"Lives without Narrative": Romantic Lyric as Autobiography

By Stelzig, Eugene | Wordsworth Circle, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

"Lives without Narrative": Romantic Lyric as Autobiography


Stelzig, Eugene, Wordsworth Circle


Autobiography, that 18th century neologism. has never had a fixed or stable meaning. having recently been replaced by the "memoir" label by commercial publishers, and folded into the umbrella term. "life writing." by an academic community interested in a broad assortmentof "personal" texts and documems (diaries. essavs, letters. poems, blogs, as well as traditional autobiographies). A compound of three Greek words--sell. life, writing--autobiography implies a narrative element. in the writing of a life. Thus by the mid-19th century. the term had come to designate the large-scale retrospective life -narrative in the tradition of. St. Augustine's comfessions By then, the self-reflexive tenor of the extended first-person life-narrative and its hermeneutic challenge of sell-knowledge had become problematic, as Leigh Hunt wryly observed about die revised edition of his autobiography, which firs appeared in 1850, revised in 1860: "I now semi it a second time. and with additional matter. into the world, under the sure and certain conviction, that every autobiographer must of necessity be better known to his readers than to himself" (448).

By the time Hunt wrote his autobiography, the term had not only become part of the critical nomenclature but had also been embraced as a fictional device in novels such as Jane Eyre, subtitled "An Autobiography." David Copperfield, and Great Expertations. Indeed. the life and experiences of Copperfield are close enough in some regards to Dickens's own to warrant the label of "autobiographical novel," even if the opening sentence, "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show" (1) suggests the novelist more than the autobiographer. In the postmodern later 20th century. any necessary connection between text and life falls mostly by the wayside in a critical climate where the self itself becomes a textual fabrication or liction. Thus by 1980, William Spengemanm in The Forms of Autobiography includes Sartor Resatus, David Copperfield. and The Letter in the category of "poetic Autobiography," and in his recent book [Sex, Lies and Autobiogyaphy. 2006] James O'Rourke discusses Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Villelle, and Lalita as autobiographies. Twentieth century novelists too have capitalized on autobiographical fiction, to the point where. by mid-century. J.D. Salinger could make fun of "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" with Holden Caulfield's vernacular assertion. "I'm not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything" (1) even as the first-person narrator presents a poignant autobiographical account of his recent misadventures.

If die line between genuine and fictional autobiography has been blurred and become a source of scandal in the case of fraudulent memoirs pretending to be genuine, when autobiogragraphy is assimilated into the larger and more amorphous category, life-writing, the narrative dimension recedes and appears to be less of a requirement--at least once the definition of autobiography calls for something other than or different from an overarching retrospective life-narrative. Thus diaries, letters, and lyrical poems could be loosely construed. if not as "autobiography," then at least as autobiographical, especially if they contain narrative stretches or segments. Another kind of life-writing which Michel Beaujour has proposed as a separate genre, the "autoportrait," "distinguishes itself from the autobiography by the absence of a continuous narrative." Montaigne's Essais, Rousseau's Reveries, and Nietzsche's Ecce Homo eschew narrativity because "the operative formula of the autoportrait is ... "I will not. recount what I have done. but I am going to tell you who I am'" (8-9)

While narrative in some form of life-writing is diminished, absent, or irrelevant., strictly speaking, the narrative element of autobiography is in some sense constitutive, recognized in recent theoretical treatments, notably by John Eakin in Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative (2008) and How Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (1999). …

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