddhism never supplanted ancient traditions, Tibet became predominantly Buddhist. Salvation was always a matter of individual self-transformation and was not linked to membership in a clan or group. In this context religious power and prestige were based on individual accomplishments such as celibacy and asceticism, remembering prior lives, and esoteric yogic practices and visions. Biography and autobiography flourished in the competition between charismatic teachers vying for disciples and patronage. Tibetan Buddhist autobiography made possible self-assertion and cultivation of the individual characteristics of a religious leader, even as these texts show the unstable, elusive quality of the states of mind that human beings typically identify with selfhood. The paradox of representing a self that allegedly does not exist challenges modern Western Buddhists to devise new literary strategies to depict their path to awakening. Since everything is constantly changing and the origin of suffering is the desire to cling to what is unstable, Buddhist autobiography, like postmodernist thought in the West, must depend on the idea of the self even as it shows the self to be a projection, illusion, or fiction.

China and Japan

Ancient Chinese autobiographies were modeled after biography and focused on public historical facts rather than intimate self-knowledge. In the Confucian and Daoist traditions the emphasis on self-effacement and modesty discouraged revealing accounts of religious experience. Chan Buddhist narratives are circumspect in their portrayal of enlightenment. The doctrine of sudden enlightenment without long years of practice may have been a factor, as was the lack of a literary tradition providing a model for the personal search for wisdom.

According to Pei-Yi Wu in The Confucian's Progress (1990), there was a significant group of Confucian autobiographers during the late Ming period, the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Models for life writing were found in travel literature and in accounts by Buddhist disciples of their masters' sermons, which sometimes described incidents in their lives. Writers such as the Confucian apostate and Buddhist monk Deng Huoqu (1498c. 1570) and the neo-Confucian Gao Panlong (15621626) described quests for self-transformation using metaphors of journey and ascent. In addition, a group of penitential texts written at about the same time confess misdeeds, express self-reproach and remorse, beg forgiveness from a deity, or promise a reformed life.

This flowering of introspective life writing ended with the imposition of Manchu rule in 1644, which brought disapproval and official censorship of the bold literary experimentation associated with the late Ming period. Thereafter, autobiographies took the form of annals charting the stages of an official career until, in the twentieth century, Western practices influenced new kinds of life writing. The author's girlhood struggle to understand the relevance of Chinese myths and "talk-stories" to life in the United States is powerfully conveyed in Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976).

Japanese life writing dates to the Heian period (7941185), when diaries were written in Chinese, such as the monk Ennin's account of his travels to China. The native kana script, often deemed suitable for women, was used to render emotional life and spiritual musings. Japan has a rich tradition of personal, introspective writing that presents the author's perceptions of the transience of the natural world and human life. What modern scholars call "recluse literature" or "grass-hut literature" (sōan bungaku ) records a rural writer's contemplations of the vicissitudes of life and the emptiness at the heart of all existence. The most famous is Hōjōki (An account of my hut) by Kamo no Chōmei (1156?1216). Another genre is the official diaries kept by the holders of established positions, including leaders of monastic institutions. Since the Tokugawa period (16001868), neo-Confucian values have shaped autobiographies written by the heads of families for their descendents, which describe the duties expected of future generations.

Chinese models influence Japanese accounts of travel to sacred places and to sites made famous in literature. These works take the author's journey through space as a metaphor for human existence and construct the self in relation to literary precedent. The poet Bashō (16441694) wrote five travel narratives, the most famous of which has been translated as The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1966). Bashō combined haiku and prose narration in describing his physical and spiritual journey through Japan. Bashō studied with a Zen Buddhist priest and was also influenced by neo-Confucianism and the kami (Shintō) cults.

Native American Autobiography

As a written text, autobiography is not found in oral cultures such as those of Native American tribes. Yet oral traditions of life narration have influenced the written narratives that American Indians began to produce in great number in the nineteenth century. In American Indian Autobiography (1988), H. David Brumble identifies "preliterate traditions" including coup tales, self-examinations to account for misfortune, educational narratives, and stories about the acquisition of healing or visionary powers. The survival and vitality of oral traditions is an important theme in other tribal cultures such as those of Australian aboriginal people. The preservation of threatened cultural knowledge is a significant incentive for life writing in many indigenous cultures and also in displaced or refugee communities such as the Hmong of Laos and other diaspora peoples.

There are more than seven hundred Native American autobiographical narratives. More than half of these documents are "as-told-to" stories edited by white missionaries, anthropologists, and literary scholars. Many of these collaborative works raise controversial questions about the extent of the white editor's contribution. The most famous American Indian autobiography is Black Elk Speaks (1932). This narrative tells the story of the life of Black Elk (18631950), the Oglala Sioux holy man, from the age of nine until he witnesses the Wounded Knee massacre in 1890. It recounts Black Elk's spiritual visions, important Lakota rituals and healing practices, and the Ghost Dance movement. In a 1979 introduction to this work, Vine Deloria Jr. asserts that Black Elk Speaks "has become a North American bible of all tribes." Yet this text reflects the perspective of "editor" John G. Neihardt as much as Black Elk's. It ends with a portrayal of Black Elk as a despairing and defeated man lamenting his failure to make the Lakota spiritual vision relevant to his people at a time of crisis. The narrative does not reveal that Black Elk converted to Roman Catholicism in 1904 and acted for decades as a catechist and missionary on Indian reservations, or that Black Elk continued to believe in the value and relevance of the Lakota worldview. (See Raymond De Mallie's analysis in The Sixth Grandfather [1984] of the transcripts of the collaboration between Black Elk and Neihardt.) A very different form of as-told-to autobiography is created when the white editor is an anthropologist. For instance, Paul Radin's The Autobiography of a Winnebago Indian (1920) recounts the life of S. B., a convert to the Peyote religion of the Native American Church, and Nancy Oestreich Lurie's Mountain Wolf Woman (1961) tells the story of S. B.'s sister, who also had religious experiences with peyote.

In addition to these white-edited "Indian autobiographies" there are "autobiographies by Indians" (Arnold Krupat's distinction) produced by literate Native Americans. The first ones were by Christians, such as Son of the Forest (1829) by William Apess (Pequot). Important works of life writing were produced by George Copway (Ojibway) in 1847, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins (Paiute) in 1883, Charles Eastman (Lakota) in 1902, and Luther Standing Bear (Lakota) in 1928. Subsequently, Native American novelists and poets have created highly complex personal narratives, such as The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), by N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa and Cherokee); Storyteller (1981), by Leslie Marmon Silko (Kowa and Cherokee); and the poetry and memoirs of Linda Hogan (Chickasaw) and Joy Harjo (Creek). The dominant religious themes in these works are sacred geography and the importance of a sense of place in human identity; a cyclical view of time as necessary for human well-being; respect for the wisdom of elders and oral traditions; and the importance of reciprocity and harmony with the natural world, in human society, and with the sacred. Like the members of other threatened indigenous cultures (in this regard, too, Australian aboriginal peoples offer significant parallels), many American Indian writers use autobiography to explore the conflict of cultural values within their own lives and to protest against the racism, injustice, and spiritual poverty that they see in the dominant culture.

Spiritual Autobiography

In addition to defining religious autobiography in relationship to specific historical traditions, one can consider certain more ambiguous texts, sometimes called spiritual autobiographies. Particularly in the West, spirituality usually means the personal, experiential aspects of religion in contrast with an organized community's doctrines, institutions, and rituals. Spiritual autobiographies are shaped by particular religious traditions, but the author is usually dissatisfied or looking beyond institutionalized forms of worship and belief. For instance, a genre of spiritual autobiography is American nature writing by such authors as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Terry Tempest Williams. Another form of spiritual autobiography is writing by contemporary women who attempt to reconcile their apprehension of what is holy with patriarchal religious institutions, and to discriminate within their formative tradition that which is a source of oppression and that which is a liberating resource for women. Spiritual autobiographies are usually ambivalent about the author's original religious tradition, sorting out those elements that the author rejects and those that personal experience helps them to appreciate. Such writers seek an individual path, a personal approach to what is holy, although they also hope to find community.

Contemporary spiritual autobiographers often criticize traditional dualistic contrasts between the sacred and the profane and try to reclaim areas of life rejected by many religious believers as this-worldly. They usually do not seek salvation from ordinary human existence but rather beauty, meaning, and love within it. Spiritual autobiographers are primarily concerned to interpret personal experiences; far less than their predecessors do they advocate particular beliefs, doctrines, or institutional affiliations to their readers. In contrast to most classic religious texts, these writers do not propose to readers a single normative model of belief or affiliation. They demonstrate far greater openness to a variety of legitimate religious options than one would find in most worshiping communities or in the history of religious autobiography. Spiritual autobiographers tend to be open-minded in this pluralistic sense, and their works are open-ended, leaving the impression that the author's search is not completed, but a journey still in progress. Seeking has become more important than finding, and an author may discover meaning even in the process of deconversion, or loss of faith. Scholars disagree about what kinds of writing should be considered as spiritual autobiographies. Does it make sense to see a work as spiritual when the search for self replaces the desire to know God, and when the goal of defining a unique personal identity becomes more important than otherworldly salvation, adherence to orthodox beliefs, or commitment to a community? Is a book a spiritual autobiography if its author is more concerned with literary originality than with fidelity to a received religious tradition? Readers will differ as to whether and how to interpret as spiritual autobiography such diverse texts as Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard (1978), Paul Auster's The Invention of Solitude (1982), Patricia Hampl's Virgin Time (1992), Kathleen Norris's Dakota (1993), and Nancy Mairs's Ordinary Time (1993).

Autobiography as a Religious Act

Even in religious traditions without a strong legacy of autobiography, first-person life writing became increasingly common and significant during the twentieth century. An example is Judaism, which does not have an ancient tradition of autobiography yet in the twentieth century produced many examples of Holocaust memoirs, accounts of struggles in Israel, and narratives about assimilation into American society. Autobiography seems likely to become even more widely practiced if we expand our definition to include self-representations that use technologies such as tape-recorded oral narratives, personal websites, confessional radio and television programs, and video and digital formats. The reasons for this proliferation of life narratives are many, complex, and religiously significant.

