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Me, Myself, and I

Studies in Autobiography

edited by James Olney
Oxford University Press, 228 pp., $24.95

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 started—autobiography did not fit in with the then accepted scheme of things, and was largely neglected. The turning point may have been the publication of Roy Pascal’s Design and Truth in Autobiography (Routledge, 1960), which is still, I think, the best introduction to the subject.

If the originating impulse came from England, though, the pressure that followed was just about all-American. I remember being particularly impressed by Patricia Spacks (Imagining a Self, Harvard University Press, 1976), Elizabeth Bruss (Autobiographical Acts, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Karl Weintraub (The Value of the Individual, University of Chicago Press, 1978), and William Spengemann (The Forms of Autobiography, Yale University Press, 1980)—four works that are not given much attention in the two books under review, though all four happen to be lumped together in one footnote in Mr. Olney’s collection with the ungrateful comment that “none of these texts considers the historicity of the self.” Well, you can’t please them all. Look back, however, to Georg Misch’s Geschichte der Autobiographie (1907, revised 1949) and then read the best books of the 1970s and 1980s and you see that we have traveled a long way. The pressure group—or, let us say, the interested parties—can claim to have transformed the subject.

It is a vast subject, comparable to the novel in the technical and theoretical questions it raises and in the number and quality of its most famous texts. Of the eight autobiographies that are examined in some detail by Mr. Leibowitz (Benjamin Franklin, Louis Sullivan, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, Edward Dahlberg) only two are even indexed in Mr. Olney’s volume—Franklin and Stein. One could easily plan several courses or congresses on autobiography without repeating a single title. The first international symposium met this difficulty by selecting four “more or less loose groupings” for four sessions, on “The Interpretation of Autobiography,” “Ethnic and Minority Autobiography,” “Autobiography as Cultural Expression,” and “Women’s Autobiography.” That meant the exclusion of many other possible approaches, which will no doubt come into their own on future occasions. It also ensured that really worthwhile papers were submitted, not a point that one can always take for granted. The seventeen collected by Mr. Olney prove that autobiography studies, despite all the original work of the last thirty years, still have plenty of life in them.

Where will these studies go, in the foreseeable future? Both books under review suggest that biographies of autobiographers will continue to flourish. Such publications may be purely parasitic, or they may genuinely change our understanding of an author we think we know, as did Ann Thwaite’s recent Edmund Gosse: A Literary Landscape, 1849–1928. (The two principals in Gosse’s Father and Son turn out to have been less resolutely opposed to each other, and less certain of their own position than Gosse intimated in 1907.) Mr. Leibowitz threads in background information here and there, usually from printed sources, to correct or qualify what his autobiographers say, and in the space available one could not ask for more. Mr. Olney’s specialists sink their teeth into the more basic problems of biographical “fact” and authorial motive. Thus Thomas R. Smith writes on “The Objectivity of The Education of Henry Adams“:

The Education was not for Adams only an opportunity to tell the story of his life. Had it been so, presumably he was capable of telling it much more straightforwardly, even of using the first person…. The apparent modesty caused by his self-effacing choice of narrative voice allows Adams to aggrandize more and more of his reader’s involvement in his neverending effort to be educated.

The importance of looking closely at the autobiographer’s motives, and indeed at the story behind every autobiography, is best illustrated by G. Thomas Couser’s study, in Mr. Olney’s collection, of Black Elk Speaks, one of the most admired of Indian autobiographies. “Critical opinion has been almost unanimous in praising Black Elk Speaks as an authentic and authoritative Indian autobiography”; yet Black Elk “unwittingly reenacts the process it so eloquently condemns: the appropriation and erasure of Lakota culture by whites”—since a white man, John Neihardt, actually wrote this “autobiography.” Or rather, the publication of the transcripts of the original interviews has revealed a more complicated story:

The transcripts are several removes from Black Elk’s Lakota, which was rendered into idiomatic “Indian English” by his son, Ben Black Elk, then into Neihardt’s standard English, which was recorded stenographically by his daughter.

But, Mr. Couser goes on,

when Black Elk’s oral narrative is written down, it does not merely pass from one language to another; it passes from one mode of understanding the universe to another, from myth to history…. Indeed, the very idea of autobiography involves an equation between a life and a book that is altogether alien to preliterate cultures.

Mr. Couser therefore disagrees with the claim that Black Elk represents a genuine marriage between Native American consciousness and Western literary form: “this claim not only is not true but cannot be true,” even though the “idea has been very attractive, especially to white readers.”

The Black Elk story is interesting because, although Mr. Couser does not say so, it highlights procedures that are repeated in all autobiographies. We can now see, reading the transcripts together with Black Elk Speaks, Neihardt’s “consistent suppression of Black Elk’s awareness of white western culture and technology.” Omaha is renamed “a very big town,” and biblical phrases are removed. (The fact that Black Elk became a Roman Catholic early in this century, if known, would have damaged the book’s standing as genuinely “Indian.”)

