The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Autobiography: A narrative account typically written by an individual that purports to depict his or her life and character. Unlike diaries and journals, which are kept for the author’s private use, autobiographies are written expressly for a public audience. Autobiographies are distinguished from memoirs (also produced for public consumption), whose authors render an account of the people and events they have known and experienced without providing the detailed reflection and introspection characteristic of most autobiographies. Some fiction writers draw so heavily on their own experiences that their works, though not autobiographies in the strict sense of the term, are viewed as being autobiographical in nature or even as thinly disguised autobiographies.

A number of feminist literary scholars and critics have argued that traditional biography is a gendered, “masculinist” genre, one whose established conventions call for a life-plot that turns on action, triumph through conflict, intellectual self-discovery, and often public renown. The body, reproduction, children, and intimate interpersonal relationships are generally well in the background and often absent. Arguing that the lived experiences of women and men differ — women’s lives, for instance, are often characterized by interruption and deferral to a much greater extent than men’s, with many women taking time off from their careers to have and raise children — certain feminists have developed a theory of self-representation that Leigh Gilmore termed autobiographics in her eponymously titled 1994 book.

EXAMPLES: St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the fourth century A.D., is the earliest fully developed example of the genre. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791) is a famous early American example. Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) is a modern spiritual classic. More recent examples of autobiography include poet Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), Mel White’s Stranger at the Gate: To Be Gay and Christian in America (1994), Katharine Graham’s Personal History (1997), Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004), and Jimmy Carter’s A Full Life (2015).

Not all autobiographies are written directly or entirely by their subjects. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965 after the activist and black Muslim leader’s assassination, was a collaboration with journalist Alex Haley based on taped interviews from 1963—65. In 1982, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray interviewed Rigoberta Menchú, a 23-year-old Quiché Indian activist from Guatemala, and then edited Menchú’s oral narration of her harrowing life story into a monologue, Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (I, Rigoberta Menchú) (1983).

Examples of autobiographical fiction include Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), whose protagonist is prone to constant masturbation — an attribute that led novelist Jacqueline Susann to remark, “I’d like to meet him [Roth], but I wouldn’t want to shake his hand”; Jeannette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985), a semiautobiographical coming-of-age story; and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), which Alexie estimated in a 2008 speech to be “about seventy-eight percent true. Rounding down.”