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Rachel Cohen


Autobiography Today

When I was teaching more, my students, undergraduates and graduates, people who were somewhere between eighteen and seventy-six years old, were all writing their memoirs.  I railed against this at first, particularly with younger students; such was my reputation for impatience with the form that I even had students hesitatingly ask if it would be all right to use the first person.  I did see that this was a somewhat ridiculous position for an admirer of Montaigne and David Foster Wallace to be in.  

I conceived of different ways to explain the distinction: between essays full of the writers’ personality, even experience [Woolf, Montaigne] essays that nevertheless needed the world in order to become shapely and coherent, and accounts of incident or recovery that held their narrative internally, internal to the life of the writer.  It became increasingly difficult to maintain these kinds of distinctions.  

It is not simply a series of coincidences that in the last ten or twenty years bookstores have sections and special tables devoted to memoir, literary prizes have begun to be awarded in the category of memoir or autobiography, literary careers can be built out of a series of memoirs and serious novelists no longer confine themselves to autobiographical fiction but often write at least one memoir.  There has been one of those large changes in literary expression, like the novel replacing the verse epic, or the irregular poem replacing one with rhyme and meter.  

The puzzle of why, now, the literary endeavor so often begins with the first person is preoccupying.  It certainly does not suffice to point to confessional talk shows, poetry and musical lyrics; or to reality tv; the rise of documentary films; facebook pages, blogs, iphone self-documentation.   All these must be additional results of some common deeper cause.  The isolation of the modern self?  Uneasiness with imagination?  The general distrust of the general principle, felt to be falsely homogenizing, even colonial in intent?  (These may not really be distinct either.)  The fear that one’s own experience will be swallowed up by technology, advertising, the speeding years?  The rootless nation of immigrants, bereft of continuous tradition, trying at least to get something down before everyone moves again?  The end of religion?  The gradual evaporation of the reality of other people?  The focus of capitalism on the individual as acquisitive being, acquirer even of experience?  

Self-absorption, people have said to me impatiently when I broach the subject, sometimes before hurrying on to talk of their own projects.  What if the impulse is a healthy one – to restore, or at least record, the damaged self, to take seriously one’s own corner of the universe, to try to communicate by beginning from a beginning.  If the fragments of ruined culture are what we have perhaps it is right to start with one’s own experience of them.