Writing Life Writing
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Writing Life Writing

Narrative, History, Autobiography

Paul Eakin

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eBook - ePub

Writing Life Writing

Narrative, History, Autobiography

Paul Eakin

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About This Book

Why do we endlessly tell the stories of our lives? And why do others pay attention when we do? The essays collected here address these questions, focusing on three different but interrelated dimensions of life writing. The first section, "Narrative, " argues that narrative is not only a literary form but also a social and cultural practice, and finally a mode of cognition and an expression of our most basic physiology. The next section, "Life Writing: Historical Forms, " makes the case for the historical value of the subjectivity recorded in ego-documents. The essays in the final section, "Autobiography Now, " identify primary motives for engaging in self-narration in an age characterized by digital media and quantum cosmology.

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Life Writing

Historical Forms
A major in American History and Literature in college conditioned me to embrace a historicist approach to literary texts. Following the example of Perry Miller, noted historian of what he called “the New England Mind,” I was committed to intellectual history when I wrote my dissertation and my first book, The New England Girl: Cultural Ideals in Hawthorne, Stowe, Howells and James. I argued that these novelists used the characterization of young women—Hester Prynne, little Eva St. Clare, Isabel Archer, and the rest—as an opportunity to explore New England history and cultural values. It was then second nature to me to situate texts I studied in the world beyond the text. Life writing has always seemed to me to invite this kind of reading because it is, in my view, a referential art. My first pass at life writing, however, titled Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention, did seem to some to be making a case for autobiography as just another fiction, to be bundled into the general class of fictions. To correct that impression, I wrote Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography, making the case that, fiction notwithstanding, life writers want their narratives to be understood as having a basis of some kind in biographical fact. In the essays that follow, I explore a range of historical forms—biography, eye-witness narrative, memoir—in order to emphasize the historical value of what historians like to call ego-documents.

