Autobiography (International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis)
As a literary genre, autobiography, narrating the story of one's own life, is a variation of biography, a form of writing that describes the life of a particular individual. From the point of view of psychoanalysis, autobiography is of interest as the story told by the patient to the analyst and to himself.
Autobiography in the modern sense began as a form of confession (Saint Augustine), even though there are memoirs in classical literature (Xenophon's Anabasis, Julius Caesar's Gallic wars). Such introspective works can be considered attempts at self-analysis before the psychoanalytic discovery of the unconscious. In 1925 Freud wrote An Autobiographical Study, in which the story of his own life merges with that of the creation of psychoanalysis. According to Freud, biographical truth does not exist, since the author must rely on lies, secrets, and hypocrisy (letter to Arnold Zweig dated May 31, 1939). The same is true of autobiography. From this point of view, it is interesting that Freud framed his theoretical victory and the birth of psychoanalysis in terms of a psychological novel.
The function of autobiography is to use scattered bits of memory to create the illusion of a sense of continuity that can hide the anxiety of the ephemeral, or even of the absence of the meaning of existence, from a purely narcissistic point of view. This story constitutes a narrative identity (Ricoeur, 1984-1988) but is self-contained. In contrast, the job of analysis is to modify, indeed to deconstruct, this identity through interpretation. Because the analyst reveals repressed content, he is always a potential spoiler of the patient's autobiographic story (Mijolla-Mellor, 1988).
Although autobiography has been of greater interest to literature (Lejeune, 1975) than to psychoanalysis, a number of psychoanalysts (Wilfred Bion and Marie Bonaparte, among others) have written autobiographies, thus confirming the link between the analyst's pursuit of self-analysis and autobiographical reflection.
SOPHIE DE MIJOLLA-MELLOR
See also: "Autobiographical Study, An"; Jung, Carl Gustav; Literature and psychoanalysis; "Psychoanalytic Notes on the Autobiography of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia paranoides)"; Memoirs of the future.
Freud, Sigmund. (1925). An autobiographical study. SE, 20: 1-74.
Lejeune, Philippe. (1974). Le pacte autobiographique. Paris: Seuil.
Mijolla-Mellor, Sophie de. (1988). Suvivreà so passé. In L'autobiographie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.
. (1990). Autobiographie et psychanalyse. Le Coq-Héron, 118, pp. 6-14.
Ricoeur, Paul. (1984-1988). Time and narrative (Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1985)
Autobiography (American History Through Literature)
An autobiography is a prose narrative about some-one's own life. It is generally presumed to be factual, but the way the narrative is shaped, the selections and emphases that must be made by an author, may introduce elements of imaginative invention that reveal something about the author's inner development. If, strictly speaking, there were relatively few "full-dress autobiographies" published in the United States between 1820 and 1870, this half-century was one of the most fertile periods in American literary history for published autobiographical writing, which can include diaries, memoirs, lives, histories, journals, narratives, confessions, adventures, recollections, and even novels and poetry. Indeed, many of the most influential texts of the so-called American Renaissance, such as Walden (1854) and Leaves of Grass (1855), are hybrid literary forms that include strong autobiographical elements but are not, strictly speaking, autobiographies.
Before the 1970s most literary scholars regarded autobiography as a subliterary genre, important primarily as a sourcef an unreliable onef historical and biographical information. The majority of nineteenth-century autobiographers were not professional writers, and their works seldom demonstrated the formal complexity that was expected of literary works in the era of the "New Criticism." The turn toward historically oriented forms of literary scholarship, coupled with the desire to recover the lost voices of women and minority writers, have transformed autobiography into one of the most studied American genres. Nevertheless, the period covered by this essay has not been exhausted. Louis Kaplan's Bibliography of American Autobiographies (1961), using relatively strict criteria for inclusion, indicates that this era produced many hundreds of autobiographies, most of which have never been given sustained scholarly attention. Indeed, the field is so large and complex that scholarly treatments tend to focus on a handful of well-known authors and a few subgenres such as slave and captivity narratives. And studies of American autobiography often conclude with Benjamin Franklin (1706790) at the end of the eighteenth century or start with Henry Adams (1838918) at the beginning of the twentieth.