One reason for the prevalence of autobiography is anxiety about personal identity as individuals encounter the possibility of a secular orientation, the loosening of communal loyalties, and the challenge of other faiths and worldviews in an increasingly mobile and interdependent global culture. Autobiographers try to reconcile the ways that personal identity is shaped by membership in communities, including those fostered by religious commitments, and the ways in which identity is singular, distinctive, or unique. Without resolving the complex issue of whether autobiography is tied to the Western concept of the self, one can recognize that all life writing reveals an interplay between communal norms for life stories and individual differentiation. In religious autobiographies the authors believe that both of these pressuresadherence to communal norms and individual searchingbring them closer to what is ultimate. The religious autobiographer finds meaning not only in allegiance to tradition, but in an act of personal interpretation and self-evaluation. Relationship to a religious community takes the form of reinterpretation of one's life story in dialogue, although not necessarily in strict accordance with, a community's norms. The autobiographer discerns in new ways how a religious tradition's symbolic resources and mythic narratives may illumine personal experience, as well as ways that the tradition fails to help in the task of self-understanding or needs to be criticized in terms of other values.

Thus, writing an autobiography is itself a significant religious event and experience in the writer's life. The writing of autobiography raises crucial ethical issues, including the author's struggle with conscience as part of moral self-assessment (see John D. Barbour, The Conscience of the Autobiographer [1992]) and the effect of telling one's story on other persons (see Paul John Eakin, ed., The Ethics of Life Writing [2004]). Religious autobiography is best conceived of as a testing of the adequacy of a religious community's norms for a life narrative, when not only the communal norms but the testing itselfthat is, the writing of one's life storyis believed to be called for by God or that which the author believes to be worthy of ultimate loyalty and trust. Religious autobiography attempts to interpret the life of the writer and reorient the lives of readers in relation to what is ultimate.


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Barbour, John D. Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, Va., 1994.

Barbour, John D. The Value of Solitude: The Ethics and Spirituality of Aloneness in Autobiography. Charlottesville, Va., 2004.

Brumble, David. American Indian Autobiography. Berkeley, Calif., 1988.

Caldwell, Patricia. The Puritan Conversion Narrative: The Beginnings of American Expression. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Delaney, Paul. British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century. New York, 1969.

De Mallie, Raymond J., ed. The Sixth Grandfather: Black Elk's Teachings Given to John G. Neihardt. Lincoln, Neb., 1984.

Eakin, Paul John, ed. The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca, N.Y., 2004.

Fleishman, Avrom. Figures of Autobiography: The Language of Self-Writing in Victorian and Modern England. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Jolly, Margetta, ed. Encyclopedia of Life Writing. 2 vols. Chicago and London, 2001. This outstanding two-volume encyclopedia contains articles on specific authors, genres of autobiographical writing, particular religious traditions, and themes including conversion, confession, repentance, and spiritual autobiography.

Krupat, Arnold. For Those Who Come After: A Study of Native American Autobiography. Madison, Wis., 1985.

Lejeune, Philippe. On Autobiography. Edited by Paul John Eakin. Translated by Katherine Leary. Minneapolis, 1989.

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Reynolds, Dwight. Interpreting the Self: Autobiography and the Arabic Literary Tradition. Berkeley, Calif., 2001.

Shea, Daniel. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. Princeton, N.J., 1968.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis, 2001.

Watkins, Owen. The Puritan Experience: Studies in Spiritual Autobiography. New York, 1972.

Weintraub, Karl. The Value of the Individual: Self and Circumstance in Autobiography. Chicago, 1978.

Wong, Hertha Dawn. Sending My Heart Back across the Years: Tradition and Innovation in Native American Autobiography. New York, 1992.

Wu, Pei-Yu. The Confucian's Progress: Autobiographical Writing in Traditional China. Princeton, N.J., 1990.

John D. Barbour (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


The Civil War (1861–1865) marked the beginning of a transformation in American literary culture that culminated with the emergence of modernism around the time of World War I (1914–1918). In the largest sense, the Civil War—followed by a period of industrialization, technological innovation, urbanization, immigration, and imperial expansion—accelerated the decline of literary and artistic romanticism and the rise of realism. The new outlook was based on materialism, science (biology, economics, and geography), and determinism rather than on idealism, intuition, and individualism. These changes altered autobiography, and the notion of who was entitled to write one, and ultimately placed the possibility of textual self-understanding under suspicion, from which it has yet to emerge.

Nevertheless, the tradition of the self-made man, established by Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), dominated the self-conceptions of many Americans of every race and ethnicity well into the twentieth century. African American writers, who produced slave narratives before the Civil War, now endeavored to make the most of their altered circumstances while struggling with the ongoing impediments to freedom during Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow. During the Progressive Era near the turn of the twentieth century, the "New Woman" began to demand equality, opportunity, and political power. So did many immigrant writers, who by the end of the nineteenth century were arriving in unprecedented numbers, building businesses, and taking control of the cities. The struggles between capital and labor, coupled with new political movements such as anarchism, raised the specter of a new Civil War. Meanwhile, the final opening of the western states for settlement reinvigorated some elements in the American character (piety, acquisitiveness, and violence) while simultaneously calling these values into question, particularly as they were implicated in racism, imperialism, and environmental devastation. Amidst all this change, some of the heirs of the original European settler cultures wondered what had happened to their country. They sentimentalized the past and were uncertain about a future about to pass out of their exclusive control. All these struggles were reflected in American autobiography, which represented the reciprocal relationship between self and national identity in a period of rapid change.


The exemplary American personality—practical, hardworking, and ambitious—presented in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1789) influenced the way Americans of all backgrounds presented themselves in their autobiographical writings, notwithstanding the burgeoning criticism of the Franklinian vision of the United States as an economic meritocracy. Franklin's memoir was surely the most widely disseminated American autobiography of the nineteenth century, and practically all would-be autobiographers, including women, African Americans, and recent immigrants, had to reckon with Franklin's model of the bourgeois American self (or a mediated version of it): someone born into poverty and obscurity who manages through hard work and moral virtue to rise to a position of wealth and fame. The spiritual journey also structured the success narrative, which often substituted economic success for the arrival in what John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress called the "Celestial City." In this case, wealth is a manifestation of moral virtue and is bestowed on people so that they might become benefactors to their society, a task that may well include the imperative to present themselves as moral exemplars. The self-made man tradition negotiates the tension between the material and the spiritual, the individual and the community, by asserting that self-interest coincides with the interests of society. The popularity of Horatio Alger Jr.'s Ragged Dick series (beginning in 1867), which invariably describes the ascent of poor but virtuous and hard-working boys, suggests how the self-made man tradition was useful both as a stimulus to capitalist economic development and as a means to invalidate the discontent of large numbers of oppressed and disadvantaged people by telling them: "You too could be rich, if only you had tried harder."

The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself—possibly the second-best-selling autobiography of the nineteenth century—reflects the influence of Franklin as well as an awareness of the limitations of his model of the American self. Barnum (1810–1981) originally had it published in 1855, but it was revised, expanded, condensed, and republished several times in many different editions until the end of the nineteenth century (most often with the title Struggles and Triumphs, first used in 1869). Like Franklin's Autobiography, Barnum's Life is the story of how a poor boy became a rich and famous man. From the beginning, however, Barnum emphasizes that he was born at a time that was substantially different from the eighteenth century. Image was already important for Franklin: by Barnum's time, however, image was everything in business, and Barnum became the founding father of American advertising. Nevertheless, to most of his readers, Struggles and Triumphs did not represent a rejection of Franklinian values; rather, the showman was a product of the go-getting marketplace these values encouraged. The tenet was: do what is necessary to succeed first then tend to the finer points of moral virtue and civic responsibility. Barnum's evolving autobiographies follow this pattern: as he becomes more prosperous, he cultivates the image of a benefactor of society, a purveyor of respectable, educational, and morally uplifting amusements rather than a hoaxer and humbug. But even as he becomes an eminent Victorian, Barnum, like Franklin, continues to take pride in his humble origins and to wink at his readers, suggesting that even his public service is a form of personal opportunism, a means of access to the social and political power held by established elites.


A substantial proportion of Americans were directly involved in the Civil War and practically everyone was affected by it in some way. Two million men had served in the Union Army, and about 750,000 had fought for the Confederacy. Some 3.5 million slaves were liberated. Probably more than a million Americans were either killed or wounded in the war. It was undoubtedly the most traumatic event in American history, and it is not surprising that autobiographical writings of those who lived through that era would treat it as one of the formative experiences of their subjects' lives.

Louis Kaplan's Bibliography of American Autobiographies lists more than five hundred Civil War memoirs published before 1945. About seventy came out before 1870; fewer than twenty were published in the 1870s (though Memoirs of Gen. William T. Sherman appeared in 1875); but the rate of publication peaked in the next decade at nearly sixty, and such memoirs continued to be published in comparable numbers until about 1920, when Civil War veterans began to die out and the experiences of World War I assumed much greater prominence. The men who fought in the war, such as Warren Lee Goss, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Lewis Wallace, had a sense that they had made history, that they had important stories to tell, if not as individuals, then as representatives of the experiences of many Americans.

The most famous and influential of these autobiographical writings is Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Memoirs. Grant (1822–1885) wrote it under dramatic circumstances, while dying of throat cancer, and it sold more than 300,000 copies by subscription, becoming the best-selling title in the crowded genre of Civil War memoirs. It was, however, unlike many other works published in that era in that it was not an apologia for military blunders, a self-serving account of personal or regimental heroism, or a prelude to the pursuit of political office. Grant's spare prose, unlike the romantic style of some of his contemporaries, reflected and reinforced the image he had during the Civil War of a plainspoken, practical, resolute man. His memoirs are starkly descriptive, without vanity or remorse. He sometimes portrays his younger self as an object of mockery: for example, his distaste for fancy uniforms was shaped by his judgment about the absurdity of his early admiration for them. And he corrects romanticized retellings of his activities, such as events surrounding the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. The commanding general of the Union, like his Confederate counterpart, tended to see himself as a tool in the hands of forces larger than himself. But, like Franklin, Grant portrays himself as a man trying to discover his talents and to find an elevated place in the world.

