The autobiographical essay may be viewed either as a kind of essay recounting some part of the writer’s own life or as short autobiography having the character of an essay. Both approaches disclose the formal tensions shaping autobiographical essays: their participation in two genres—essay and autobiography—which, although traditionally distinguished, are here so joined as to foreground the historical dynamism and instability of each.
Although autobiographical essays are found occasionally among the works of the older essayists, their proliferation is largely a 20th-century phenomenon. The term itself appears only at mid-century, despite the much earlier establishment of its components, “essay” (about 1600) and “autobiography” (about 1800). One sometimes finds “autobiographical sketch” used by earlier writers to designate essay-length texts which, from a contemporary standpoint, look like genuine autobiographical essays (e.g. Abraham Cowley’s “Of Myself,” 1668) as well as applied to short self-narratives that lack the ruminative texture of essays (e.g. Sir Thomas Bodley’s “Life,” 1609). Only in recent years has the autobiographical essay begun to assume theoretical status as a “type” which, though often incorporating features of other essay “types” (e.g. the travel essay, the moral essay, the critical essay), is marked by its focus on retrospection and remembrance (Graham Good, 1988).
As modern practices, both autobiography and the essay have their roots in the European Renaissance and enact that cultural epoch’s reconception of the individual life.
The essay’s matrix is meditative and epistolary, and, despite its early anti-rhetorical cast in both French and English, its formal affinities lie with the thematizing schemata of commonplace books. Autobiography, on the other hand, may be understood as a confluence of traditions whose characteristic modes are narrative: allegory, hagiography, and history, specifically biography. If both autobiography and the essay are, broadly speaking, genres of self-representation, it is the culturally and historically variable impetus to recount the writer’s own life that informs autobiography and the projection of the writer’s point of view—the reflective and often reflexive gaze provisionally shaping observation and experience—that directs the essay. The autobiographical essay, then, may be viewed as a practice at the intersection of autobiography and essay, a movement between the narratively self-centered imperatives of the former and the worldly discursiveness of the latter. Alfred Kazin’s much-cited delineation in The Open Form: Essays for Our Time (1961) of the essay’s domain—“not the self, but the self thinking”— brings into sharp relief the problematical hybrid character of the autobiographical essay’s simultaneous concern with both “the self” and “the self thinking.” The essay as autobiographical space attempts to accommodate and to bring into artful relation autobiography’s traditional search, by way of writing, for a significant personal past and the essay’s more or less self-conscious immersion in the pleasures and aporias of writing as such. Certain well-known autobiographical essays assume their very form through the negotiative processes entailed in this accommodation. Thus Montaigne’s “De l’exercitation” (1588; “Of Practice”) embeds a selfrevising piecemeal account of an accident in an expanding selfmeditation; Walter Benjamin’s “Berliner Chronik” (1932,; “A Berlin Chronicle”) configures the life of childhood as personal and cultural topography; Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” (1940) juxtaposes then and now in an ever-shifting and evolving retrospective framework; Katherine Anne Porter’s “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” (1955) interweaves a continually deferred autobiographical anecdote with digressive speculation about the autobiographical act itself; Yukio Mishima’s Taiyo to tetsu (1968; Sun and Steel) joins reminiscence and confession to literary and social commentary in a discourse that calls itself “confidential criticism.”
More typically, it is through various foreshortenings and dispersals of narrative that the essay, with its conventions of fragmentariness and provisionality, assimilates to its relatively short span and its characteristically discursive modes the task of recounting the writer’s life. Essays may scale down the amplitude of autobiography by narrowing their retrospective gaze to a single significant experience, as in Washington Irving’s “The Voyage” (1819), William Hazlitt’s “My First Acquaintance with Poets” (1823), G.K.Chesterton’s “A Piece of Chalk” (1905), George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), W.E.B.Du Bois’ “The Guilt of the Cane” (1948), or Graham Greene’s “The Revolver in the Corner Cupboard” (1951); or by focusing on a formative stage of the writer’s life, the places and people associated with it, as in Thomas De Quincey’s “The English Mailcoach” (1849), T.H.Huxley’s “Autobiography” (1889), W.B.Yeats’ “Reveries over Childhood and Youth” (1914), Eudora Welty’s “A Sweet Devouring” (1957), Wallace Stegner’s “The Town Dump” (1959), Nadine Gordimer’s “A Bolter and the Invincible Summer” (1963), or Shiva Naipaul’s “Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth” (1984). Most commonly, essays limit their autobiographical scope by pondering some aspect or crux of the writer’s creative, social, or spiritual existence, e.g. Jonathan Edwards’ “Personal Narrative” (1739), David Hume’s “My Own Life” (1776), Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928), F.Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” (1936), Elizabeth Bowen’s “Out of a Book” (1950), Margaret Laurence’s “Where the World Began” (1971), or Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self” (1983). This alternative has had particular appeal for distinguished writers in languages other than English, as exemplified in Lev Tolstoi’s Ispoved’ (1884; A Confession), Ernest Renan’s “St. Renan” (1883), Franz Kafka’s “Brief an den Vater” (1919; “Letter to His Father”), Thomas Mann’s “Okkulte Erlebnisse” (1924; “An Experience in the Occult”), Albert Camus’ “La Mort dans l’âme” (1937; “Death in the Soul”), Jerzy Stempowski’s “Księgozbiór przemypników” (1948; “The Smugglers’ Library”), Christa Wolf’s “Blickwechsel” (1970; “Changing Viewpoint”), and José Donoso’s Historia personal del “boom” (1971; The Boom in Spanish American Literature: A Personal History). In all such instances it may be said that, even as autobiography urges its quest for self as life story upon the essay, so, in turn, the essay conducts that quest on a scale suitable to its own rhetorical habits. Nowhere is this generic transaction more intricately sustained than in the autobiographical book composed as a series of separately titled, and sometimes independently published, pieces, e.g. Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (1966), Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days (1989), and Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army (1994); a notable early example is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire (1782; Reveries of the Solitary Walker).