The scope and variety of autobiographical publications in nineteenth-century America suggest that the rules of the genreho could write what for whomere still emerging in the context of a highly mobile society. Autobiographical writingf not autobiography properlowered in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century as the result of numerous influences, including the ongoing tradition of spiritual self-examination, the expansion of a literate middle class, the spread of popular democracy, a belief in the reality and autonomy of the individual, and the right of that individual to discover a unique destiny. The egocentric qualities of Romanticism in literature and the arts magnified the tendency of Americans to celebrate themselves, to believe that every individual had a story worth telling. And, unique among literary genres, autobiographical writing was accessible to anyone who could write or dictate the story of his or her life. Many autobiographies were written by ministers, politicians, military men, and other professionals, but a substantial portion were written by ordinary people who had an extraordinary story to tell, an injustice to expose, or a cause to promote. There was money to be made too, for the literary marketplace was expanding with the scale of the nation as a whole. The forms of autobiographical writing proliferated in relation to the varied circumstances of their authors, the audiences they wished to reach, and the means by which they were published. Indeed, in this era it is not surprising that autobiographical elements would begin to blend with genres such as the sermon, the novel, the nature study, and the nationalist epic.
If a single characteristic can be said to hold these autobiographical texts of this era together, it is the theme of exploring what it means to be an "American." The United States was still a new nation, and it was struggling to define its purpose and the complementary roles played by its citizens. This presented difficulties for writers who were excluded from the dominant culture's definition of citizenship (in the case of enslaved persons and Native Americans), or who were discouraged from defining a public self except in relation to a spouse or paternal figure (as in the case of women). The nineteenth century was an era in which the authorized autobiographical subject, the life of a representative "white" American man, gave way to challenges from women, African Americans, and other groups whose autobiographical writings were, by their very existence, a challenge to the conception of who was entitled to a public voice and therefore authorized to be an American. In this sense autobiography played an important role in progressive expansion of the rights promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutionhe founding autobiographical documents of the United Stateso which many of these marginalized autobiographers appealed in their works.
THE FRANKLINIAN TRADITION
The influence of the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin on American culture is probably greater than any text other than the Bible. It was originally published as Franklin's Life in 1791, but the text was not cobbled together into anything resembling its present form until the 1840s. Nevertheless, Franklin's memoir, in its various forms, was surely the most widely disseminated American autobiography of the nineteenth century. It was adapted, shortly after its initial publication, in dozens of variably priced editions, and practically every would-be autobiographer, including women and slaves, had to reckon with Franklin's model of the bourgeois American self: someone who is born in poverty and obscurity but who manages through hard work and moral virtue to rise to a position of wealth and fame.
The tradition of the spiritual autobiography, which was still vibrant in Franklin's time, focused on the development of the author's relationship with God (see, e.g., Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative, c. 1740). By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the pattern of struggles overcome on the road to salvation was increasingly supplemented, in the American context, by the more secular success narrative, the "rags-to-riches" stories of "self-made men." This pattern would expand through the nineteenth century in America until it became the characteristic mode of self-presentation for nearly every established American (consider the many biographies of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield). Of course, the spiritual journey continued to structure the form of the success narrative, which substitutes the acquisition of capital and status for the infusion of grace. Franklin's escape from poverty and "The Way to Wealth" parallel the escape from sin and the road to salvation. In this sense, wealth is an outward sign of moral virtue, and it is bestowed for the purpose of becoming a benefactor to one's society. Franklin's lifend other lives based on his modelegotiate the tension between the material and the spiritual, the individual and the community, by asserting that self-interest coincides with the interests of society.
The image Franklin establishedot without some deviation from the memories of his contemporariesefined him as what D. H. Lawrence later called "the first dummy American." And Franklin's exemplary life was both liberating and confining to successive generations. He offered the possibility of personal transformation through social mobility, but he also placed responsibility for poverty completely on the individual. His remarkable frankness and self-deprecating humor establishes intimacy spirit of equalityith the reader, as if the author is not dressed for a public ball but receiving us in his customary domestic clothing. He adopts a pose of radical honesty and self-knowledge at the service of common public interests. Nevertheless, for all his seeming openness about past "errata," Franklin does not offer the reader much direct insight into his personal feelings: his loves, his hates, the motives that drive his ambition. Franklin also presents a vision of happiness based on wealth and public acclaim at the expense of spiritual or emotional fulfillment. Perhaps the shift to secular autobiography banished the introspectiveness of spiritual self-examination; Thomas Jefferson's (1743826) Autobiography (1821) is similarly impersonal. In any case, Franklin's autobiography inspired a host of imitators, but it also motivated some writers to subvert his apparent faith in capitalism and American equality, his economic model of success, his concern for appearances over reality, and his apparent neglect of spiritual and emotional reasons for living. For all its influence, some nineteenth-century readers such as Herman Melville (1819891) viewed Franklin's autobiography less as a guide for proper conduct than as the deceptive apologia of a con man not all that different from Stephen Burroughs (1765840), a notorious Yankee rogue who published his Memoirs in 1798.
