Critical Mirrors: Theories of Autobiography

By Berryman, Charles | Mosaic (Winnipeg), March 1999 | Go to article overview

Critical Mirrors: Theories of Autobiography


Berryman, Charles, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Critical attempts to establish a theory of autobiography are fairly recent despite the long history and great variety of the subject. In 1981 Albert E. Stone could still describe the study of autobiography as "an important new field for scholars and critics" (1). Only two years later, however, in 1983 Avrom Fleishman complained that, "No one can tell what autobiography is, yet that has not dispelled a surge of recent efforts to define it" (53). These efforts, of course, raised more questions than answers, and the growing competition of voices soon itself became the subject of criticism. Indeed, as Robert Smith remarked in his 1995 study, Derrida and Autobiography, "The theory of autobiography has become very well trodden terrain. So much so, in fact, that there are now not only many theories of autobiography, but there is also a growing number of theories of those theories" (51).

My purpose in the following essay is to explore how what twenty years ago was seen as a "new field" could have so quickly become a contested area, and in the course of doing so I wish to address a series of related questions: is there a coherent theory of autobiography to unite its many different forms? how does the study of autobiography mirror the evolution of literary criticism in the 20th century? why is the discussion of autobiography as a genre so mindful of the need to discover or invent its own history? This essay is neither a complete survey of theories of autobiography, nor a particular study of one critical approach, but rather an exploration of how this growing field reflects the larger academic study of literature and history.

After looking briefly at the origins of autobiography as a genre and the way that critical trends in historical writing and literary criticism in the first half of the 20th century limited the study of autobiography, I explore how changing definitions of fact and fiction then moved questions of autobiographical theory more to the center of critical inquiry, illustrating them by references to the self-reflexive and metafictional novels by Vonnegut and Doctorow in the 1960s and 1970s. The surge of interest in the study of autobiography that marks the final decades of the century is then explored in the context of evolving critical theories about the different ways to define or construct the meaning of self and subject. The shift in critical agenda from the identity crisis of postmodernism and deconstruction to the politics of race, class, and gender is finally seen to have influenced, if not demanded, the current interest in and need for theories of autobiography.

The word "autobiography" was invented in 1797 by a linguist who perceived the need for a common term in English to cover the many different accounts that authors make of their own experience. The creation of a new word from classical roots was typical of the 18th century with its special concern for dictionaries, but the story of how and why "autobiography" was coined into English was not told until 1976 when Thomas Cooley reported how the word was first used in a work of professional criticism, and why the creator of "autobiography" was concerned about the new word sounding rather "pedantic" (3). This concern late in the 18th century appears to have been a response to the gap between personal narrative and the professional study or review of such writing, the very gap that theories of autobiography in the late 20th century have still been attempting to bridge.

While other labels such as "memoir" and "life" continued to be favored by authors well into the 19th century, editors and scholars began to adopt the word "autobiography" to designate this genre of writing about the self. A field of study then started to emerge as different examples of autobiography from past centuries were brought together under the new label. The first appearance of "autobiography" in a title was for an 1832 edition of The Autobiography of Thomas Shepard. …

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