Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography

Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography

Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography

Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography

Synopsis

This work explores the "authority" of autobiography in several related senses: first, the idea that autobiography is authoritative writing because it is presumably verifiable; second, the idea that one's life is one's exclusive textual domain; third, the idea that, because of the apparent congruence between the implicit ideology of the genre and that of the nation, autobiography has a special prestige in America. Aware of the recent critiques of the notion of autobiography as issuing from, determined by, or referring to a pre-existing self, Couser examines the ways in which the authority of particular texts is called into question--for example, because they involve pseudonymity (Mark Twain), the revision of a presumably spontaneous form (Mary Chesnut's Civil War "diaries"), bilingual authorship (Richard Rodriguez and Maxine Hong Kingston), collaborative production (Black Elk), or outright fraud (Clifford Irving's "autobiography" of Howard Hughes). Couser examines both the way in which canonical autobiographers may playfully and purposely undermine their own narrative authority and the way in which minority writers' control of their lives may be compromised. Autobiography, then, is portrayed here as an arena in which individuals struggle for self-possession and self-expression against the constraints of language, genre, and society.

Excerpt

My first book, American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,1979) traced an American tradition of using autobiography as a medium for prophecy: of writing one's life in such a way as to illuminate the community's history as well as one's own. Prophetic autobiographers -- from Thomas Shepard, the seventeenth-century Puritan, to Norman Mailer and Malcolm X -- tend to conflate individual and communal narratives, to describe -- and even to prescribe -- both histories according to some exalted vision of their destinies. Prophetic autobiography, then, seeks an authority beyond the personal and the "literary" in order to exert moral and spiritual leverage on the course of actual events.

In the last ten years, my understanding of autobiography, of American literary history, and of the relation between selves, events, and texts has changed substantially in response to structuralist and post-structuralist theory. The new theory has particularly unsettling implications for autobiography, whose authority has traditionally been grounded in a verifiable relationship between a text and an extratextual referent (the writer's self, or life). The trend in recent criticism has been to undermine the apparent correspondence between the textual and the extratextual and to deny any hard distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Post-structuralism has challenged the notion of authors as autonomous beings who produce texts; instead, it argues that they are constructs produced by texts. Indeed, it suggests that the idea of a unique self may be a delusion, that "individuals" are perhaps nothing more than intersections of cultural codes and sign systems. Authors and their authority are mere language effects. From this perspective, autobiography, far from being capable of prophecy, is an inherently problematic endeavor.

The discussion that follows attempts neither to refute post-

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