The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1855)ossibly the second-best-selling American autobiography of the nineteenth centuryeflects the influence of Franklin's values and the limitations of his model of the American self. Like Franklin's Autobiography, Barnum's Life is the story of how a poor boy became a rich and famous man. But Barnum (1810891) possesses little of the civic-mindedness of Franklin. At times his Life seems like a disconnected compendium of practical jokes and folksy humor mixed with solemn, Franklinesque advice, such as his "rules for success in business." From the beginning, Barnum emphasizes that he was born in an era that was radically different from the eighteenth century. The rules of the economic game had changed. The rapid expansion of cities and industry and an emerging consumer culture called for a new model of success, not based on thrift and humility so much as on conspicuous consumption, visionary speculation, and bombastic advertising. Rather than building the civic infrastructure and cultivating moral virtues, Barnum describes the means by which he hoaxes the American public on an ever-grander scale: liquor, lotteries, Joice Heth, the Fejee Mermaid, Tom Thumb. Ultimately Barnum attributes his triumphs to American characteristics as much as to his own initiative; he expresses this neatly in his dedication: "To the Universal Yankee Nation, of Which I am proud to be one." To some contemporaries, Barnum's Life did not represent a rejection of Franklinian values; rather, Barnum was a product of the go-getting marketplace these values encouraged rather than the deeper intellectual and spiritual aspects of the self. For all his claims of hard work, Franklin's autobiography also communicated the value of image over reality in a culture based on capitalist speculation.
THE TRANSCENDENTAL SELF
If the bourgeois selfased on wealth and positionas a speculative bubble by the mid-nineteenth century, then where could the ultimate meaning and purpose of the individual be found? The leading American Romantic intellectual, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), called on his fellow Americans in speeches and essays such as "The American Scholar" (1837) and "Self-Reliance" (1841) to throw off the shackles of the past, to become nonconformists, and to live an authentic life. In the act of becoming more truly themselves, unfettered by external influences, American individuals could become more closely connected to each other: the small "self " of the individual could become one with the big "Self " of all human life and experience. This is the essence of Emerson's transcendentalist beliefs. His collection of brief biographies, Representative Men (1850), for example, presents the lives of "great men," such as Goethe and Napoleon, whose greatness was emblematic of the larger forces at work in their cultures. They were great because they focused the virtues of their people. In this manner, transcendentalist autobiography continued Franklin's exemplary project, but it shifted the focus from the external and material to the internal and spiritual.
In Walden (1854) Henry David Thoreau (1817862) tried to put the ideals of Emerson into practice. He attempts to find the true material and spiritual nature of the self by living in solitude in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. In effect, Thoreau was intellectualizing the experiences of genuine frontier autobiographers including Davy Crockett and Francis Parkman and high-seas adventurers such as Richard Henry Dana. Based on Thoreau's diaries from the years 1845847, Walden is divided into chapters on topics such as "Economy," "Brute Neighbors," and "Sounds." It does not cover a lengthy span of Thoreau's life, nor does it adhere strictly to the chronology of events during his stay at the pond. Instead Walden condenses and thematizes his experiences in a manner that equates the seasons of the author's life with the seasons of nature. Although Thoreau begins with the promise to deliver "a simple and sincere account of his own life" (p. 325), he transforms himself into an abstraction of human experience in the context of a seemingly natural environment. Thoreau's autobiography deconstructs his individuality and makes him into a universal man whose personal life is of no consequence to the reader.
Walt Whitman's (1819892) autobiographical collection of poems, Leaves of Grass (1855), was also inspired by Thoreau's mentor, Emerson. Whitman shares Thoreau's discovery of the self in solitary encounters with nature, but he also images himself as the embodiment and spokesperson for every American: "Through me many long dumb voices / Voices of the interminable generations of slaves" (p. 50). Correspondingly, the frontispiece to the first unsigned edition of Leaves presents Whitman not as an aloof, Harvard-educated poet but as a common workman. The book was supposed to represent the spontaneous voice of the American people en masse. Like Walden, Whitman's long poem "Song of Myself " does not have a narrative line, but it is organized according to the dialectical cycles of naturehe centrifugal and centripetal, birth and death, and day and night. Unlike Thoreau, Whitman is not concerned with dissolving the distinction between self and place so much as between "self," the individual, and "Self," the common human experience: "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" (p. 50). Whitman's most autobiographical poetry, like Thoreau's prose, gives the reader little insight into Whitman as an individual human being. If Franklin's autobiography made him the personal exemplar of the bourgeois American, he still stands out as a recognizable historical individual; transcendentalist self-representations, in contrast, eliminated personal specificitys well as genre boundariesn favor of national or human representation combined with visionary self-transcendence.
ASSERTING THE RIGHT TO SELFHOOD
It is significant that both Whitman and Thoreau undertook their autobiographical projects on the Fourth of July; they never struggled with the question of whether they had the right to present themselves as representative Americans. Of course, the liberties achieved by Franklin's generation were not extended to everyone in the United States by the mid-nineteenth century. Millions of African Americans were enslaved, and the institution was threatening to expand with the nation into the Far West. Meanwhile, women everywhere were encouraged to remain within the domestic sphere, barred from the professions, and discouraged from engaging in personal publication. In this context, autobiographical writing played an important role in extending the liberal vision of self-determination for these and other marginalized Americans including the destitute and disabled, Native Americans, and immigrants who lived within the expanding borders of the United States.