5 Writing Biography

A Perspective from Autobiography
When I read a biography, I’m less interested in learning what this person did next than in knowing what it was really like to be this person.1 I really do not care for the huge modern volume that seeks to reconstruct in exhaustive detail the daily movements of the subject. I often find myself treating such a biography as a work of reference, a compendium of documentary fact to be consulted selectively rather than read straight through. Sometimes—and I like this—there’s no pretense of offering anything else; in American literary studies, for example, we have Jay Leyda’s The Melville Log, to which we can turn for an authoritative account of Melville’s activities insofar as the surviving biographical record permits. Of course, I’m not suggesting that what we are is divorced from what we do, but I’m especially interested in the kind of question that emerges from the autobiographer’s practice of self-biography: what sense of self, what sense of life story, did this person have? And more generally, because I believe that the condition of selfhood is culturally determined, I want to ask: where does the model of self, where do the language and design of life story, come from? How are they disseminated? The sense of self and the sense of life as a story of some kind are the leading sources of form in the life of subjectivity, which will be my concern in the rest of this essay.
What separates biography from autobiography is what separates us from each other, namely, our subjectivity and the envelope of the body that contains it. This fundamental difference in perspective—seeing the subject from the outside—establishes at once the value of biographical inquiry, its presumed objectivity, and also its principal limitation, for the experiential reality of the inner world of someone else is ultimately inaccessible and unknowable. As Gertrude Stein put it, “Nobody enters into the mind of someone else, not even a husband and wife” (“A Transatlantic” 30). Stein’s solution in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to the problem posed by the inaccessibility of the inner life is ingenious: she simply and boldly transgressed the generic and experiential constraints the rest of us have to live with, playing both the biographer-as-autobiographer (Stein as Toklas) and the autobiographer-as-biographer (Stein as Toklas on Stein). I’m not suggesting, however, that we fold up our tents and retire from the field of biography. Instead, I’d like to consider how this central condition of subjectivity can contribute to our understanding of each member of that related pair, the biographer and the biographer’s subject.
Practicing biographers have plenty of firsthand knowledge about the contribution of their own subjectivity to the writing of a biography, so I shall touch on this matter only briefly here. It is, not surprisingly, a sensitive issue. Several years ago I was invited to be on a panel that included a prominent psychobiographer of one of the great romantic composers. We were to discuss problems of biography, and I recall that the distinguished guest bristled at my suggestion that there might be something of interest to be disclosed in an account of his relation to his subject. Hadn’t Erik Erikson, I pursued, made precisely such a disclosure in his preface to Young Man Luther? There he notes that his choice of subject forced him to deal with “problems of faith and problems of Germany,” problems he could otherwise have “avoided” (9). Erikson goes on to imply that somehow in writing Young Man Luther he was facing his own problems, and that the biography was in effect a kind of oblique autobiography, a stand-in for Young Man Erikson.
Although my fellow panelist didn’t take much stock in Erikson, I am persuaded nonetheless that something like Erikson’s relation to his subject obtains—in varying degrees, of course—in the writing of any biography. Erikson himself formulates this issue with exemplary care and sensitivity in an essay on the composition of his biography of Gandhi:
[The psycho-historian’s] choice of subject often originates in early ideals or identifications and . . . it may be important for him to accept as well as he can some deeper bias than can be argued out on the level of verifiable fact or faultless methodology. I believe, in fact, that any man projects or comes to project on the men and the times he studies some unlived portions and often the unrealized selves of his own life. (“On the Nature” 713)
Such affective involvement, moreover, may lead to a deeper understanding of the subject than might otherwise be achieved. In a recent review of Boswell, Derek Jarrett observes,
James Boswell was able to write the greatest biography in the English language not because of his abilities nor because of his failings, but because of his absorbing interest in James Boswell. He could never have held up such a marvelous mirror to Johnson if he had not been so dedicated to holding one up to himself. (11–13)
So much for the subjectivity of the biographer. I want to turn now to the subjectivity of the biographer’s subject, taking up the case of the individual who has written an autobiography: what uses have biographers made of such texts, and what uses might they make? To begin with, the writer of an auto-biography may seem to be in competition with eventual biographers, as Henry Adams recognized when he spoke of his autobiography as “a mere shield of protection in the grave.” “I advise you to take your own life in the same way,” he counseled Henry James, “in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs” (512–13). Perhaps this preemptive strategy accounts for the fact that biographers characteristically neglect such an act of self-invention, treating the autobiography instead as merely a source—indispensable if problematical—of biographical fact. Thus, the autobiographer’s subjectivity becomes something to be discounted, allowed for as a contaminant of some truth that it would be the work of the biographer to disclose.
By way of illustration, let’s take a problem case and ask, what use can a biographer make of the autobiographies of Lillian Hellman, whom Mary McCarthy (herself a confessed problem liar) branded as “a dishonest writer” whose every word, “including ‘and’ and ‘the’,” was “a lie” (Witt 1–2). Others have supported McCarthy’s charges against Hellman, notably Martha Gellhorn and Samuel McCracken. Conceding Hellman’s “authoritative detail about everything except time” (288), Gellhorn zeroes in on the problems of verification that Hellman’s dates present, struggling with the historical record to establish when, for example, Hellman arrived in Spain in 1938, and on what nights that fall and where, in that war-torn country, bombardments actually took place. The upshot of Gellhorn’s research is to discredit Hellman’s dating and her motives as well: Hellman emerges as the unreliable witness who stages in An Unfinished Woman (1969), the first of her autobiographies, a self-serving exercise in revisionist history designed to make her come off as “the shining heroine” of the Spanish Civil War (300). Gellhorn dryly concludes, “Miss H. has the cojones of a brass monkey” (299). Following Gellhorn’s lead, Samuel McCracken has checked out Hellman’s factual detail against street indexes and transportation schedules (e.g., “the only early morning train from Paris to Berlin left the Gare du Nord at eight” [38]), and he has matched her account of her political views in the 1930s against the public record. The verdict he reaches about Hellman’s ethics and artistic integrity is as negative as Gellhorn’s.
Such charges are not to be dismissed lightly, but Gellhorn and McCracken’s procedure assumes that the authenticity of an autobiography is determined by strict factual resemblance between the central figure of an autobiographical account and the historical, biographical model on which it is presumably based. Their policing of what they take to be the primary facts of Hellman’s story, however, offers a mistaken conception of the nature of reference in autobiography, where the past exists only as a function of the autobiographer’s present consciousness. Thus, Philippe Lejeune is prepared to argue that short of proving an autobiographer to be guilty of wholesale fraud or pathological lying, the errors, lies, forgetfulness, or distortions that readers detect with regard to the biographical record are properly interpreted as characteristically involved in the elaboration of personal myth that is part of every autobiography (“The Autobiographical Pact” 25–26). In this sense these disturbances in the field of reference take on the value of aspects among others of an autobiographical act that itself remains authentic.
To take Gellhorn’s charges as an example, I am less concerned as a reader of autobiography to know whether a younger Hellman, the protagonist of An Unfinished Woman, really was a “heroine” of the Spanish Civil War, than to recognize that a much older Hellman, author of the autobiography, sees herself in this way. This is to say that of the two orders of biographical fact to which an autobiography may refer, that pertaining to the history of a life evoked in the text as a content and that pertaining to the (usually much briefer) period in which the text was composed, it is to the latter (and later) phase of the autobiographer’s biography that the text seems to me to provide more immediate and hence more trustworthy access. Put another way, in terms of the structure of the autobiographical text, the biographical correspondences, such as they are, refer ultimately to the “I who writes” rather than the “I” written about.
Even though I cannot subscribe to the idea that autobiography could, and should, offer a faithful and unmediated reconstruction of a historically verifiable past, I should emphasize that I am not prepared to disqualify an autobiography as a legitimate source of information about the autobiographer’s earlier self and life history. Readers and biographers naturally want to be able to credit the autobiographer’s reconstruction of the past, not only because of our Wordsworthian-Freudian view that the child is father of the man but also because the years before the subject emerges as a subject for biography are not often easily documented, and so the autobiography serves as a precious if problematic record of otherwise unrecoverable events. Gellhorn and McCracken teach us that we do need to do some checking, even though the most interesting biographical facts—those pertaining to the inner life—are least subject to corroboration from external sources.
There is, nevertheless, a serious blind spot in the Gellhorn-McCracken approach. As they busily consult their sources looking for facts, aren’t they overlooking Hellman’s text itself and the writing of it as an extremely interesting fact in its own right? Aren’t her lies or inventions or lapses of memory—it isn’t easy to know which term ...

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