In addition to its historical importance as a documentary record of the activities of a major figure in American history, Grant's memoirs are an important document marking the shift in American literature from romanticism to realism; it moves away from idealism toward a desire for hard facts expressed in almost scientific terms. It attests to the ascendancy of the practical man rather than the sentimentalist, the man of action over the man of eloquence. It looks back to the Plain Style of Puritan writing, and it looks ahead to the clipped sentences of Ernest Hemingway. Both Gertrude Stein and Edmund Wilson praised it as a seminal work in American literature.

Equally remarkable is the transition in the writings of the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) from the flamboyant self-assertion of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) to his wistful prose recollections of the Civil War era in Specimen Days and Collect (1882), which constitutes what might be considered a poet's workshop of images and memories of Whitman's activities in Washington, D.C., from 1862 to 1865, when Whitman worked as a government clerk and volunteer hospital aide. If Specimen Days is an autobiography, it is a highly experimental one. The sketches describe the aftermath of battles, hospital scenes, camp life, conversations with soldiers, and glimpses of Lincoln. Whitman serves as a mediating consciousness and sometimes as an actor in the events he describes. In this sense, Specimen Days supports the mythic vision of Whitman portrayed in his collection of Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (1865). Specimen Days also marks a shift in literary technique from notions of a fully integrated self that can look back with clarity: the diary format preserves the integrity of impressions of the moment. Whitman's use of that form also avoids any organizing plot, such as the ascent from poverty to wealth. Events follow chronologically but their meaning is not defined, emerging only from the narrative as a whole, where the hospital serves as a metaphor for America, with the poet as healer preparing for a reconciliation between North and South. Ultimately, Specimen Days tends toward a pastoralism that seems out of step with the urbanization and industrialization of the postwar years.


Whitman's Specimen Days is an autobiography of the parallel development of the nation and the poet in the era of the Civil War. In particular, it reflects the shift in American literary culture away from romanticism toward realism. Whitman, like the photographer Mathew Brady, presents the painful aftermath of war in ugly detail rather than offering idealized portraits of military glory. Whitman and his America are redeemed by small acts of comradeship rather than by the capacity for violence.

Letter Writing.—When eligible, I encourage the men to write, and myself, when called upon, write all sorts of letters for them, (including love letters, very tender ones.) Almost as I reel off these memoranda, I write for a new patient to his wife. M. de F., of the 17th Connecticut, company H, has just come up (February 17th) from Windmill point, and is received in ward H, Armory-square. He is an intelligent looking man, has a foreign accent, black-eyed and hair'd, a Hebraic appearance. Wants a telegraphic message sent to his wife, New Canaan, Conn. I agree to send the message—but to make things sure I also sit down and write the wife a letter, and despatch it to the post-office immediately, as he fears she will come on, and he does not wish her to, as he will surely get well.

Saturday, January 30th.—Afternoon, visited Campbell hospital. Scene of cleaning up the ward, and giving the men all clean clothes—through the ward (6) the patients dressing or being dress'd—the naked upper half of the bodies—the good-humor and fun—the shirts, drawers, sheets of beds, &c., and the general fixing up for Sunday. Gave J. L. 50 cents.

Wednesday, February 4th.—Visited Armory-square hospital, went pretty thoroughly through wards E and D. Supplied paper and envelopes to all who wish'd—as usual, found plenty of men who needed those articles. Wrote letters. Saw and talk'd with two or three members of the Brooklyn 14th regt. A poor fellow in ward D, with a fearful wound in a fearful condition, was having some loose splinters of bone taken from the neighborhood of the wound. The operation was long, and one of great pain—yet, after it was well commenced, the soldier bore it in silence. He sat up, propp'd—was much wasted—had lain a long time quiet in one position (not for days only but weeks,) a bloodless, brown-skinn'd face, with eyes full of determination—belong'd to a New York regiment. There was an unusual cluster of surgeons, medical cadets, nurses, &c., around his bed—I thought the whole thing was done with tenderness, and done well. In one case, the wife sat by the side of her husband, his sickness typhoid fever, pretty bad. In another, by the side of her son, a mother—she told me she had seven children, and this was the youngest. (A fine, kind, healthy, gentle mother, good-looking, not very old, with a cap on her head, and dress'd like home—what a charm it gave to the whole ward.) I liked the woman nurse in ward E—I noticed how she sat a long time by a poor fellow who just had, that morning, in addition to his other sickness, bad hemorrhage—she gently assisted him, reliev'd him of the blood, holding a cloth to his mouth, as he coughed it up—he was so weak he could only just turn his head over on the pillow.

One young New York man, with a bright, handsome face, had been lying several months from a most disagreeable wound, receiv'd at Bull Run. A bullet had shot him right through the bladder, hitting him front, low in the belly, and coming out back. He had suffer'd much—the water came out of the wound, by slow but steady quantities, for many weeks—so that he lay almost constantly in a sort of puddle—and there were other disagreeable circumstances. He was of good heart, however. At present comparatively comfortable, had a bad throat, was delighted with a stick of horehound candy I gave him, with one or two other trifles.

Whitman, Specimen Days, in Prose Works, pp. 29–30.

Comparable to Specimen Days is the diary of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823–1886) compiled during the Civil War, revised twenty years later, and finally published in 1905 as A Diary from Dixie. Chesnut was the wife of a southern senator and plantation owner, and her diary provides insights into Confederate politics and domestic life. In some cases, these are seen through the lens of the Reconstruction-era politics.The Private Mary Chesnut: The Unpublished Civil War Diaries (1984) contains her defense of southern aristocratic womanhood set against the sexual immorality of slaveholders and female slaves, whom she regards unsympathetically as tempters who lure respectable men into adultery and miscegenation. Like Whitman, Chesnut does not provide an organizing narrative apart from the chronology of the war; the diary, however, does provide a consistent critique of the contradictions of southern culture, particularly with regard to slavery and gender roles.


At least a hundred autobiographies by African Americans were published after the Civil War and before the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. Slave narratives—the most common form in the antebellum period—often participated in the Franklinian tradition of an interconnected spiritual and secular ascent culminating in manumission. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is the most famous and influential example of the genre. Powerful as the Narrative is, Douglass (1818–1895) depicts himself less as an individual than as an iconic slave appealing to the sentiments of white readers: "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

The period after the abolition of slavery required a reconfiguration of the social and political aims of African Americans as a group. If antebellum slave narrative dramatized the quest for individual and collective freedom, postbellum autobiographies focused on the acquisition of political power, the building of institutions, and the achievement of economic independence within the dominant culture. In this sense, African American autobiography also reflects the cultural shift from Romantic individualism mingled with evangelical Christianity to a more secular, materialist outlook based on the emerging realist sciences of sociology and economics. Antebellum slave narrators struggled for freedom; postbellum autobiographers struggled to achieve a dignified, bourgeois way of life in the midst of ongoing racial discrimination. The evolution from Douglass's Narrative to his My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882; rev. ed., 1892) reflects these larger patterns in African American autobiography. Douglass increasingly deals with his activities as a public figure—the "life and letters" mode—rather than dwelling on his experiences as a slave, from which he is increasingly detached (compare, for example, the succeeding versions of his battle with Covey, the slave breaker). As the century advanced, the image of Douglass as a slave—brutalized but intelligent, violent but pitiable—began to seem unsuitable as an exemplar on which to base the social advancement of African Americans.

Even as the Franklinian qualities of American autobiography were being questioned by writers such as Mark Twain (1835–1910), these same qualities were magnified in many African American autobiographies—particularly during the Jim Crow era—such as Henry Ossian Flipper's The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878), Out of the Ditch: A True Story of an Ex-Slave (1910) by Joseph Vance Lewis, William Holtzclaw's Black Man's Burden (1915), and From Slavery to Affluence: Memoirs of Robert Anderson, Ex-Slave (1927). These works avoid expressions of outrage against racial injustice and thus seem alien to moral sensibilities shaped by the civil rights movement of the late twentieth century. Flipper, for example, was subjected to dehumanizing cruelty and ostracism at West Point, but he does not criticize his classmates or the institutional support for racism; instead, he emphasizes his optimism about his future as a professional soldier (ironically, he would be unjustly court-martialed in 1881). Racism as a social pathology is not so much challenged by many African American autobiographers in this era as it is considered a surmountable hurdle on the road to success. These works encouraged African Americans to stifle their anger, demonstrate dignified moral superiority, and quietly build institutions.

The most influential African American autobiographer of this era was by far Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), the founder of Tuskegee Institute in 1881 and the author of Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901). Written in a clear, plain style comparable to Grant's, Washington's autobiography presents him as a successful man who never takes a moment's rest and who shows the way to economic independence for other African Americans. The work is written less for literary readers than for the upwardly mobile young man, the African American heir to Franklin and Douglass. Washington emphasized cleanliness, good manners, and industrial education rather than political resistance and access to elite institutions. Washington's views of education and support for racial separatism made him vulnerable to the claim that he was casting African Americans as a permanently menial class, a charge that would be made forcefully by W. E. B. Du Bois (1863–1963) in his semiautobiographical The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903).

William Pickens's autobiography, The Heir of Slaves (1911), later revised under the title Bursting Bonds (1923), follows Du Bois rather than Washington, arguing that African Americans are being made to serve interests that are not their own. Like Washington, Pickens rose up from a slave family to become a professor at Talladega College in Alabama. But Pickens expresses his disillusionment with white control of ostensibly black institutions, and in fact left the academy to work for the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Pickens's book, along with Du Bois's, represents the transformation of African American autobiography from the Franklinian narratives of upward mobility (culminating in Washington's accomodationism) toward a more inward-looking and skeptical view of American culture—and a more militant opposition to white racism—during the Harlem Renaissance.


