A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

21
Autobiography

Gioia Woods

Autobiography may seem like the product of an individual’s act. It may seem like the evocation of a unitary self, a call to one’s memories to pour unimpeded onto the page. The act of self-representation may appear to be a match-making rhetorical process of lining up the dots between the author’s name and the first-person pronoun, the “I” he or she purports to be. But nearly half a century of autobiographical criticism has revealed the rich and deceptive complexity of the autobiographical act. We now understand autobiography, or life narrative, to be itself a discursive process, linguistically mediated, capturing more of the self-in-construction than the self already constructed. Autobiography is an act that recapitulates dominant narratives and writes marginalized lives into the historical record. Autobiography lies and brags, makes and deconstructs, normalizes and resists.

Because the genre makes history and conveys cultural information, it is a productive site from which to examine the American West. Western American autobiography composed in and against this region is peculiar because it reveals the complex relationship between the figurative and material conditions of the “frontier,” opening up categories like subjectivity, regionalism, history, and colonialism. The American West is shaped by exploration, colonization, and border crossings, as well as by myth, ideology, and desire. Any autobiographical act performed within this geography is a complex tapestry woven in and against shifting understandings of the region itself. An autobiographical subject, in other words, will claim or resist the narrative of western normative identities. Does the life writer, for example, claim the narrative of the cowboy, the colonizer, or the individualist hero? Or does the life writer speak from the border, the road, or the margins? Furthermore, the American West is a region

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