Neihardt’s narrative speaks with a forked tongue in many senses…. It conflates two consciousnesses (and in this case cultures and languages) in one undifferentiated voice. And it deceives by not fully acknowledging the extent and the tendencies of its editing…. The book’s greatest deception is its most subtle one—its pretense that the means of its production escaped the cultural imperialism the text condemns.

While Black Elk Speaks remains a special case, every autobiographer edits and suppresses, and many autobiographers wrestle with the problem of the “undifferentiated voice,” even if they do not think of present self and past self as two entirely separate individuals. Is an adult writing about his own childhood any less guilty of imperialism than Neihardt “transforming” Black Elk? A child’s sense of time and history may have more in common with nonwhite cultures than with a white adult’s—or could it be that books like Cider with Rosie, the much praised memoir of a rural childhood by Laurie Lee, falsify childhood as much as the canvases of the good Sir Joshua?

Conscious and unconscious falsifications interest many of Mr. Olney’s other contributors. Henry James, “looking at the pathetic unreality of the Confederate museums,” says James M. Cox, “reflects that the real aesthetic force of the past would surely reside in the battlefields. Yet he does not go to the battlefields.” Again,

I find an alarming treachery in James’s vision of himself as the forerunner of the poet he calls “dear old Walt” on one occasion and “the good Walt” on another. For the fact is that James reviewed Whitman’s Drum Taps for the Nation in 1865 and found Whitman a fraud of a poet…[my italics].

A different view is expressed by Ira B. Nadel, who thinks that modern biographers “have become the victims of fact,” or of “naive faith in facts.” He wants readers to observe “the interaction between the biographer and the biographee,” the persistence of an autobiographical element in all biographies, which can help to explain the selection of “facts.”

Mr. Leibowitz grasps this nettle by beginning with a brief account of himself (useful, since it throws some light on his later chapters, and on his choice of autobiographers):

My early interest in autobiography began innocently with Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. Having been reared in an Orthodox Jewish household where tradition, ritual, and law ruled absolutely, I was unprepared for a poet unfazed by totems and taboos.

If we look for a special “angle” in his Explorations in American Autobiography, he has his answer.

Why did I choose these eight people, five men and three women, for close scrutiny in Fabricating Lives? Because they represent a cross-section of American experience, a self-portrait gallery spanning almost two centuries.

He also attaches special importance to the style of each autobiography:

Although I do not scant psychological and historical analysis…I have moved style from the circumference to the center of interpretation. That is why in my first chapter, “Style and Autobiography,” I draw my examples from many corners of the literary world as well as from the rich archive of American autobiography.

I have to confess that I found some of the discussions of style disappointing. Mr. Leibowitz too readily identifies the style and the man, or the supposed man, as in writing of the “maudlin, conniving language of Richard Nixon’s Six Crises, which mirrors his manipulative behavior and threadbare morality,” or in commenting on two incidents described by Franklin: “the prose bristles with animosity,” “the prose gleams with a spiteful wit.” Franklin, writing long after the event, seems to me as relaxed and good-humored as in many other paragraphs in which he recorded how he got the better of difficult opponents.

But sometimes the compulsory section on style (one for each author) raises more challenging questions. The narrative of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas meanders—is it true that “there is no time for reflection or the complications of style”? Mr. Leibowitz rightly stresses that “Stein handles transitions with a careless efficiency: ‘As I was saying’; ‘Speaking of Matisse’…”—is this characteristic connected with two points made later, that Stein “sheared away causality” and that “the root of the problem is Gertrude Stein’s unswerving commitment to the external”? Twenty pages earlier he had described “the relation of insides to outsides” as “the hinge of Stein’s work.” Here, or when he writes that “Stein’s sophisticated European sense of style and form went hand in hand with an American artlessness,” I am inclined to say, “Perhaps. Or perhaps not.” Does artlessness have to be American? Could one not argue that the Toklas style gives us a better perception of Stein’s inner world than would be possible by means of more seemingly artful prose?

Stein (or was it Sterne? or Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s prologue?) made an issue of narrative sequentiality, an issue that recent critics of the novel and of autobiography have returned to. In an essay in Mr. Olney’s collection, Paul J. Eakin reviews this debate, defending traditional narrative against those who attack “the mindless linearity of chronological order borrowed from biography and the novel.” He emphasizes the “narrativity and chronicity” of human experience, and questions the reasoning that would discredit traditional structures as if they necessarily predicate “simple models of unitary selfhood.”

Both books deal with the treatment of sex in autobiography, a big subject that is neither shirked nor hugely advanced. Julia Watson argues that “the preeminence of the Other and the quality of sympathy and lack of competitiveness in the intersubjective relationship are characteristics that distinguish women’s autobiographies.” Suzanne L. Bunkers has read “the unpublished diaries and journals of approximately fifty women who lived and worked in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin from approximately 1840 to 1900” and found that their silences could be significant, “choosing not to write about such taboo subjects as sexuality, labor and childbirth, and menstruation.” The mystery of Henry James’s “horrid” and obscure wound remains unsolved.