There are some affinities between African American autobiography and the life writings of the immigrants who came to the United States in unprecedented numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (at least 13 million between 1890 and 1910), often settling in major cities on the east coast. The autobiographies of immigrants during this era function partly as guides to survival and assimilation into a new culture, particularly a highly diverse, polyglot, urban culture. Just as Washington and Du Bois represented different outlooks on racism, recent immigrants presented a contrast between successful assimilation and group solidarity and political and economic exploitation.

The Danish immigrant Jacob Riis is best remembered for providing visceral, visual representation to accompany the many textual descriptions of the shame of the cities, where millions of recent immigrants lived in extreme poverty. His autobiography, The Making of an American (1901), describes the suffering he endured as a new arrival in America but also narrates the means by which Riis was able to elevate himself above drudgery, to marry well, and to become the personal friend of Theodore Roosevelt (who, incidentally, published his own autobiography in 1913). Over the course of his social ascent, Riis considers the complexity of his relationship to his former identity. He lost his Danish identity and became, for better or worse, "an American."

Mary Antin (1881–1949) describes a similar process of successful assimilation, though with less ambivalence, in The Promised Land (1912), originally serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1911. Antin depicts the sufferings of Jewish people in Polotsk, Russia: forced conscription, police persecution, and a prohibition on attending school. She embraces a new American identity given her by the public schools; she even changes her name from Maryashe. Antin develops an almost Emersonian view of universal human nature, though she can no longer think of herself as a Russian Jew, despite still feeling concern for the plight of her people.

There is often a note of loss in the accounts of assimilated immigrants. In The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), Abraham Cahan presents a fictional version of the successful immigrant's life and establishes a link between the novel and autobiography by alluding to Franklin's arrival in Philadelphia. Levinsky enters the city with only a few pennies and rises to become a millionaire in the clothing industry; ultimately, he is unhappy because he is alienated from the self he left behind to become an American. Just as the bourgeois African American suffers from a form of "double consciousness" and risks alienation from what seem to be more authentic origins (as in Charles Chesnutt's 1899 short story, "The Wife of His Youth"), Cahan's Jewish immigrant cannot integrate the wealthy person he has become with the poor child he once was. Levinksy's success is complicated by a sense of tragic loss.

Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912) is in most respects a refutation of the Franklinian dream of success for immigrants. Berkman is also a Russian Jewish immigrant, but, instead of pursuing business, he becomes an anarchist and a friend of Emma Goldman. Berkman is radicalized by his experiences of poverty and his disillusionment with the dream of American equality and opportunity. In 1892 he attempts to assassinate the Gilded Age industrialist Henry Clay Frick, but he fails and is sentenced to twenty years in prison. There he develops a fierce solidarity with his fellow prisoners, and ultimately devotes his life to them, becoming a kind of anti-success story, which paradoxically leads to Berkman's redemption through nonviolence and service to the oppressed.


The traditions of spiritual self-examination, diary keeping, and private, introspective verse were kept alive throughout the nineteenth century largely by women, for example, in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the diaries of Mary Boykin Chesnut. Although women were gaining ground at that time and into the Progressive Era, they still had fewer opportunities to enter the professions, assume positions of leadership, or otherwise gain the kind of public attention that most often led men to publish autobiographical works. There were notable exceptions, such as Laura Smith Haviland, a Quaker abolitionist whose A Woman's Life-Work (1881) was one of the most widely circulated American women's autobiographies before the twentieth century. Among several works by leaders of the early women's movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's Eighty Years and More (1815–1897): Reminiscences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1898) provides an authoritative personal history. There are also several memoirs of women's literary activities, such as Annie Fields's Authors and Friends (1896) and Julia Ward Howe's Reminiscences 1819–1899 (1899).

In general, women who published autobiographical writings in the late nineteenth century tended to avoid exposing their private lives to the public gaze. The so-called New Women began to find professional opportunities in teaching, missionary work, social services, nursing, and journalism, but those who wrote tended to emphasize their public actions more than their private thoughts, possibly because they embraced realist objectivity and were turning away from a sentimentalist emphasis on emotions associated with Victorian womanhood. Jane Addams's Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910) begins with childhood impressions but is primarily an account of hands-on social activism (the building of "Settlement Houses" for immigrants in Chicago). Addams (1860–1936), like other reformers, does not probe the complexities of her unique personal development so much as consider her participation in larger social forces.

Possibly the most widely read autobiography ever written by an American woman is Helen Keller's The Story of My Life (1902). Keller (1880–1968) presents the story of how she prevailed over deafness and blindness brought on by a childhood illness and learned to read and speak through the intervention of a progressive teacher, Anne Sullivan, who overcame her own physical disabilities and abandonment by her parents. In many respects, Helen's education by Anne is an early feminist parable—resonating with African American and immigrant autobiographies—about the capacity of women to educate one another and overcome seemingly natural limitations. With her teacher, Keller goes on to become famous and to contribute toward building new social institutions, such as the American Federation for the Blind, for previously neglected groups.

Lucy Larcom's A New England Girlhood: Outlined from Memory (1889) is partly an elegy for the lost New England of her youth, which Larcom eventually left behind to become a missionary teacher in the American West. Before leaving, however, she worked as a spinning girl in the mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, where she, along with many other young women, were for the first time paid for their work. They also attended lectures, produced newspapers and magazines, and participated in a kind of protofeminist community, which would vanish by the end of the century, as foreign immigrants replaced the more valued native-born workers. Like other biographers in the era of realism, Larcom sees herself as representative of the societal forces of her time; her work, however, also expresses the sense of loss that comes with modernization and the desire, characteristic of the local color movement, to preserve some memory of what regional cultures were like before the industrialization and urbanization that followed the Civil War. This tendency, of course, was not exclusive to women writers.


The period between the Civil War and World War I was characterized by a sense of disruption and loss greater than any earlier period in American history. Many autobiographers were stimulated by a desire to return to a lost past in American history, which was analogous to the desire to revisit the experiences of childhood innocence. This shift can be seen in the paintings of Winslow Homer, from Civil War scenes to images of childhood such as Snap the Whip (1872), as well as pastoral scenes of hunting and depictions of traditional seaboard culture. A similar impulse is demonstrated by the novelist William Dean Howells (1837–1920) in A Boy's Town (1890), My Year in a Log Cabin (1893), and Years of My Youth (1916), as well as in the autobiographical works of Henry James (1843–1916) such as A Small Boy and Others (1913), Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), and The Middle Years (1917). James lamented the shallowness of American culture, but he repeatedly sought some explanation for his identity by meditating on the years of his childhood, which he describes as if he were actually reliving the experiences with an intensity acquired through adult understanding. In a period of rapid change and dislocation, in which authors felt the loss of a grounded identity, autobiographies reflected a larger impulse in American culture—a sense of an infinitely regressing past that was somehow better than the present.

In some respects, the American West, which was opened to full-scale settlement after the Civil War, provided a means of national rejuvenation: the process of settlement could begin anew, and those who remained in the East could fantasize about the durability of American innocence. Western local colorists such as Bret Harte, Hamlin Garland, and Mark Twain epitomized and capitalized on this element of postbellum culture. Twain's semiautobiographical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) present an antebellum American culture—regional, folksy, adventuresome, irreverent—to which many back east longed


Helen Keller's The Story of My Life is, possibly, the most influential autobiography written by an American woman, and it is a landmark work in disability studies. Blind and deaf from infancy, Keller describes how she learned to speak under the instruction of a progressive female teacher. In addition to its factual basis, Keller's account is an allegory of the circumstances of women achieving a public voice in the late nineteenth century.

It was in the spring of 1890 that I learned to speak. The impulse to utter audible sounds had always been strong within me. I used to make noises, keeping one hand on my throat while the other hand felt the movements of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a noise and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark. I also liked to keep my hand on a singer's throat, or on a piano when it was being played. . . .

[My teacher's] method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech: M, P, A, S, T, I. Miss Fuller gave me eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, "It is warm." True, they were broken and stammering syllables; but they were human speech. My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.

No deaf child who has earnestly tried to speak the words which he has never heard—to come out of the prison of silence, where no tone of love, no song of bird, no strain of music ever pierces the stillness—can forget the thrill of surprise, the joy of discovery which came over him when he uttered his first word. Only such a one can appreciate the eagerness with which I talked to my toys, to stones, trees, birds and dumb animals, or the delight I felt when at my call Mildred ran to me or my dogs obeyed my commands. It is an unspeakable boon to me to be able to speak in winged words that need no interpretation. As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers. . . .

All teachers of the deaf . . . appreciate the peculiar difficulties with which I had to contend. In reading my teacher's lips I was wholly dependent on my fingers: I had to use the sense of touch in catching the vibrations of the throat, the movements of the mouth and the expression of the face; and often this sense was at fault. In such cases I was forced to repeat the words or sentences, sometimes for hours, until I felt the proper ring in my own voice. My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had accomplished, spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their pleasure in my achievement.

"My little sister will understand me now," was a thought stronger than all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, "I am not dumb now." I could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to my mother and reading her responses from her lips. . . .

When I had made speech my own, I could not wait to go home. . . . Almost before I knew it, the train stopped at the Tuscumbia station, and there on the platform stood the whole family. My eyes fill with tears now as I think how my mother pressed me close to her, speechless and trembling with delight, taking in every syllable that I spoke, while little Mildred seized my free hand and kissed it and danced, and my father expressed his pride and affection in a big silence. It was as if Isaiah's prophecy had been fulfilled in me, "The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands!"

Keller, The Story of My Life, pp. 58–62.

to return, even if, as Twain abundantly shows, it was no better than the present (and might have been a good deal worse). Twain and other western regionalists created—and critiqued—an imagined national past in which time stood still and everyone had a deep-rooted sense of belonging in a place. That sense is reflected with less ambivalence in such autobiographical works as Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain (1903) and John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).

When Twain came to write his own autobiography, which was published posthumously in 1924, he acknowledged the artificiality of the process. There were many shameful incidents in his life that might make good stories, he said, but he could not bear to put them on paper. And for all his candor, Twain's fragmentary, episodic style suggests an unseen audience whose reactions he imagines and for whom he constructs himself as useful fiction. In some respects, Twain anticipates the modern suspicion surrounding autobiographical writing, with its reliance on a faulty memory and the manifold motivations—conscious and unconscious—for fabrication and concealment.

