Book Reviews -- Autobiography and Postmodernism Edited by Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore and Gerald Peters

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Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, Gerald Peters, ed. Autobiography and Postmodernism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. viii + 318 pp. $50.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.

Autobiography and Postmodernism is more about autobiography than it is about postmodernism. Yes, the essays are grouped into two sections of equal length, but the overall emphasis is clearly on autobiography and the attempt to legitimate it as a genre by linking it to the popularity of postmodernism.

"What do the theories, methods, and insights of postmodernism allow us to know about autobiography?" Leigh Gilmore asks in his introduction. "What do the techniques, practices, and cultures of autobiography reveal about postmodernism?" (3). Gilmore contends that autobiography will help to define an ambiguous postmodernism, to ground it in a concrete canon and subject matter. But his real concern seems to be the attempt to use the current interest in postmodernism to validate the worth of autobiography as a genre. Kathleen Ashley and Gerald Peters are credited as co-editors, but they have not contributed essays to this volume. Peters has displayed interest in autobiography elsewhere (see his volume The Mutilating God: Authorship and Authority in the Narrative of Conversion), but at least on the surface the collection seems to be primarily Gilmore's reclamation project.

Gilmore says that autobiography has been "spurned" because of the inability of traditional genres to incorporate a discourse that is neither fiction nor history (6), and twice state that the critical rejection of autobiography is the result of a failure to understand its true potential. First he discounts attempts to place autobiography in a privileged relation to truth, instead emphasizing its "relation to culturally dominant discourses of truth telling" (9). Second he attempts to show how critics' rejection of autobiography is actually a reaction against its subversive nature.

Autobiography is open to the "multicultural modes of self representation" as well as the more traditionally "Western, bourgeois, white, male" subject of the traditional canon (10-1 1). Because both autobiography and postmodernism challenge the truth value of works that reinforce this traditional subject, Gilmore concludes that the essays in this volume help to show how postmodern the genre of autobiography really is. Implicit in his critique is the suggestion that autobiographers have long been practicing the cultural critique of traditional artistic subjects now being attempted by postmodernists.

The subjects of the works analyzed in both sections of Autobiography and Postmodernism are highly multicultural. And I will be the first to congratulate both autobiography scholars and postmodernists for being politically correct. But to imply that this openness to multicultural subjects is the reason why autobiography has been traditionally excluded from scholarly study is unconvincing.

The extent to which readers sympathize with Gilmore's agenda will undoubtedly determine which essays they find most useful in the first section, on autobiography ("The thing that's most exciting is contradictory versions"). On first reading, the examples of practical criticism appear to reinforce Gilmore's argument more persuasively than the examples of pure theory. Christopher Ortiz and Kirsten Wasson deal extensively with Martin Gaite and Mary Antin respectively, and their attempts to show how these authors subvert traditional expectations of genre are more effective than Gilmore's own claim in his essay ("Policing Truth: Confession, Gender, and Autobiographical Authority") that most aesthetic judgments of autobiography are in fact political judgments in disguise. …