In a contribution to Esquire in 1972, Tom Wolfe called autobiography “the one form of nonfiction that has always had most of the powers of the novel.” The study of autobiography has since emerged as an important field in American literary history. Of course, some of the major works in the discipline — Benjamin Franklin‘s autobiography comes to mind — have received serious critical treatment for decades. More recently, many other autobiographical writings have been recognized for their literary artistry.
With his comparison, Wolfe was not necessarily saying that autobiographers fictionalized their life stories. Some undoubtedly do, but for most autobiographers, the writing process is a matter of selection, not creation. They start with the various events that shaped their lives and choose the ones they want to shape the story of their lives. Franklin, for example, omitted or downplayed some famous events in his life to emphasize ones displaying himself as a humble and hardworking printer. He made himself into an example to be imitated. The scheme worked. His autobiography is the prototypical story of the self-made man. To a certain extent, all autobiography offers examples for emulation.
Franklin’s may be the most important autobiography in American literature, but the genre seems significant enough to deserve its own chapter in my forthcoming American Literature: A Very Short Introduction. I have received such good responses from my earlier blogs that I am anxious to hear what you have to say about autobiography. I intend to start with Franklin and then flashback to the seventeenth century to discuss Puritan spiritual autobiography, captivity narratives, and slave narratives. After that, I need help with structure and content. I would like to subdivide the chapter into different types of autobiography. What other categories are significant enough to deserve separate subsections? Should I include a section on presidential memoirs? (Does that mean I’ll have to read Bill Clinton’s My Life? What am I getting myself into?) Who else’s autobiographies should I include? What do I do about ghost-written or co-written autobiographies?