The Education of Henry Adams, written between 1905 and 1907 (privately circulated in 1907 but not published until 1918), is generally regarded as the end of the tradition of the self-made man and the beginning of modern autobiography. Adams (1838–1918) writes about himself in the third person, as if the present self had no connection to the past. The Education is an account of the author's intellectual development, though it is an education that leaves him ill equipped for life in the present. Although he came from a family in which it was almost assumed he would become president of the United States, historical forces relegated Adams to the sidelines of political power, making him merely an observer of the major events of his time. Perhaps the most complex experiment in American autobiography up to that time, The Education suggests that self-knowledge is impossible except through distance and detachment, and that as a result individuals are not free to choose their own destinies. One does not choose success; the self is a manikin constructed by historical forces such as the medieval conception of the Virgin or the dynamo of the machine age.

Although the Franklin model would remain the dominant form of self-representation throughout the twentieth century, intellectual writers—particularly as modernism replaced realism in the aftermath of World War I—could no longer believe in the possibility of self-determination and the heroic individualism that had characterized American autobiography for the previous century.

See alsoThe Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man; Biography; Civil War Memoirs; The Education of Henry Adams; The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant; The Promised Land; The Rise of David Levinsky; Success; Up from Slavery


Primary Works

Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.

Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.

Barnum, P. T. Struggles and Triumphs; or, Forty Years'Recollections of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. Hartford: J. B. Burr, 1869.

Berkman, Alexander. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. New York: Mother Earth, 1912.

Cahan, Abraham. The Rise of David Levinsky: A Novel. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1917.

Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary from Dixie. New York: Appleton, 1905.

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of FrederickDouglass. Hartford: Park, 1882.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903.

Grant, U. S. Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. New York: C. L. Webster and Company, 1885–1886.

Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life. New York: Doubleday, 1902.

Larcom, Lucy. A New England Girlhood: Outlined fromMemory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889.

Pickens, William. Bursting Bonds; Enlarged Edition, TheHeir of Slaves. Boston: Jordan and More Press, 1923.

Riis, Jacob. The Making of an American. New York: Macmillan, 1901.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Autobiography of Mark Twain. New York; Harper & Brothers, 1924.

Washington, Booker T. Up from Slavery: An Autobiography. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1901.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days and Collect. Philadelphia: Rees Welsh, 1882. Reprinted in his Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William L. "Forgotten Voices of Afro-American Autobiography, 1865–1930." a/b: Auto/biography Studies 2 (fall 1986): 21–27.

Boelhower, William. "The Making of Ethnic Autobiography in the United States." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 123–141. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Burr, Anna Robeson. Autobiography, a Critical andComparative Study. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909.

Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man: ChangingConcepts of Success in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Cooley, Thomas. Educated Lives: The Rise of ModernAutobiography in America. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976.

Couser, G. Thomas. Altered Egos: Authority in AmericanAutobiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The PropheticMode. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Cox, James M. Recovering Literature's Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Egan, Susanna. "'Self'-Conscious History: American Autobiography after the Civil War." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 70–94. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Holly, Carol. "Nineteenth-Century Autobiographies of Affiliation: The Case of Catherine Sedgwick and Lucy Larcom." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 216–234. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Howells, William Dean. "Editor's Easy Chair." Harper'sMonthly Magazine 119 (1909): 796–798.

Jelinek, Estelle C. The Tradition of Women's Autobiography from Antiquity to the Present. New York: Twayne, 1986.

Kaplan, Louis. A Bibliography of American Autobiographies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1962.

Sayre, Robert F. The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin,Henry Adams, Henry James. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.

Sayre, Robert F., ed. American Lives: An Anthology ofAutobiographical Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

William Pannapacker


views updated Jun 27 2018


Growing scholarly interest in the relationship between truth and fiction, along with popular interest in personal life-narratives and the "culture of confession," have brought new prominence to the genre of autobiography. Indeed, according to Leigh Gilmore, the number of English-language autobiographies and memoirs roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s (p. 1, n. 1), and scholarly attention to life writing has followed this trend. Paradoxically, however, as interest in autobiography has risen, debates over the nature and definition of the genre have become increasingly prevalent. Etymologically the word "autobiography" is a compound of the Greek terms autos (self), bios (life), and graphe (writing). At its simplest, then, autobiography can be defined as "self-life-writing." But, as illustrated by debates over what counts as autobiographyand indeed, over what counts as "truth" in the postmodern worldthe apparently simple act of writing one's own life is much more complex than this definition suggests. In fact, autobiography is as diverse and as protean as any literary genre, and attempts to define it have always been troubled.

Scholars of autobiography have long theorized the genre not as a discrete set of characteristics but as a literary and cultural practice informed by diverse cultural, rhetorical, and institutional contexts (see especially Bruss; Butterfield; Eakin; Egan; Gilmore; Hesford; Lionnet; Smith and Watson). This way of thinking resonates with postmodern theories of language, subjectivity, identity, and power that have reshaped how we think about autobiography and other "true" stories. "Self-life-writing," then, involves more than simply writing or reading a life story; it also requires attention to the rhetorical situation in which that story is embedded and to the cultural narratives that shape what counts as "truth" in a particular time and place.

Culture and Identity: Narrative Strategies

Contemporary philosophers and cultural critics have convincingly argued that identity and experience are themselves socially constructed, shifting according to historical and cultural ideas about personhood and everyday life. Despite this postmodern turn to thinking about how identity is made, not born, scholars of autobiography nevertheless insist on the materiality of identity in theorizing life writing, particularly the material consequences of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and ability, and how autobiographical narratives are affected by culturally available identity categories and narratives. From Sei Shōnagon's The Pillow Book (Japan, c. 1000 c.e.) to Margery Kempe's The Book of Margery Kempe (England, 1436) to Benjamin Franklin's The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (United States, 17711789) to Richard Rodriguez's immigration memoir Hunger of Memory (United States, 1982), identity and narrative provide key frames through which autobiographers negotiate their life stories. For example, Shōnagon's notebooks, containing observations, poems, and stories written by a tenth-century Japanese woman, differ in many ways from Franklin's archetypal autobiography, which reveals his investment in white male privilege in the early U.S. republic. Nevertheless both autobiographies show that "self-life-writing" is a process that is historically and culturally situated, and through which identity and experience are negotiated, materialized, and refashioned.

Significantly Franklin's Autobiography relies on a larger cultural narrative, the bildungsroman, which has widely accepted currency in the United States. The bildungsroman follows a classic narrative trajectory of conversion in which the individual hero embarks on a long journey that ends with his resolution with the larger social communityin Franklin's case, the national community as represented by Philadelphia. The bildungsroman provides narrative shape and truth-value to a wide range of mainstream and marginal autobiographies published in the United States, from Franklin's to Mary Antin's The Promised Land (1912), Jade Snow Wong's Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950), Malcolm X and Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), and Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory. The fact that several immigrant, ethnic, and women autobiographers have relied on the bildungsroman to give their stories a recognizable trajectory and broad cultural currency is no accident. Indeed many autobiographers have used this form deliberately and strategically in order to persuade their readers that they too deserve a place of privilege in the United States and that their achievement of the "American Dream" is a result of individual hard work and intelligence. Therefore many autobiographies that are shaped by the bildungsroman narrative downplay structural inequities such as gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, and ability. Wong and Rodriguez, for example, openly dispute the assumption that gender or ethnicity has served as a barrier in their lives, even when their autobiographies clearly show otherwise. The bildungsroman, then, is a form that both enables and constrains the kinds of life stories that can be told by particular autobiographers.

Autobiography and Trauma

Given the culture of confession that infuses contemporary life in the United States, it may not come as a surprise that trauma memoirs have become remarkably popular with both autobiographers and audiences alike. Trauma memoirs often narrate state-sponsored and human rights violations, such as Elie Wiesel's Night (1960) and Loung Ung's First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000), but they also often narrate acts of individual violence, such as rape, domestic violence, and incest, such as Mary Karr's The Liar's Club (1995) and Michael Ryan's Secret Life (1995). Autobiographies that attempt to narrate traumatic experiences, such as child abuse, rape, and war, are caught within a paradox: trauma is often understood to be defined by a radical unrepresentability, since it is that which shatters the self and makes language and narrative impossible. In this context, narrative, argues Arthur W. Frank in The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics (1995), is an ethical as well as an aesthetic imperative, testifying to the narrator's continuing presence in the world in spite of injury, illness, and even imminent death. Indeed contemporary scholars of trauma autobiographies have become increasingly interested in the process and the politics of articulating pain and injury through life narrative. For example, Marianne Hirsch's Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory (1997), Annette Kuhn's Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination (1995), and Nancy Miller and Jason Tougaw's collection Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community (2002), explore the difficulty of representing trauma. Significantly Leigh Gilmore's The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony argues that trauma is a key site at which to deconstruct the generic boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, the imagined and the real. Many authors of trauma narratives, such as Mikal Gilmore, Dorothy Allison, and Jamaica Kincaid, strategically choose to turn away from the autobiographical label and instead to embrace fiction as a genre that can achieve the project of self-representation without putting the author in the position of being scrutinized and judged by readers and critics. As these theorists suggest, turning one's life into a story is laden with difficult representational and political choices concerning which stories to tell, which culturally available narratives to draw upon, and which generic categories to affix to the final product.

Narratives of mobility and/or immobility structure a wide variety of autobiographies that bring into view questions concerning the representation of the racialized, gendered, and classed body. Unlike the heroic journey narrative of the bildungsroman, which relies on an individualized story of social mobility, many autobiographical narratives of mobility and immobility engage questions of community, belonging, and citizenship and their relationship to how the freedoms of particular bodies are granted or restricted. For example, the slave narrative articulates the broad cultural, economic, and historical forces that compelled racialized subjects into slavery in the United States, Britain, and the British colonies. Frederick Douglass's The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) gained wide influence in the United States in the nineteenth century for its indictment of white slave owners whose personal and political freedom depended upon the forced servitude of an entire class of people. Slave narratives by female slaves, such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Mary Prince's The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave (1831), added to this an exploration of how gender also operated to the advantage of white men in the slave economy. An examination of slave narratives, then, exposes the abstract narrative of individual social mobility in bildungsroman narratives to be a patent fiction and shows instead how race, gender, and class privilege operate to enable or constrain particular bodies and particular life narratives.

