Review (HUM470)

We’ve covered 3 primary texts so far this semester in addition to a collection of critical literature on the genre of autobiography. The Smith and Watson readings are probably the most immediately useful in providing us with a taxonomy of Life Narrative (Life Writing, Autobiography, Biography, Memoir, etc.) and a history of the development of that form. We’ve discussed the ideological projects of various forms of autobiographical writing including Franklin’s didactic self-account (which he never referred to as an autobiography); Harriet Jacob’s slave narrative, written in the interests of moral suasion; and (depending on which you read) Kerouac’s poetic travel essays or his roman a clef, The Subterraneans. One key to success for this midterm is accruing a sense of the constituent elements of Life Narrative.

Clearly there’s an emphasis on identity in self-referential writing, though the form that identity takes can vary. We’ve discussed national identity and US American autobiography as a discourse implicated in nation formation. The tension between the personal and the collective (national or otherwise) seems like a productive avenue of discussion. Memory plays a role in the assertion of both identity and subjectivity and as we mentioned memories are implicated in the body. We’ve seen the difference between a number of memory “platforms”– whether material objects like mementos or photographs, or various kinds of plots. Plotting a life in print itself is significant both in terms of the chronology an autobiography might follow or the themes it may emphasize. Methods of presentation differ drastically from genre to genre. Consider the execrable The Real Ben Franklin, which tells the story of BF’s life according to a rather limited palette of cliche: the obligatory talking heads, soft-focus dramatic re-enactments, a somewhat turgid musical score, and above all a “major highlights” approach to the historical figure we’ve all come to associate with thrift and pragmatism.

Comparing Franklin with Jacobs seems like a worthwhile enterprise, if only for the sharp distinction between their lives and their motives for writing. With Incidents we expanded our vocabulary to include literary-critical terms associated with the sentimental novel and the slave narrative. In addition, if Franklin’s text tracks a familiar narrative of ascent– the struggle upward from humble origins to fame and wealth– Jacobs consciously breaks with the generic expectations of the sentimental novel, notable the venerable marriage plot. Jacobs’s autobiography, we might agree, is in many ways more compelling for readers than is Franklin’s in part because of her willingness to allow us access to a greater degree of psychological interiority. On the other hand, as critical readers, we’re all too aware that such personal revelations are, more often than not, the effect of a self-conscious construction. Harriet’s project is without question political as well as personal (and here Berry’s lyrical, glib essay comes to mind). For an earlier assessment of Incidents see:

With Kerouac we confront issues of geography, generational consciousness, and mobility. We discussed the Beats in general as one of the first national subcultures, drawing extensively from a lecture I gave some time ago that can be found here:

On Monday we’ll finish our discussion of Kerouac (and, if students are prepared, the accompanying critical articles) and review for the midterm on Wednesday. Come prepared. Bring your  readers and all the books we’ve read to day. Come with questions. Your active engagement will make the review more productive.