“Autobiography as a whole rests on historical accuracy but our attention is claimed first and foremost by the perceptions, the quality and selection of material, and the exercise of judgement by the writer. The successful autobiography is one that shows a mind reflecting upon, sifting and relating to events; it must display a person changing and being changed by life’s experiences, and sometimes even by the very process of writing the autobiography”. (Opoku-Akyemang).
copyright 2003 Karen Hamilton Silvestri
The debate on just what constitutes an autobiography has been raging for centuries. Among the issues debated among readers and scholars, are the problems of defining autobiography, the validity of the authorial voice, the role of the reader in an autobiography, the historical significance and validity of the text, and finally, the key factors of a successful autobiography.
The accepted definition of autobiography in almost all dictionaries is, “The story or account of a person’s life, written by himself” (Webster 55). This definition would appear to be straightforward enough but upon closer examination we find many troubling aspects of the definition. Most readers’ encounter an autobiography with the supposition that the story being told is factual, which many critics believe can never be the case. Of the many definitions of autobiography, the most troubling would be “a biography written by the subject of it; memoirs of one’s life written by one’s self”. (BrainyDictionary.com). A key word in that definition is ‘memoirs’. The definition of a memoir is “an account of the author’s experiences”. If we take the above definition of an autobiography as being a memoir, then the definition of an autobiography is an account of experiences. Experiences are naturally subjective to time and are subject to revision and therefore could be construed as fiction.
In Notes from the Underground, Fydor Dostoyevsky says “…a true autobiography is almost an impossibility, and that man is bound to lie about himself” (Dostoyevsky). But does man lie deliberately or does the written text become a lie when the author’s experience changes? It is not possible to use feelings of certitude as a means of determining truth. To do so is to open oneself to an abyss of doubt (Kimball). Jonathan Edwards writes of three distinct conversion experiences, all of which he wrote about as ‘truth’, as certainties. If you can have an experience that later turns out to be false (when you previously thought that it was truth) then what you think, what you experience, at any given moment can be false. At the very moment you experienced it as true it could very well have been false. Therefore, consciousness of an experience is inherently a source of error. There are many versions of a life – all are true, all are fiction – it depends on the time in which the life is being told. As Robert Elbaz states, “Autobiography is fiction, and fiction is autobiography. Factual truth is irrelevant to autobiography.” So is the voice speaking in an autobiographical text valid? In his book, Malcolm X: The Art of Autobiography, John Edgar Wideman, states, “The locus of the voice is his mind, and of course the mind can routinely accomplish what the most sophisticated experiments in written narrative can only suggest and mimic…” (Wideman).
Further, there is the question of where the reader fits into the text. What expectations does the reader bring to the reading of an autobiography? The reader typically expects that the text is true in every sense. In addition, the reader brings to the reading an anticipation of being somehow transformed by the text. The reader expects that the author will include in the discourse a recounting of hardships that will ultimately lead to a personal transformation on the author’s part. Through this telling of transformation, the reader, consciously or unconsciously, may be hoping for a transformation of their own..
In positioning the reader within the reading of the autobiography, various forms of criticism can be used. If the text is read utilizing New Criticism then the author becomes a byproduct of the text. “…factors such as the life of the author and his/her intentions, or the historical and ideological context in which the text was produced” are inconsequential (Bennett & Royle 11). If this were the case, then how would one be expected to read the autobiography without noting the position of the author as he/she wrote it? On the other hand, if one takes the position of reading the text through Reader Response theory, then “the meaning of the text is created through the process of reading” (Bennett & Royle 12), which makes the reader the authority of the validity of the text and therefore of the experience itself. Should the reader be responsible for validating the text when the experience was not theirs to begin with? In Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, psychologists Michael White and David Epston say, “Since we cannot know objective reality, all knowing requires an act of interpretation” (White/Epston 2). Therefore, the autobiographical text, as well as any other text, is open to the interpretation of the reader.
A deconstructionist would respond that “while any text demands a ‘faithful’ reading, it also demands an individual response” (Bennett and Royle 17). If an individual is reading an autobiography, then the position of individual can be thought of as being moot because the reading of an autobiography usually carries with it the knowledge that one is reading of someone else’s experience. Therefore, can the reader be excused from reading into the text his or her own experience? While the reader understands that they are reading someone else’s experience, it is often difficult, if not impossible, for that reader not to read into the text his own experience.