Likewise other autobiographical narratives structured by the dynamics of immobility or restricted mobility provide key insights into how society is constructed around gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and ability. For example, early American captivity narratives told the story of American Indians' supposed savagery and white women's supposed civility. For example, Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), perhaps the most famous of the captivity narratives, creates a solid opposition between white settlers and native "savages," arguing in the process that the settlers, not the natives, have God-given authority over the American wilderness. In contrast, prison memoirs and Japanese-American internment narratives illustrate the racial and class dynamics that constrain the movement of individuals who are deemed by the state to be a danger to the citizenry. In one of the most famous internment narratives, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston's Farewell to Manzanar (1973), the narrator describes the racialization process by which Japanese immigrants and citizens were reconstructed as enemies of the state solely on the basis of their ethnicity and without regard to their citizenship status or national loyalties. Similarly prison memoirs such as Alexander Berkman's Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912) and Against All Hope: The Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares (1986) expose how race and class factor into a supposedly impartial criminal justice system. As these autobiographies illustrate, mobility and immobility are intricately tied to social constructions of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and citizenship status and differ radically depending upon one's privilege or lack thereof. The choice to write an autobiography shaped by the form of the slave narrative, the captivity narrative, the prison narrative, or the internment narrative is likewise a choice with a range of political and rhetorical effects and is not simply a neutral or self-evident choice. Likewise immigration narratives provide a culturally intelligible form for many autobiographies and call attention to the ways in which "citizen," "alien," and "immigrant" are shifting and socially constructed categories. Immigration narratives sometimes draw on other culturally available narratives such as the bildungsroman, as we have seen with Jade Snow Wong and Richard Rodriguez. But other immigration autobiographies resist the individualist trajectory of the bildungsroman by explicitly challenging the terms by which the nation-state defines "citizen" and "Other." For example, in Judith Ortiz Cofer's Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood (1990), the concept of La Tristeza, "the sadness that only place induces and only place cures" (p. 14), functions as a poignant way to theorize the pain of immigration and displacement. In Ernesto Galarza's Barrio Boy: The Story of a Boy's Acculturation (1971), the narrator constructs his life as a series of lessons in coming to gender, ethnic, and class consciousness. Self-consciously portraying his life as historically and psychologically representative of all Mexican immigrants to the United States, Galarza resists the psychological characterization of Chicanos as lacking "self-image" (p. 2) and insists that his identity, like his autobiography, is profoundly affected both by his childhood in Jalcocotán and by his participation in the U.S. Chicano labor movement of the 1960s.

The case of immigrant and ethnic autobiography brings up another issue that informs the study of self-life-writing: namely, the question of who can speak for whom. The politics of collaboration, editing, and translation inform much ethnic life writing throughout U.S. history as well as earlier and non-U.S. autobiographies such as Margery Kempe's Book, over which questions about the author's literacy continue to throw her status as autobiographer into doubt. In the U.S. context, a primary example of the politics of who can speak for whom is the history of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century Native-American autobiographies, many of which were produced collaboratively between the native subject and a white ethnographer. For example, The Life of Ma-ka-tai-me-she-kia-kiak, or Black Hawk (1833), transcribed and edited by J. B. Patterson, and Black Elk Speaks (1932), transcribed and edited by John G. Neihardt, are both as-told-to autobiographies that call attention to the politics of cross-cultural representation, translation, and authorial agency. But the collaborative autobiography continues into the late twentieth century and on to the present day with classics such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the contemporary testimonio of Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala (1984), transcribed and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray.

Menchú's testimonio, published and circulated in North America, calls for attention to the contemporary politics of globalization and the transnational production, circulation, and reception of life narratives in the "First World" about "Third World" subjects. But testimonio also differs from conventional autobiography. As Doris Sommer argues, whereas autobiography generally tells the story of an individualized "I" and its unique experiences, in testimonio the "I" becomes plural and stands in for a community of people who share a common identity and representative, rather than unique, experiences. In Menchú's case, this plural "I" has renewed public and scholarly interest in the question of "truth" in autobiography, as she has been accused of misrepresenting "her" experiences for aesthetic and political gain.

"Outlaw" Genres

Debates such as these over the slipperiness of autobiography as a genre have led contemporary scholars to turn to the increasingly complex production and reception of autobiographical "outlaw genres," which call attention to how generic distinctions have always been troubled, fluid, and contestable. In "Resisting Autobiography: Out-Law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects" (1992), Caren Kaplan argues that hybrid autobiographical forms constitute strategic political moves for women, ethnic, and immigrant authors who do not wish to write their lives according to culturally available scripts. Moreover, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson's edited collection Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (1996), broadens conceptions of autobiography past purely written forms into everyday cultural practices that are in fact identity practices. These scholars point out that contemporary "autobiographical" texts call into question the generic boundaries between fiction, autobiography, biography, ethnography, myth, and performance. Authors are increasingly labeling their works "biomythography" (Audre Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, 1982), "fictional autobioethnography" (Norma Elia Cantú's Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, 1995), and other generic hybrids, and many authors are combining text with images and drawings that call attention to the visual as a self-representational practice. For example, Art Spiegelman's two-volume Maus: A Survivor's Tale (1986 and 1991) uses a comic book or "graphic novel" form in order to explore Spiegelman's troubled relationship with his father, a survivor of Auschwitz, and his life story. Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios (1983) and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987) combine personal essays and poems with history and feminist theory in English and Spanish to create hybrid forms that are both autobiographical and academic. And Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's multimedia Dictee (1982) draws on autobiography, biography, photographs, drawings, and cinema in order to explore the challenges of immigration for the Korean-American narrator and her mother.

Outlaw genres suggest that autobiography is moving from a generally textual narrative form into a range of complex oral, textual, visual, and performative cultural practices that explore the challenges of identity and self-representation in diverse ways and through diverse media. Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña's autobiographical performance art is one striking example of contemporary attempts to expand self-representation beyond textual forms. In Year of the White Bear: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West (1992), Fusco and Gómez-Peña, dressed up as exotic tribal figures from an unnamed and "undiscovered" island, displayed themselves in a cage in London, Madrid, and New York. Counting on their audiences' familiarity with the colonial practice of putting native peoples on display for Western audiences, Fusco and Gómez-Peña were surprised by the extent to which their performance, intended as a satire of popular nineteenth-century cultural expositions that presented cultural tribes as specimens, was taken literally and as truth by audiences. This ironic performance of racialized identity goes to the heart of questions of truth, authenticity, and audience expectations in "nonfictional" self-representational acts. It also illustrates the continuing need for autobiography to be theorized complexly and rhetorically, especially in the contemporary global landscape in which texts cross national, cultural, and language boundaries with ever-increasing frequency.

See also Biography ; Identity ; Memory ; Narrative ; Person, Idea of the ; Representation .


Bruss, Elizabeth W. Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974.

Eakin, Paul John. How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Gilmore, Leigh. The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Hesford, Wendy S. Framing Identities: Autobiography and the Politics of Pedagogy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.

Kaplan, Caren. "Resisting Autobiography: Out-law Genres and Transnational Feminist Subjects." In De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, 115138. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Lejeune, Philippe. "The Autobiographical Pact." In On Autobiography, edited by Paul John Eakin. Translated by Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Lionnet, Françoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

. Reading Autobiography: A Guide to Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Sommer, Doris. "'Not Just a Personal Story': Women's Testimonios and the Plural Self." In Life Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, edited by Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck, 107130. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Theresa A. Kulbaga

Wendy S. Hesford


views updated Jun 27 2018


An autobiography is a prose narrative about some-one's own life. It is generally presumed to be factual, but the way the narrative is shaped, the selections and emphases that must be made by an author, may introduce elements of imaginative invention that reveal something about the author's inner development. If, strictly speaking, there were relatively few "full-dress autobiographies" published in the United States between 1820 and 1870, this half-century was one of the most fertile periods in American literary history for published autobiographical writing, which can include diaries, memoirs, lives, histories, journals, narratives, confessions, adventures, recollections, and even novels and poetry. Indeed, many of the most influential texts of the so-called American Renaissance, such as Walden (1854) and Leaves of Grass (1855), are hybrid literary forms that include strong autobiographical elements but are not, strictly speaking, autobiographies.

Before the 1970s most literary scholars regarded autobiography as a subliterary genre, important primarily as a source—if an unreliable one—of historical and biographical information. The majority of nineteenth-century autobiographers were not professional writers, and their works seldom demonstrated the formal complexity that was expected of literary works in the era of the "New Criticism." The turn toward historically oriented forms of literary scholarship, coupled with the desire to recover the lost voices of women and minority writers, have transformed autobiography into one of the most studied American genres. Nevertheless, the period covered by this essay has not been exhausted. Louis Kaplan's Bibliography of American Autobiographies (1961), using relatively strict criteria for inclusion, indicates that this era produced many hundreds of autobiographies, most of which have never been given sustained scholarly attention. Indeed, the field is so large and complex that scholarly treatments tend to focus on a handful of well-known authors and a few subgenres such as slave and captivity narratives. And studies of American autobiography often conclude with Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) at the end of the eighteenth century or start with Henry Adams (1838–1918) at the beginning of the twentieth.

