The Use and Misuse of Autobiography

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The use and misuse of autobiography Philip Roth, The Plot against America. New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 391 pp. (paper).

Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 293 pp. (paper).

THERE WAS A GREAT FLUTTER EARLY THIS YEAR OVERA MILLION LITTLE Pieces, the largely faked autobiography by James Frey. Faking an autobiography amounts to taking people into your confidence only to lie in their faces. Frey's downfall was assured when the truth came out and one of those faces belonged to Oprah Winfrey. While we cannot require an autobiographer to get everything right, we expect him or her not to intentionally get things wrong. Two important books came out in paper last year which, in quite different ways, raise intriguing questions about the use and misuse of autobiography. I did not especially like either, but each provides important, if sometimes unintended, insights into a major American cultural figure of our era.

Philip Roths The Plot against America and Bob Dylans Chronicles: Volume One, though they could not be more different in conception, can both be described as non-autobiographical autobiographies. Dylans book has no discernible structure at all. It might be titled "snippets" rather than "chronicles," jumping back and forth among events, reflections and characters with scant regard for making connections - even chronological ones - between them. Roth's book, in contrast, is carefully structured, though even more unconventional as autobiography. He describes in detail his own life from the age of eight to ten in Newark, New Jersey - only not as it was but as it would have been had the regime in America been a pro-Nazi one with Charles Lindbergh instead of Franklin Roosevelt as president.

First Dylan. I was in my late teens during the early sixties, the period that Dylan tells about in his Chronicles, relatively few of the many scores of people who turn up mean anything to me. Yet Dylan seldom tells me enough to make them interesting: what matters is that they influenced him. Moreover, while he repeatedly tells us that these various passing characters changed his perceptions and often his sense of himself and his art, he never tells us how those influences found their way into the songs that were etched into a generation. Despite this, reading the book is in itself enjoyable since, as in his music, Dylan has a way with words. Here the words give us a nice feel for New York's Village in the heady early days of the folk music scene.

Moreover, in what it says, and especially in what it does not say, Dylans non-autobiography is useful in helping us understand why he became a kind of tragic antihero. He still does not understand why he was regarded by so many as "the conscience of a generation." He never claimed to be a protest singer - a term he has little regard for, he tells us. Naturally he was offended and enraged by the insistent demands of fans that he lead them to their political destiny. Had I not read this book and continued to know Dylan only by his songs, I would dismiss this claim as disingenuous, but now I am inclined to take him at his word. There is no ideology, no coherent framework of any kind in which he placed the various ideas and events that caught his fancy, whether in a book someone tells him to read or in a Woody Guthrie or Pete seeger song.

In some unexplained, indeed unexamined, way these ideas and events spoke to him and he was able to find just the right combination of words and melody to give them expression. But that is as far as it goes. There is no effort to fit them together in something consistent and coherent. So it is perfectly natural for him to end a chapter about folksingers who influenced him with a passing reference to how impressed he was by Barry Goldwater.

In an extraordinary paragraph toward the end of the book Dylan writes, "In a few years time I'd write songs like 'It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)', 'Mr. …