Mr. Leibowitz, luckily, has more amusing material at his disposal. In his memoir, Because I Was Flesh, Edward Dahlberg “lovingly recreates the bawdy atmosphere of the Star Lady Barbershop, a tawdry sweatshop transfigured into a palace of pleasures,” where his mother worked: “So high do the sexual fevers run, heating the senses, that all of Kansas City seems to be in rut.” William Carlos Williams, however, as obstetrician and poet, “had the best seat in the house to observe sex as an elemental force. The topic obsessed him.”

We learn that Williams said that he and Ezra Pound, as young men, “were both too refined to enjoy a woman if we could get her”—though Mr. Leibowitz adds that Williams “is never so foxy as when he is ‘sincerely’ confessing…his preferences and immoralities.” His final verdict, that Williams “strings together hundreds of experiences and facts…but the parts do not add up to the whole man, just a blurred facsimile,” applies equally to his own chapter. He, too, reduces Williams to a blurred image—and this cannot be blamed entirely on the autobiographer’s “slapdash style.”

One might have supposed that the permissiveness of recent times has sharpened the autobiographer’s self-image and truthfulness—but is this really so? Perhaps it would not have been possible formerly to write, let alone publish, Quentin Crisp’s The Naked Civil Servant or Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage. The frankness of too many recent autobiographies and biographies, however, can turn out to be less revealing than that of the greatest texts of the past, and can also be less interesting, if a good anecdote is only included for its own sake. Truthfulness, in short, depends on insight, not on unlocking the bedroom door. No matter how sensational the content, each episode must advance our understanding of the subject, and its “narrativity and chronicity” must be related to a particular point of view. How much one learns about sexual attitudes and about Benvenuto Cellini from his casual introduction of another maidservant!

As it happened, at that time, as was only fitting at the age of twenty-nine, I had taken a charming and very beautiful young girl as my maidservant; I used her as a model, and also enjoyed her in bed to satisfy my youthful desires.

Of course he also enjoyed her services as a model and in bed, one exclaims, or he would not have been Benvenuto! It could not be otherwise.

There is also something inevitable in Rousseau’s failure to enjoy the favors of a beautiful Venetian courtesan, because he noticed that she had a malformed nipple. “I beat my brow, looked harder, and made certain that this nipple did not match the other. Then I started wondering about the reason for this malformation.” Rousseau’s behavior, as he himself recognized, was absolutely true to character. Who but he would have reported that the lady walked about the room, fanning herself, until at last she said, “Gianetto, give up the ladies, and study mathematics!”

Before leaving, I asked her for another appointment the next day, which she put off till the third day, adding with an ironical smile that I must need a rest…. What I have never been able to console myself for is, I confess, that she only carried away a scornful memory of me.

Bunyan agonized no less characteristically about the holy kiss. Should he or should he not salute Christian matrons by kissing them, as others did?

It is a rare thing to see me carry it pleasant towards a woman. The common salutation of women I abhor…. I seldom so much as touch a woman’s hand…. Some indeed have urged the holy kiss, but then I have asked why they made baulks? Why they did salute the most handsome, and let the ill-favored go?

The treatment of sex and of close family relationships in autobiography poses fascinating questions. Why did John Stuart Mill ignore his mother and write so self-abasingly about Mrs. Taylor, his later wife? Why did J.C. Powys, author of a magnificently no-holds-barred autobiography of almost seven hundred pages, ignore his mother and his wife? Why did Virginia Woolf, so sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, write—and perhaps think—so conventionally about Leonard? If we imagine that we know the answer in these instances, what are we to make of Henry James’s intended commemoration of his brother in A Small Boy and Others, noted by James Cox in Mr. Olney’s book?

It is James the author in league with the gaping, dawdling, small boy he sees himself as having been—these joint components of the compositional process—who crowd out William James throughout the entire volume.

Sibling rivalry? Narcissism?—And what should we deduce from Stein’s silence about the central relationship in Toklas?

Although it was easier to be a lesbian in Paris than in America, the Autobiography is silent about the sexual relationship between the two women, intentionally distorting it into a refined companionship.

Why?” asks Mr. Leibowitz, remembering that “Tender Buttons, among other works…had celebrated her sexual contentment.” Perhaps the answer is that at the center of every life there has to be a mystery, something felt as so personal that it can only be fudged by words. Silence in an autobiography is not necessarily a cover-up.

As Mr. Olney’s contributors and Mr. Leibowitz have shown, the treatment of sex in autobiography is an important subject, one that deserves more research. It deserves an international congress…and I want to be there. I can offer a paper on “Saint Augustine, the Manichees, and the Brambles of Lust.”

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