Studies in Autobiography
Saint Augustine wrote his Confessions—perhaps the first “modern” autobiography—around 400 AD. No one knows how many thousands of autobiographies were produced thereafter, but it is generally agreed that our understanding of the genre only took off about thirty years ago. “Prior to the mid-1950s,” says Mr. Olney, “autobiography was seen as little more than a special variety of biography and as a kind of stepchild of history and literature.” Now the autobiographer’s backward looking apparently has a golden future, having been “elevated to the status of a discussion-group subject by the MLA Program Committee, and so [it] will enjoy a guaranteed, continuing presence on the program of the annual MLA convention,” a form of immortality.
Many excellent academic studies have taught us to think more carefully about autobiography, not least Mr. Olney’s own Metaphors of Self (Princeton University Press, 1972). If autobiography has won a higher status, however, the academics cannot claim all the credit. Autobiographical writings—memoirs, diaries, etc.—have become much more popular with the general public, thanks to social and legal changes which have thrown open doors that were once closed. A comparison of Isherwood’s Berlin stories and Christopher and His Kind (1976) immediately makes the point: the celebrated camera was still subject to self-censorship in the 1930s, whereas by the 1970s it was possible to write far less guardedly about oneself, and about one’s friends and enemies. The public was amused, money talks; the rest was a foregone conclusion.
Nevertheless, the new permissiveness did more good than harm. It encouraged the writing of many quite remarkable “confessions,” books that will live—and that even hold their own in the marketplace against the novel. (Autobiography, of course, is the highest form of fiction.) It was a fortunate coincidence that theorists began, at much the same time, “to redefine the canon that determines who and what will be admitted to serious literary study,” though it could hardly be a coincidence that several literary journals “devoted special numbers to autobiography in the past ten years or so,” including the Southern Review (edited by Mr. Olney). Then, in 1985, came the first International Symposium on Autobiography and Autobiography Studies (at Mr. Olney’s Louisiana State University)—which all goes to show that autobiography, unlike some other kinds of literature, teaches important practical lessons and brings its immediate rewards. Other people wait for things to happen, the autobiography pressure group knows how to make them happen.
They have acted effectively as a pressure group, for which we should all be grateful. How many universities offered courses twenty-five years ago that dealt with Boswell’s journals and the autobiographies of Gibbon, Franklin, Rousseau, and Goethe? Courses on “the rise of the novel” you could find wherever you looked, but autobiography, so like the novel in so many ways and already able to boast of its own classics (Benvenuto Cellini, Saint Teresa, Browne’s Religio Medici, Bunyan’s Grace Abounding) before the English novel had got properly …