The scope and variety of autobiographical publications in nineteenth-century America suggest that the rules of the genre—who could write what for whom—were still emerging in the context of a highly mobile society. Autobiographical writing—if not autobiography proper—flowered in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century as the result of numerous influences, including the ongoing tradition of spiritual self-examination, the expansion of a literate middle class, the spread of popular democracy, a belief in the reality and autonomy of the individual, and the right of that individual to discover a unique destiny. The egocentric qualities of Romanticism in literature and the arts magnified the tendency of Americans to celebrate themselves, to believe that every individual had a story worth telling. And, unique among literary genres, autobiographical writing was accessible to anyone who could write or dictate the story of his or her life. Many autobiographies were written by ministers, politicians, military men, and other professionals, but a substantial portion were written by ordinary people who had an extraordinary story to tell, an injustice to expose, or a cause to promote. There was money to be made too, for the literary marketplace was expanding with the scale of the nation as a whole. The forms of autobiographical writing proliferated in relation to the varied circumstances of their authors, the audiences they wished to reach, and the means by which they were published. Indeed, in this era it is not surprising that autobiographical elements would begin to blend with genres such as the sermon, the novel, the nature study, and the nationalist epic.

If a single characteristic can be said to hold these autobiographical texts of this era together, it is the theme of exploring what it means to be an "American." The United States was still a new nation, and it was struggling to define its purpose and the complementary roles played by its citizens. This presented difficulties for writers who were excluded from the dominant culture's definition of citizenship (in the case of enslaved persons and Native Americans), or who were discouraged from defining a public self except in relation to a spouse or paternal figure (as in the case of women). The nineteenth century was an era in which the authorized autobiographical subject, the life of a representative "white" American man, gave way to challenges from women, African Americans, and other groups whose autobiographical writings were, by their very existence, a challenge to the conception of who was entitled to a public voice and therefore authorized to be an American. In this sense autobiography played an important role in progressive expansion of the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—the founding autobiographical documents of the United States—to which many of these marginalized autobiographers appealed in their works.


The influence of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin on American culture is probably greater than any text other than the Bible. It was originally published as Franklin's Life in 1791, but the text was not cobbled together into anything resembling its present form until the 1840s. Nevertheless, Franklin's memoir, in its various forms, was surely the most widely disseminated American autobiography of the nineteenth century. It was adapted, shortly after its initial publication, in dozens of variably priced editions, and practically every would-be autobiographer, including women and slaves, had to reckon with Franklin's model of the bourgeois American self: someone who is born in poverty and obscurity but who manages through hard work and moral virtue to rise to a position of wealth and fame.

Franklin's Autobiography established the American upward-mobility narrative in which material success combined with service to the community replaced the contemplation of the state of one's soul that dominated autobiographical writing before the nineteenth century.

I have been the more particular in this Description of my Journey, & shall be so of my first Entry into that City, that you may in your Mind compare such unlikely Beginning with the Figure I have since made there. I was in my working Dress, my best Cloaths being to come round by Sea. I was dirty from my Journey; my Pockets were stuff'd out with Shirts & Stockings, and I knew no Soul nor where to look for Lodging. I was fatigu'd with Travelling, Rowing, & Want of Rest, I was very hungry; and my whole Stock of Cash consisted of a Dutch Dollar, and about a Shilling in Copper. The latter I gave the People of the Boat for my Passage, who at first refus'd it, on Acct of my Rowing; but I insisted on their taking it, a Man being sometimes more generous when he has but a little Money than when he has plenty, perhaps thro' fear of being thought to have but little. Then I walk'd up the Street, gazing about, till near the Market House I met a Boy with Bread. I had made many a Meal on Bread, & inquiring where he got it, I went immediately to the Baker's he directed me to in second Street; and ask'd for Bisket, intending such as we had in Boston, but they it seems were not made in Philadelphia, then I ask'd for a threepenny Loaf, and was told they had none such: so not considering or knowing the Difference of Money & the greater Cheapness nor the Names of his Bread, I bad him give me three pennyworth of any sort. He gave me accordingly three great Puffy Rolls. I was surpriz'd at the Quantity, but took it, and, having no Room in my Pockets, walk'd off with a Roll under each Arm, & eating the other. Thus I went up Market-Street as far as fourth Street, passing by the Door of Mr Read, my future Wife's Father, when she standing at the Door saw me, & thought I made as I certainly did a most awkward ridiculous Appearance. Then I turn'd and went down Chestnut Street and part of Walnut Street, eating my Roll all the Way, and coming round found myself again at Market street Wharff, near the Boat I came in, to which I went for a Draught of the River Water; and, being fill'd with one of my Rolls, gave the other two to a Woman & her Child that came down the River in the Boat with us and were waiting to go farther.

Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (New York: Library of America, 1994), pp. 1328–1329.

The tradition of the spiritual autobiography, which was still vibrant in Franklin's time, focused on the development of the author's relationship with God (see, e.g., Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative, c. 1740). By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the pattern of struggles overcome on the road to salvation was increasingly supplemented, in the American context, by the more secular success narrative, the "rags-to-riches" stories of "self-made men." This pattern would expand through the nineteenth century in America until it became the characteristic mode of self-presentation for nearly every established American (consider the many biographies of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield). Of course, the spiritual journey continued to structure the form of the success narrative, which substitutes the acquisition of capital and status for the infusion of grace. Franklin's escape from poverty and "The Way to Wealth" parallel the escape from sin and the road to salvation. In this sense, wealth is an outward sign of moral virtue, and it is bestowed for the purpose of becoming a benefactor to one's society. Franklin's life—and other lives based on his model—negotiate the tension between the material and the spiritual, the individual and the community, by asserting that self-interest coincides with the interests of society.

The image Franklin established—not without some deviation from the memories of his contemporaries—defined him as what D. H. Lawrence later called "the first dummy American." And Franklin's exemplary life was both liberating and confining to successive generations. He offered the possibility of personal transformation through social mobility, but he also placed responsibility for poverty completely on the individual. His remarkable frankness and self-deprecating humor establishes intimacy—a spirit of equality—with the reader, as if the author is not dressed for a public ball but receiving us in his customary domestic clothing. He adopts a pose of radical honesty and self-knowledge at the service of common public interests. Nevertheless, for all his seeming openness about past "errata," Franklin does not offer the reader much direct insight into his personal feelings: his loves, his hates, the motives that drive his ambition. Franklin also presents a vision of happiness based on wealth and public acclaim at the expense of spiritual or emotional fulfillment. Perhaps the shift to secular autobiography banished the introspectiveness of spiritual self-examination; Thomas Jefferson's (1743–1826) Autobiography (1821) is similarly impersonal. In any case, Franklin's autobiography inspired a host of imitators, but it also motivated some writers to subvert his apparent faith in capitalism and American equality, his economic model of success, his concern for appearances over reality, and his apparent neglect of spiritual and emotional reasons for living. For all its influence, some nineteenth-century readers such as Herman Melville (1819–1891) viewed Franklin's autobiography less as a guide for proper conduct than as the deceptive apologia of a con man not all that different from Stephen Burroughs (1765–1840), a notorious Yankee rogue who published his Memoirs in 1798.

The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1855)—possibly the second-best-selling American autobiography of the nineteenth century—reflects the influence of Franklin's values and the limitations of his model of the American self. Like Franklin's Autobiography, Barnum's Life is the story of how a poor boy became a rich and famous man. But Barnum (1810–1891) possesses little of the civic-mindedness of Franklin. At times his Life seems like a disconnected compendium of practical jokes and folksy humor mixed with solemn, Franklinesque advice, such as his "rules for success in business." From the beginning, Barnum emphasizes that he was born in an era that was radically different from the eighteenth century. The rules of the economic game had changed. The rapid expansion of cities and industry and an emerging consumer culture called for a new model of success, not based on thrift and humility so much as on conspicuous consumption, visionary speculation, and bombastic advertising. Rather than building the civic infrastructure and cultivating moral virtues, Barnum describes the means by which he hoaxes the American public on an ever-grander scale: liquor, lotteries, Joice Heth, the Fejee Mermaid, Tom Thumb. Ultimately Barnum attributes his triumphs to American characteristics as much as to his own initiative; he expresses this neatly in his dedication: "To the Universal Yankee Nation, of Which I am proud to be one." To some contemporaries, Barnum's Life did not represent a rejection of Franklinian values; rather, Barnum was a product of the go-getting marketplace these values encouraged rather than the deeper intellectual and spiritual aspects of the self. For all his claims of hard work, Franklin's autobiography also communicated the value of image over reality in a culture based on capitalist speculation.


If the bourgeois self—based on wealth and position—was a speculative bubble by the mid-nineteenth century, then where could the ultimate meaning and purpose of the individual be found? The leading American Romantic intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), called on his fellow Americans in speeches and essays such as "The American Scholar" (1837) and "Self-Reliance" (1841) to throw off the shackles of the past, to become nonconformists, and to live an authentic life. In the act of becoming more truly themselves, unfettered by external influences, American individuals could become more closely connected to each other: the small "self " of the individual could become one with the big "Self " of all human life and experience. This is the essence of Emerson's transcendentalist beliefs. His collection of brief biographies, Representative Men (1850), for example, presents the lives of "great men," such as Goethe and Napoleon, whose greatness was emblematic of the larger forces at work in their cultures. They were great because they focused the virtues of their people. In this manner, transcendentalist autobiography continued Franklin's exemplary project, but it shifted the focus from the external and material to the internal and spiritual.

In Walden (1854) Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) tried to put the ideals of Emerson into practice. He attempts to find the true material and spiritual nature of the self by living in solitude in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. In effect, Thoreau was intellectualizing the experiences of genuine frontier autobiographers including Davy Crockett and Francis Parkman and high-seas adventurers such as Richard Henry Dana. Based on Thoreau's diaries from the years 1845–1847, Walden is divided into chapters on topics such as "Economy," "Brute Neighbors," and "Sounds." It does not cover a lengthy span of Thoreau's life, nor does it adhere strictly to the chronology of events during his stay at the pond. Instead Walden condenses and thematizes his experiences in a manner that equates the seasons of the author's life with the seasons of nature. Although Thoreau begins with the promise to deliver "a simple and sincere account of his own life" (p. 325), he transforms himself into an abstraction of human experience in the context of a seemingly natural environment. Thoreau's autobiography deconstructs his individuality and makes him into a universal man whose personal life is of no consequence to the reader.

