The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings

The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings

The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings

The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings


This collection of twelve essays discusses the principles and practices of women's autobiographical writing in the United States, England, and France from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Employing feminist and poststructuralist methodologies, the essays examine a wide range of private life writings letters, journals, diaries, memoirs, pedagogical texts, and fictional and factual autobiographies. The concepts of theory and practice as opposing and mutually exclusive methodologies, as focal points for conflicting interpretations, and finally as complementary approaches to the study of literature are central to this collection.

The Private Self explores the links between the historical devaluation of women's writings and the cultural definitions of women that have constrained their writing practices and excluded them from the canon of traditional autobiographical texts. Collectively, these essays expose the cultural biases that derive from notions of selfhood defined by a white, masculine, and Christian experience. In an effort to revise our prevailing concept of autobiography, these essays deal with differences of race, class, religion, sexual orientation, and gender.

Discussed here are writings by more than two dozen women including Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Alice James, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Sophie Kovalevsky, Anais Nin, Hilda Doolittle, and Simone de Beauvoir. The work of these writers reveals a split between public and private self-representations, and it is the notion of a private self expressed through women's autobiographical writings that forms the link among all the essays.


The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings. In one way or another each of these concepts--privacy, self, theory, practice, women, autobiography, writing--is examined in the essays that comprise this collection. What is it about autobiographical writing that raises issues of the "private" in terms of the "self," and how is the "self" opened to question in the self-positioning act of writing? How does "private" situate itself in terms of the "public"? Are private and public selves forever opposed to each other? Does "self" position the subject in the singular? Is "autobiographical writing" a genre? If so, how do "women" redefine the properties of the autobiographical? What roles do "theory" and "practice" play in such a grouping?

At the outset, I confess that the choice of title--The Private Self-- purposely puts into question its own terms, and the dozen essays that follow, different as they often are from each other, follow the questioning of these mutually reinforcing terms, the "self" and its "private" status. Each of these terms plays a role with respect to "theory" and "practice," because it is a theory of selfhood that is always under examination in analyses of autobiographical writings, whether or not this analysis overtly raises questions as to how selfhood--and in this case, female selfhood--is defined. The "private" suggests a scene of writing that invites the female, a separate space at the very limits of the generic divide between the autobiographical and other kinds of writings and the gender divide between the masculine and the feminine. Absent from the title, but nevertheless of concern to this volume, is that which we might categorize as the "feminist"--feminist theories and practices that open the way to writing about women's autobiographical writings. This volume, like others recently published, testifies to a certain kind of legitimacy both of autobiographical forms and of women's writing, a legitimacy that has been purchased against whatever efforts have been made on behalf of the autobiographical as such in critical theory and practice. Although gender is the overriding concern of these essays, it situates itself in a field of allied interests: race, class, religion, and historical and political conditions.

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