Another question surrounding the validity of the autobiographical text is its historical significance. Inherent in the idea of autobiography is that the text should provide its readers with descriptions of time and place. The largest objection to Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior is that readers who are not Chinese read the text and take Hong’s words as factual accounts of Chinese culture. Chinese readers have objected to the way in which Chinese culture is portrayed in Woman Warrior. “WW actually violates the popular definition of autobiography — a chronologically sequenced account with verifiable references to people, places, and events” (Wong). This is only the case if one use’s that definition of autobiography. Jean Starobinsky, in an article titled “The Style of Autobiography” comments that “Every autobiography—even when it limits itself to pure narrative—is a self-interpretation” (Starobinsky). Woman Warrior in actuality presents a sequence of the author’s self-interpretation in time. Kingston’s narrative is based on what she calls ‘talk-story’ and she weaves the stories told to her as a child by her mother into an autobiographical text. In essence, she is handing down to future generations the ‘talk-story’ and the question of what is truth is irrelevant. The autobiographical tale that she tells is her tale. At the conclusion of “No Name Woman”, Kingston tells the reader, “My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her…” (Kingston 315). Kingston not only attempts to recreate her past, but the past of her ancestors as well. “…every telling or retelling of a story…is a new telling that encapsulates, and expands upon the previous telling” (White/Epston 13). What the reader assumes to be factual is not relevant to Kingston, her stories are the stories she has been told and retold throughout her life and the question of their validity is not as important to Kingston as the act of recording the ‘talk-stories’.
William Butler Yeats, the famous Irish poet, perfected this form of creating a talk-story, a myth of one’s people. He dedicated his life’s work to creating a new ‘myth’ for his people by recording in his poems the history of the Irish people. Yeats says of the great writers, “…they spoke of tried to speak out of a people to a people, behind them stretched the generations” (Yeats 405) and “Behind all Irish history hangs a great tapestry…” (Yeats 407). It is within this tapestry that Yeats finds the substance of his own autobiographies and his myths. Many critics would question the autobiographical nature of Yeats works, one could call them biographical instead of autobiographical. Yet Yeats would counter that he has put his put his own history into every poem, his myths, his talk-stories are a part of the great tapestry.
Finally, we come to the question of what constitutes a successful autobiography. One of the examples that get closest to what a successful autobiography is would be Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou’s story “…denies the form and its history, creating from each ending a new beginning, relocating the center to some luminous place in a volume yet to be” (Braxton 130). Angelou records experience not as history, but as experience that she recognizes as changing in time. Angelou epitomizes the statement that James Olney makes when he says, “… even as the autobiographer fixes limits in the past, a new experiment in living, a new experience in consciousness … and a new projection or metaphor of a new self is under way” (Olney). Bennett and Royle state that “…the intractable problem of how to end an autobiography (is that) such a text can never catch up with itself because it takes longer to write about life than it takes to live it. In this sense, autobiography can never end” (Bennett & Royle 3). In this sense, the autobiography can also be said to never begin. The autobiographical text is constantly shifting through time, moving from truth to fiction and back again to truth. The story has multiple beginnings as well as endings.
Angelou’s narrative has all the key elements of an autobiography except perhaps an ending. Her autobiographies tend to leave the reader hanging in the wind, wondering what comes next. It is perhaps fitting that Angelou’s books contain this element of serial novels. It is through the serial autobiography that autobiography approaches its true and ultimate form – an account through time of a person’s life, a story with many beginnings that does not end until the author himself reaches the end. And even then, the story continues, doesn’t it?
- Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 2nd Edition. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.
- BrainyDictionary. Accessed 11/6/03.
- Braxton, Joanne, ed. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: A Casebook. NY: Oxford University Press. 1999.
- Dostoyevsky, Fydor. Notes from the Underground.
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. “No Name Woman”. The Longman Anthology of Women’s Literature.
- Mary K. DeShazer, ed. NY: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers. 2001 (308-315).
- Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972
- Opoku-Akyemang, K. “Shifting Paradigms: Graves Without Bodies: The Mnemonic Importance of Equiano’s Autobiography”. Beyond Survival: African Literature and the Search for New Life.
- Anyidoho,Kofi, Abena P. Busia & Anne V. Adams (editors). New Jersey. Africa World Press Inc./The Red Sea Press Inc.
- Starobinski, Jean, “The Style of Autobiography,” Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical. ed. James Olney. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980. p. 74 The Pocket Webster Schol and Office Dictionary. Pocket Books. 1990
- White, Michael and David Epston. Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends. WW Norton & Company: New York. 1990.
- Wong, Sau-ling Cynthia. “Autobiography as Guided Chinatown Tour?: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and the Chinese American Autobiography Controversy.” Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: A Casebook. Ed. Sau-ling Cynthia Chin. NY & Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 29-53.
- Yeats, William Butler. The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Richard Finneran, Ed. Scribner Poetry: New York. 1997.