Walt Whitman's (1819–1892) autobiographical collection of poems, Leaves of Grass (1855), was also inspired by Thoreau's mentor, Emerson. Whitman shares Thoreau's discovery of the self in solitary encounters with nature, but he also images himself as the embodiment and spokesperson for every American: "Through me many long dumb voices / Voices of the interminable generations of slaves" (p. 50). Correspondingly, the frontispiece to the first unsigned edition of Leaves presents Whitman not as an aloof, Harvard-educated poet but as a common workman. The book was supposed to represent the spontaneous voice of the American people en masse. Like Walden, Whitman's long poem "Song of Myself " does not have a narrative line, but it is organized according to the dialectical cycles of nature—the centrifugal and centripetal, birth and death, and day and night. Unlike Thoreau, Whitman is not concerned with dissolving the distinction between self and place so much as between "self," the individual, and "Self," the common human experience: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" (p. 50). Whitman's most autobiographical poetry, like Thoreau's prose, gives the reader little insight into Whitman as an individual human being. If Franklin's autobiography made him the personal exemplar of the bourgeois American, he still stands out as a recognizable historical individual; transcendentalist self-representations, in contrast, eliminated personal specificity—as well as genre boundaries—in favor of national or human representation combined with visionary self-transcendence.

Like Franklin, Thoreau is an American pragmatist trying to find the right way to live, but, influenced by Romanticism, Thoreau attempts to recover a more authentic, natural existence by rejecting materialism and the structures of civilization.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (New York: Library of America, 1985), pp. 394–395.


It is significant that both Whitman and Thoreau undertook their autobiographical projects on the Fourth of July; they never struggled with the question of whether they had the right to present themselves as representative Americans. Of course, the liberties achieved by Franklin's generation were not extended to everyone in the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. Millions of African Americans were enslaved, and the institution was threatening to expand with the nation into the Far West. Meanwhile, women everywhere were encouraged to remain within the domestic sphere, barred from the professions, and discouraged from engaging in personal publication. In this context, autobiographical writing played an important role in extending the liberal vision of self-determination for these and other marginalized Americans including the destitute and disabled, Native Americans, and immigrants who lived within the expanding borders of the United States.

More than a hundred former slaves, usually men, published narratives of their experiences between 1830 and 1870. Typically these narratives—America's unique contribution to world literature—drew on the spiritual, Enlightenment, and Romantic traditions of autobiographical writing. They showed how slavery as an institution perverted Christianity, destroyed the moral character of the slaveholder, corrupted the principles on which the nation was founded, and severed the strongest emotional ties between human beings. Slave narrators such as Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) and Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813–1897) proved their worthiness to be regarded as citizens by replicating the Franklinian model of self-improvement under great duress.

Neither the Franklianian nor Thoreauvian models of American selfhood were available to enslaved African Americans such as Frederick Douglass. Nevertheless, Douglass's Narrative weaves together the traditions of spiritual, Enlightenment, and Romantic autobiography.

You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! O that I were free! O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing! Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll. Go on, go on. O that I could also go! Could I but swim! If I could fly! O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute! The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance. I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! Is there any God? Why am I a slave? I will run away. I will not stand it. Get caught, or get clear, I'll try it. I had as well die with ague as the fever. I have only one life to lose. I had as well be killed running as die standing. Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom. The steamboats steered in a north-east course from North Point. I will do the same; and when I get to the head of the bay, I will turn my canoe adrift, and walk straight through Delaware into Pennsylvania. When I get there, I shall not be required to have a pass; I can travel without being disturbed. Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off. Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke. I am not the only slave in the world. Why should I fret? I can bear as much as any of them. Besides, I am but a boy, and all boys are bound to some one. It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free. There is a better day coming.

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New York: Library of America, 1994), pp. 59–60.

As Douglass writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), "The argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn" (p. 38). Douglass begins his Narrative by describing how the slave is excluded from the traditional sources of identity (a birthday, family, marriage, and literacy), but he goes on to describe how he transforms himself in a manner that recalls the Declaration of Independence's characterization of American manhood as the determination to overthrow tyranny: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 60). Douglass's fight with Covey the "nigger-breaker" is an iconic moment in which a generalized "slave" becomes a generalized "man." After his escape, he abandons the name "Bailey" for "Douglass" and proclaims himself nothing less than a direct heir of the unfulfilled promise of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. "Douglass," according to one contemporary, "passed through every gradation of rank comprised in our national make-up, and bears upon his person and upon his soul everything that is American" (Douglass, p. 132). For all his protestations against American social injustice, Douglass was "a Representative American man—a type of his countrymen" (Douglass, p. 132). Like Franklin, the former colonial subject, Douglass, Jacobs, and many other slave narrators defiantly wrote themselves into existence as exemplary Americans.

The rich tradition of spiritual self-examination, diary keeping, and private, introspective verse was kept alive in the nineteenth century largely by women—consider, for example, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) or the journals of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823–1886). Women had fewer opportunities to enter the professions, make the social associations, or engage in the adventures (or crimes) that typically led to publication of an autobiographical work. Women were also discouraged from presenting themselves in public, and the culture of domesticity persuaded many women to discount the importance of their own experiences. Although female autobiographers were less numerous than male autobiographers, there are many notable examples of their work, such as A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) by a woman who had lived among the Seneca Indians for forty years and who was interviewed by James Everett Seaver (1787–1827). Caroline Matilda Kirkland—writing under the pen name/fictional character Mary Clavers—detailed her pioneer experiences with her husband in Michigan in A New Home—Who'll Follow? (1839). Lydia Sigourney's (1791–1865) Letters of Life (1866) was the first full-length autobiography written by a literary professional in the United States. In order to avoid violating the cultural taboo against public self-revelation, Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Parton, 1811–1872) in Ruth Hall (1855) presented her personal experiences as a novel rather than an autobiography and was viciously attacked in the press when her identity was exposed. Quite often, women's autobiographical writings indicate their exclusion from the public sphere by showing how literary professional-ism—among other capabilities comparable with those of their male contemporaries—is compatible with traditional domestic responsibilities; in effect, they undermined the Enlightenment and transcendental conception of the American self as solitary, masculine, and universal.

See alsoBiography; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass;A New Home—Who'll Follow?;Slave Narratives; Walden


Primary Works

Barnum, P. T. The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. 1855. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life,My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times. New York: Library of America, 1994.

Franklin, Benjamin. Essays, Articles, Bagatelles, and Letters;Poor Richard's Almanack, Autobiography. New York: Library of America, 1987.

Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord andMerrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod. New York: Library of America, 1985.

Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Secondary Works

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Buell, Lawrence. "Autobiography in the American Renaissance." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 47–69. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man: ChangingConcepts of Success in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.

Couser, G. Thomas. Altered Egos: Authority in AmericanAutobiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The PropheticMode. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.

Cox, James M. Recovering Literature's Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Fabian, Ann. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives inNineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Kaplan, Louis, comp., in association with James Tyler Cook, Clinton E. Colby Jr., and Daniel C. Haskell. A Bibliography of American Autobiographies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.

Sayre, Robert F., ed. American Lives: An Anthology ofAutobiographical Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

Shea, Daniel B. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. 1968. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Spengemann, William C. The Forms of Autobiography:Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.

Steele, Jeffrey. The Representation of the Self in the AmericanRenaissance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

William Pannapacker


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As a literary genre, autobiography, narrating the story of one's own life, is a variation of biography, a form of writing that describes the life of a particular individual. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, autobiography is of interest as the story told by the patient to the analyst and to himself.

Autobiography in the modern sense began as a form of confession (Saint Augustine), even though there are memoirs in classical literature (Xenophon's Anabasis, Julius Caesar's Gallic wars ). Such introspective works can be considered attempts at self-analysis before the psychoanalytic discovery of the unconscious. In 1925 Freud wrote An Autobiographical Study, in which the story of his own life merges with that of the creation of psychoanalysis. According to Freud, biographical truth does not exist, since the author must rely on lies, secrets, and hypocrisy (letter to Arnold Zweig dated May 31, 1939). The same is true of autobiography. From this point of view, it is interesting that Freud framed his theoretical victory and the birth of psychoanalysis in terms of a psychological novel.

The function of autobiography is to use scattered bits of memory to create the illusion of a sense of continuity that can hide the anxiety of the ephemeral, or even of the absence of the meaning of existence, from a purely narcissistic point of view. This story constitutes a narrative identity (Ricoeur, 1984-1988) but is self-contained. In contrast, the job of analysis is to modify, indeed to deconstruct, this identity through interpretation. Because the analyst reveals repressed content, he is always a potential spoiler of the patient's autobiographic story (Mijolla-Mellor, 1988).

Although autobiography has been of greater interest to literature (Lejeune, 1975) than to psychoanalysis, a number of psychoanalysts (Wilfred Bion and Marie Bonaparte, among others) have written autobiographies, thus confirming the link between the analyst's pursuit of self-analysis and autobiographical reflection.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: "Autobiographical Study, An"; Jung, Carl Gustav; Literature and psychoanalysis; "Psychoanalytic Notes on the Autobiography of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia paranoides )"; Memoirs of the future.


Freud, Sigmund. (1925). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.

Lejeune, Philippe. (1974). Le pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil.

Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1988). Suvivreà so passé. In L'autobiographie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

. (1990). Autobiographie et psychanalyse. Le Coq-Héron, 118, pp. 6-14.

Ricoeur, Paul. (1984-1988). Time and narrative (Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1985)


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au·to·bi·og·ra·phy / ˌôtəbīˈägrəfē/ • n. (pl. -phies) an account of a person's life written by that person. ∎  such writing as a literary genre.DERIVATIVES: au·to·bi·og·ra·pher / -fər/ n.


views updated May 23 2018

autobiography Narrative account of a person's life, written by the subject. The modern autobiography has become a distinctive literary form. The first important example of the genre was the 4th-century Confessions of Saint Augustine. The modern, introspective autobiography, dealing frankly with all aspects of life, is usually dated from the remarkable Confessions of Rousseau (1765–72; published 1782). See also biography


views updated May 17 2018

autobiography XIX. f. prec. + BIOGRAPHY.


views updated Jun 11 2018

autobiography See LIFE-HISTORY.