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Fabricating Lives

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The advantages and dangers of autobiography are perhaps too obvious to require mentioning at length. Certainly, in one sense, no one is more qualified to discuss an individual’s life than the person himself or herself. At the same time, no one is more likely to have good reason to paint that life in terms most flattering to the subject. While it is often hard to distort facts available in the public record, autobiographers frequently find themselves able to take great liberty in detailing the private side of their lives or in explaining motives for acts that many may have witnessed. Perhaps it is for this reason that autobiography has been viewed with a jaundiced eye by scholars and given slight attention by critics of belles lettres; it seems to reside in a kind of no-man’s-land between history and fiction, following the conventions of the latter as often as it openly ascribes to the demands of the former.

Nevertheless, in recent years critics—especially literary critics—have turned their attention to autobiographical works, attempting in most cases to focus on the way literary conventions such as style, selection (or suppression) of details, organization of materials for presentation, and efforts to achieve a sense of coherence are applied by writers to the raw data of their own lives. The trend seems to be to consider autobiographical writing akin to fictional production, wherein the subject, who is also the writer, transforms the life and in the process creates a kind of literary character. In this way, for example, the “hero” of Henry James’s autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), is viewed as being only a little different from the central character in one of James’s novels. This method stresses the artificiality of the work, diminishing its claim as a historical document while concurrently emphasizing the literary talents that enable the writer to make an artistic whole out of the life that he has led.

While the majority of such recent critical studies have focused on autobiographers who have exhibited literary talents (poets, novelists, playwrights), there has been an occasional attempt to look at autobiographies written by men and women who achieved fame in other areas. Herbert Leibowitz’s Fabricating Lives: Explorations in American Autobiography does just that. In this intriguing and exceptionally well-written study, Leibowitz examines the autobiographies of eight Americans who played a role in shaping the country’s history in a variety of areas: literature, architecture, social work, politics. Convinced that autobiography is not simply “a foot soldier serving humbly in imaginative literature’s army” but a form of writing worthy of significant study in its own right, Leibowitz turns his critical talents to an exploration of the nature of autobiography itself (particularly American autobiography), using eight works by figures who, in his estimation, “represent a cross-section of American experience.” Though he uses the tools of the literary critic, his aim is also political: His study, he says, is written to examine “autobiographies that passionately debate the efforts—and failures—of America to live up to the high ideals inscribed in the Constitution.”

To this lofty end, Leibowitz brings considerable analytical skill, genuine sensitivity toward and sympathy for his subject, and a strong personal writing style. He begins with an autobiographical fragment of his own: an account of his response to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” a poem that caused “a shudder of complicit recognition” in a young Orthodox Jew who was at that time “an earnest, self- conscious adolescent.” In rhapsodic language Leibowitz describes the way Whitman awakened his sensibilities to self- awareness and set him on the path toward understanding the complexities of autobiographical writings. It is clear from both the preface and from comments interspersed throughout his study that Leibowitz has...

(The entire section is 1,716 words.)