More than a hundred former slaves, usually men, published narratives of their experiences between 1830 and 1870. Typically these narrativesmerica's unique contribution to world literaturerew on the spiritual, Enlightenment, and Romantic traditions of autobiographical writing. They showed how slavery as an institution perverted Christianity, destroyed the moral character of the slaveholder, corrupted the principles on which the nation was founded, and severed the strongest emotional ties between human beings. Slave narrators such as Frederick Douglass (1818895) and Harriet Jacobs (c. 1813897) proved their worthiness to be regarded as citizens by replicating the Franklinian model of self-improvement under great duress.
As Douglass writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), "The argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn" (p. 38). Douglass begins his Narrative by describing how the slave is excluded from the traditional sources of identity (a birthday, family, marriage, and literacy), but he goes on to describe how he transforms himself in a manner that recalls the Declaration of Independence's characterization of American manhood as the determination to overthrow tyranny: "You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man" (p. 60). Douglass's fight with Covey the "nigger-breaker" is an iconic moment in which a generalized "slave" becomes a generalized "man." After his escape, he abandons the name "Bailey" for "Douglass" and proclaims himself nothing less than a direct heir of the unfulfilled promise of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. "Douglass," according to one contemporary, "passed through every gradation of rank comprised in our national make-up, and bears upon his person and upon his soul everything that is American" (Douglass, p. 132). For all his protestations against American social injustice, Douglass was "a Representative American man type of his countrymen" (Douglass, p. 132). Like Franklin, the former colonial subject, Douglass, Jacobs, and many other slave narrators defiantly wrote themselves into existence as exemplary Americans.
The rich tradition of spiritual self-examination, diary keeping, and private, introspective verse was kept alive in the nineteenth century largely by womenonsider, for example, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830886) or the journals of Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823886). Women had fewer opportunities to enter the professions, make the social associations, or engage in the adventures (or crimes) that typically led to publication of an autobiographical work. Women were also discouraged from presenting themselves in public, and the culture of domesticity persuaded many women to discount the importance of their own experiences. Although female autobiographers were less numerous than male autobiographers, there are many notable examples of their work, such as A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824) by a woman who had lived among the Seneca Indians for forty years and who was interviewed by James Everett Seaver (1787827). Caroline Matilda Kirklandriting under the pen name/fictional character Mary Claversetailed her pioneer experiences with her husband in Michigan in A New Homeho'll Follow? (1839). Lydia Sigourney's (1791865) Letters of Life (1866) was the first full-length autobiography written by a literary professional in the United States. In order to avoid violating the cultural taboo against public self-revelation, Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Parton, 1811872) in Ruth Hall (1855) presented her personal experiences as a novel rather than an autobiography and was viciously attacked in the press when her identity was exposed. Quite often, women's autobiographical writings indicate their exclusion from the public sphere by showing how literary professional-ismmong other capabilities comparable with those of their male contemporariess compatible with traditional domestic responsibilities; in effect, they undermined the Enlightenment and transcendental conception of the American self as solitary, masculine, and universal.
See also Biography; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; A New Homeho'll Follow?; Slave Narratives; Walden
Barnum, P. T. The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by Himself. 1855. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life, My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times. New York: Library of America, 1994.
Franklin, Benjamin. Essays, Articles, Bagatelles, and Letters; Poor Richard's Almanack, Autobiography. New York: Library of America, 1987.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, Cape Cod. New York: Library of America, 1985.
Whitman, Walt. Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.
Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Buell, Lawrence. "Autobiography in the American Renaissance." In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 479. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Cawelti, John G. Apostles of the Self-Made Man: Changing Concepts of Success in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.
Couser, G. Thomas. Altered Egos: Authority in American Autobiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Couser, G. Thomas. American Autobiography: The Prophetic Mode. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979.
Cox, James M. Recovering Literature's Lost Ground: Essays in American Autobiography. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Fabian, Ann. The Unvarnished Truth: Personal Narratives in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Kaplan, Louis, comp., in association with James Tyler Cook, Clinton E. Colby Jr., and Daniel C. Haskell. A Bibliography of American Autobiographies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961.
Sayre, Robert F., ed. American Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Writing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
Shea, Daniel B. Spiritual Autobiography in Early America. 1968. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.
Spengemann, William C. The Forms of Autobiography: Episodes in the History of a Literary Genre. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1980.
Steele, Jeffrey. The Representation of the Self in the American Renaissance. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.