Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience

Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience

Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience

Autobiography: Toward a Poetics of Experience


Autobiography, Gunn argues, must be reunderstood as a cultural act of "reading" the self, not as a private act of "writing" the self. Moreover, the self that is read (both by the autobiographer and the reader of autobiography) is the displayed self, not the hidden self--the self that appears in the world and can be experienced, and thereby realized, by others. Drawing on narrative theory, phenomenology, and hermeneutics, Gunn locates the literary features of autobiography in the larger anthropological context of what she calls "the autobiographical situation."

An elegantly constructed interdisciplinary analysis, this book renders the hybrid genre of autobiography freshly problematic.


You need only claim the events of your life to
make yourself yours. When you truly possess
all you have been and done, which may take
some time, you are fierce with reality.

—Florida Scott-Maxwell,
The Measure of My Days

While autobiography has been around for nearly two hundred years (and, according to some, since Augustine’s Confessions), critical interest in the genre is fairly recent. the way had to be cleared, first of all, for attending to autobiography as literary and not just historical activity. Both the demise of formalism (whose criteria for “literariness” the unruly behavior of autobiography refused to fit) and the expanding of literary categories to include écriture as well as belles-lettres have opened the door to autobiography. in a recent collection of critical essays on autobiography, James Olney offers yet another reason for current interest in the genre. It arises, he suggests, from a “shift of attention from bios to autos—from the life to the self,” a shift which, for Olney, “was largely responsible for opening things up and turning them in a philosophical, psychological, and literary direction.”

Olney’s volume reflects the state of the art, as well as

1. James Olney, ed., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 19.

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