American Autobiography

American Autobiography

American Autobiography

American Autobiography


This introduction to the major forms of autobiographical writing in America and important current developments in autobiography studies discusses both 'canonised' texts and those from contemporary writers. Taking a broadly chronological approach, the history of American autobiography is explored including the social and cultural factors that might account for the importance of autobiography in American culture. Then post-1970 autobiographies are examined, taking into account the development in poststructuralism from this time that affected notions of the subject who could write, and conceptions of truth, identity and reference.

Key Features

• Engages in discussions about the 'Americanness' of autobiography, especially in relation to important contemporary issues such as multiculturalism and transnationalism• Acknowledges the problematic nature of the 'canon' of American autobiography• Explores the most exciting recent developments in relation to the self, writing, and autobiography (e.g. poststructuralist thought, the postmodern, the post-colonial, life-writing and genre)• Considers autobiographies from Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein to Maxine Hong Kingston, Lance Armstrong, Lucy Grealy and Barack Obama• Includes study of the Puritan autobiography, the slave narrative, political texts, photography in autobiography, and illness/ disability memoirs


Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) explores the long, difficult marriage of an American couple, Patty and Walter Berglund. The novel tells the story of how Patty and Walter meet and start a family. It relates the breakdown of their relationship and its eventual repair in the years of the early twenty-first century. It raises questions about how the Berglunds (separately and together) participate in, and are constructed by, mythologies and ideologies pertaining to the concept of ‘freedom’ in American culture from the mid-twentieth to the twenty-first century and how this may have contributed to the failure (or success) of their union. Narrated, for the most part, in the omniscient third-person, using free indirect discourse to present numerous characters intimately (such as Walter, the Berglunds’ son, Joey, family ‘friend’ Richard Katz), it is nonetheless Patty who receives particular attention and scrutiny – so much so, that two of the novel’s five sections comprise her autobiographical narratives. The second section is entitled ‘MISTAKES WERE MADE Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion)’, while the fourth, penultimate section is entitled ‘MISTAKES WERE MADE (CONCLUSION) A Sort of Letter to Her Reader by Patty Berglund’. These sections, however, are also largely narrated in the third person. They seem addressed to Walter, in particular. To compound confusion, the sections are interspersed with comic, and frequently disconcerting, commentaries, which function to remind readers of their ‘autobiographical’ status. For example, following her separation from Walter and the death of Lalitha – a woman with whom Walter begins a brief relationship – Patty’s ‘sort of letter to her reader’ begins as follows:

The autobiographer, mindful of her reader and the loss he suffered,
and mindful that a certain kind of voice would do well to fall silent in

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