While the chapters that make up such books work as selfcontained essays, their internal resonances, thematic coalescences, and cumulative effects create the amplitude, if not the continuity, of autobiography.
Beyond all such patently autobiographical essays lies the larger body of texts drawing upon autobiographical material whose narrativity is so attenuated or diffuse and so persistently subordinate to wide-ranging speculation that many students of the genre would be hard put to call them autobiographical essays. Most of Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588) belong here, as do, among the works of the early writers, the “Meditations” of John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624) and, among those of later practitioners in English, William Hazlitt’s miscellaneous essays, much of Washington Irving’s Sketchbook (1819), William Makepeace Thackeray’s Roundabout Papers (1863), and countless 20th-century essays traditionally labeled “familiar” or “informal.”
Indeed, selfnarrative may recede to the vanishing point in works that are, nonetheless, deeply self-revelatory and/or passionately apologetic (e.g. Henry David Thoreau’s “Life Without Principle,” 1863, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “An Apology for Idlers,” 1876, and E.M.Forster’s “What I Believe,” 1939). The strongly personal character of all such essays suggests deep affinities with autobiography as a mode of self-location; at the same time, it raises difficult, if highly productive, questions about the relationship between the autobiographical essay and what has throughout this century (at least as far back as Virginia Woolf’s 1905 piece, “The Decay of Essay Writing”) been termed “the personal essay.” From one standpoint, the emergence and modern flowering of the autobiographical essay appears as a specialization of this broader “type” in which the writer’s perspective and sensibility (what writers such as Woolf called “personality”) move into the foreground. On this account, the autobiographical essay represents the most focused historical enactment of the anti-systematic and antiinstitutional tendencies that have marked the essay since its beginnings.
But what if, like many students of the essay past and present, we regard the “personal” as characterizing not a certain range of essays but the genre as a whole? To appreciate the persistence of this view we need only observe how widespread in critical and pedagogic literature has been the sometimes deliberate, sometimes inadvertent, conflation of the terms “personal essay” and “essay,” no doubt because of the normative sway of Montaigne’s eminently “personal”—some would say “autobiographical”—Essais over the genre’s multifarious practices. The theoretical implications of this terminological slippage for both traditions, essay and autobiography, are considerable. Scholars such as Hugo Friedrich (Montaigne, 1949) and Michel Beaujour (The Poetics of the Literary Self- Portrait, 1980) read Montaigne’s influential work not as autobiography but as selfwriting of a kind that Beaujour terms “autoportrait” (a genre which might claim such postmodern texts of the self as Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, 1975). Suppose, however, that the autobiographical mark of Montaigne’s essays is their recounting not of the writer’s “life” as a past to be recollected but of the autobiographical act per se as self-inscriptive process; the autobiographical essay, in this view, opens the door to a kind of meta-story.
Thus the status we assign to Montaigne’s Essais positions our conception of both essay and autobiography as discourses of the “personal” and frames our theoretical accounts of such salient notions as “narrative” and “self.” In its academically transgressive guise as “autobiographical” or “personal” or “narrative” criticism, the contemporary autobiographical essay engages these and other issues, now explicitly, now implicitly, and demonstrates yet again the protean energies of the two genres in which it participates.
American Lives, edited by Robert F.Sayre, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994
The Art of the Essay, edited by Lydia Fakundiny, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991
The Intimate Critique: Autobiographical Literary Criticism, edited by Diane Freedman and others, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1993
Ashley, Kathleen, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters, editors, Autobiography and Postmodernism, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994
Bruss, Elizabeth W., Autobiographical Acts: The Changing Situation of a Literary Genre, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976
Eakin, Paul John, Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985
Good, Graham, The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, London and New York: Routledge, 1988
Good, Graham, “Identity and Form in the Modern Autobiographical Essay,” Prose Studies 15, no. 1 (April 1992): 99–117
Hart, Francis R., “Notes for an Anatomy of Modern Autobiography,” New Literary History 1, no. 3 (Spring 1970): 485–511
Lejeune, Philippe, Le Pacte autobiographique, Paris: Seuil, 1975
Olney, James, Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972
Peterson, Linda, “Gender and the Autobiographical Essay: Research Perspectives, Pedagogical Practices,” College Composition and Communication 42 (May 1991): 171–93
Terms of Identity: Essays on the Theoretical Terminology of LifeWriting, special issue of Auto/Biography Studies 10, no. 1 (1995)
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