Welcome to American Autobiography (HUM470)

The term “autobiography” is an invention of the Age of Revolution– the late 18th and early 19th centuries– when Europe saw the advent of a cultural movement named Romanticism which was a response to the rationalist imperatives of the Enlightenment. In its broadest sense Romanticism sought to reach beyond Reason into a realm of spiritual and aesthetic transcendence, a program exemplified by many Romantic poets’ concern with heightened states of consciousness and artistic spontaneity. Romanticism was fascinated by the idea of the subjective perception of universal truth, and writers such as Wordsworth and Shelley taxed their own powers of observation and introspection in order to better represent the world in which they lived.  That autobiography as a literary form would come into prominence at this time, then, seems logical enough. And the project the genre of autobiography claimed for itself was nothing less than the construction of what we, the legatees of the Age of Revolution, consider more a matter of Nature than Culture: the autonomous self, or what some scholars have called the Bourgeois Subject. This notion, Linda Anderson has written, was “generated at the end of the 18th century but still powerfully present in the middle of the 20th” and held that  “each individual posses a unified, unique selfhood which is also the expression of a universal human nature.”

Of course people had written about their own lives prior to the 18th century, notably for the field of literary history such authors as Augstine (Confessions, ca. 398 CE) and Bunyan (Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, 1666). From Augustine and Bunyan the genre of autobiography took a concern for individual development, in both of these earlier cases an account of spiritual growth. Augustine related his conversion to Christianity and tabulated the sins he had committed even when as young as an infant. Such self-assessment has endured as a major trope of autobiographical writing, though over the years, authors might list their vices as a form of bragging. In any case confession requires self-consciousness, the ability to stand beside oneself and take stock of it and its actions. Even the most trivial acts and thoughts can become representative of the state of an individual’s development. Yet this kind of knowledge is not, strictly speaking, impartial. Autobiography relies on the author’s memory and in describing what happened we are often overcome by the temptation to shape the past (and thus the self which is its product) according to present needs rather than simply narrate.

Language itself, as a chain of approximate and unstable meanings, as a set of crude and imprecise tools for rendering the world visible to our own minds and the minds of others, carries with it certain fatal dangers which will perhaps inevitably compromise any effort to get at an absolute, pristine truth. Given that we can only reflect on the world and our position within it by using language-concepts, can it not be argued that WE do not make LANGUAGE so much as LANGUAGE makes US? What needs to be emphasized here is that the idea of a timeless, unitary self located somewhere within our bodies which may somehow persist after those bodies have decayed into mulch is pure ideology. The self as we know it today is perhaps only 500 years old. Such a situation no doubt troubles the idea of autobiography as a relatively straightforward method of communicating the “real” me (or you). Writing, narrating, telling, etc.– all of these language-based activities CONSTRUCT their objects. Again: without language there is no reflection. Language, then, is a mirror. Not the thing itself but an image of that thing. Even this metaphor is perhaps too generous. But we’ll have more time to discuss that.