The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)

Part II. Reading: JUMPING INTO THE GREAT CONVERSATION

Chapter 6. The Story of Me: Autobiography and Memoir

“WHEN I WAS your age . . .”

People have always told stories about themselves. Augustine (theologian, scholar, African heir of Roman civilization) and Harriet Jacobs (slave, mother, African fugitive from American culture) both wrote autobiographies. Yet Augustine’s skill at putting words on paper makes his tale of conversion no “better” than Jacobs’s chronicle of poverty and flight. No one needs to be an expert to write autobiography.

But the autobiographer is possessed of an odd conviction: that the details of his life will be of interest to unknown, random readers. It’s a conviction that goes against every rule of good party Don’t drone on about yourself. Yet the autobiographer tells you about his parents, his second-grade classmates, his complicated misgivings over marriage, in the sublime confidence that you will be enthralled.

Why on earth does he think that you’ll keep reading?

WHY AUTOBIOGRAPHY IS MORE COMPLICATED THAN YOU MIGHT THINK

In the beginning, there was Augustine.

Augustine, born in North Africa at the tail end of the Roman empire, is the first “autobiographer.” He wasn’t the first writer to jot down details of daily life; diaries and journals have been kept since humans have had a sense of the passage of time and have possessed written language. But Augustine was the first writer to tell the story of his life.

Turning life into story is not as straightforward as it might seem. A diarist notes the events of each day, without bothering to fix them into an overall pattern. But the autobiographer has to put his life into order, explaining thoughts and events which appear important only in hindsight. And this hindsight is itself shaped by the overall purpose that the autobiographer has chosen for his life.

So the autobiographer’s backward gaze doesn’t just tell events—it sees them as part of a design that exists only because the writer has decided that one explanation (and no other) makes sense of his life.

Skip forward in time from the fourth century to the twentieth; to Richard Rodriguez, born to Mexican parents, growing up in California. As a child, Rodriguez spoke English at his Sacramento elementary school, but Spanish in private (“These sounds said . . . I am addressing you in words I never use with los gringos. I recognize you as someone special, close, like no one outside. You belong with us. In the family”). But when Rodriguez’s teachers suggested that he needed more practice in English, his parents insisted that English be used at home as well. In his autobiography Hunger of Memory, Rodriguez writes:

One Saturday morning, I entered the kitchen where my parents were talking in Spanish. I did not realize they were talking in Spanish, however, until, at the moment they saw me, I heard their voices change to speak English. Those gringo sounds they uttered startled me. Pushed me away. In that moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight, I felt my throat twisted by unsounded grief. I turned quickly and left the room. . . . Again and again in the days following, increasingly angry, I was obliged to hear my mother and father: “Speak to us en inglés.” (Speak.)Only then did I determine to learn classroom English. Weeks after, it happened: One day in school I raised my hand to volunteer an answer. I spoke out in a loud voice. And I did not think it remarkable when the entire class understood. That day, I moved very far from the disadvantaged child I had been only days earlier. The belief, the calming assurance that I belonged in public, had at last taken hold.1

Did this happen just as Rodriguez describes? No, of course not. The grown man’s awareness is layered over the child’s memory at every point. The child was angry; only the adult knows that this was a “moment of trivial misunderstanding and profound insight.” The child asked a question in English; only the mature Rodriguez sees the connection between this question and the brief exchange in the kitchen, weeks before. And this particular story has importance only because Rodriguez sees the story of his life as the story of his entrance into American public life. “I turn to consider the boy I once was,” he writes, “in order, finally, to describe the man I am now. I remember what was so grievously lost to define what was necessarily gained.” Had he decided that his life was about the emergence of his sexuality, or the development of a great creative talent, the event in the kitchen would have assumed another meaning entirely.

In other words, Rodriguez’s story of the event in the kitchen isn’t an objective reconstruction of the past. Instead, it is part of a tale constructed by a writer who has much in common with a novelist; Rodriguez is making a point and marshalling his plot points so that they lead to a climactic interpretation. This is what the autobiographer does. And so Augustine is the first autobiographer because he chooses a meaning for his life and arranges the events of his life to reflect this meaning. Rodriguez becomes an American; Augustine becomes a follower of God.

But Augustine’s Confessions make at least four other innovations as well, which is why his story has itself become a pattern by which other autobiographers (whether they know it or not) shape their own lives. Unlike earlier writers, Augustine chooses to tell only those events which belong to the schema he is sketching out. So he ignores the fathering of a child, and instead spends pages on an adolescent theft of pears from a garden, an incident that provides him with a nice echo of Adam and Eve’s original sins and shows that their flaw is also in him. Unlike earlier writers, Augustine sees decisions and thoughts, not big external events, as the true landmarks of a life; like the hero of an ancient epic, he journeys toward a new shore, but his journey is an internal trek from corruption to holiness. Unlike earlier writers, Augustine puts his private self at the center of the universe; his story is not about a Roman, or a North African, or even a church member, but about Augustine, an individual whose hidden, private life has enormous supernatural significance. Unlike earlier writers, Augustine sees a single moment of his life—his conversion—as the pivot around which all else spins. Choosing a meaning for the past, relating all else to it, describing the inner life of the private self, finding that “watershed” event of the past that made the self what it is today: all of these become, after Augustine, the conventions of the autobiography.

And Augustine is the first writer to answer that annoying question: Who wants to hear about my life, anyway? For Augustine, as for Margery Kempe, Teresa of Ávila, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton, and an unbroken line of spiritual autobiographers who stretch right up to Charles Colson, the answer is: all those who, like me, are sinners (by any measure, a wide intended readership). If the purpose of autobiography is to point sinners to grace, the autobiographer can be both humble and self-centered. Minute, individual self-examination (a most satisfying activity) has enormous importance to thousands of readers. After all, the same divine image sleeps in them; they must perform the same self-scrutiny and encounter the same God.

“Confessional” autobiography never disappears, but another kind of life story grows up beside it. The Godward focus of the Middle Ages begins to blur, and the men of the Enlightenment decide that they are not sinners, but humans. It is, after all, the age of invention, and a brilliant Venetian glassmaker has created a mirror in which people can see their own faces without the distortion caused by polished bronze. And thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries become convinced that they can glimpse their private selves with as much clarity as they can see their own faces.

So Michel de Montaigne, René Descartes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau steal Augustine’s invention, the autobiography, and run away with it. They tell stories of their private selves journeying through a secular conversion toward a new shore—not holiness, but self-knowledge.

This creates a whole new knot at the center of the autobiography. For Augustine and his fellow religious autobiographers, the journey toward holiness is a journey toward self-knowledge. It’s a straightforward argument: Holiness is God’s most essential quality. So the holier the self becomes, the more it becomes like God. And since the self is the image of God, the more it becomes like God, the more it becomes itself; it draws closer and closer to reality.

But when the Enlightenment autobiographer peers into his center, he doesn’t see the face of God reflected there. He sees a self that exists independent of God, independent of society, independent even of his own will (the technical term is “autonomous”). The reality of this free, autonomous being depends only on—well, on itself.2

In the absence of a relatively concrete definition of the self as the “image of God,” autobiographers found themselves forced into skepticism—the admission that they didn’t know exactly what was down there in their centers. Montaigne, the first “post-Augustinian” autobiographer, announced in his collection of essays (first published in 1580) that, since he could not know for sure what this mysterious “self” was, or what it knew, he would only “assay” (examine) himself in an effort to tell the reader who he thought he was. Descartes concluded, in 1641, that he could not be sure of his existence as a “sensing self” (since his senses might be deceiving him) or as a “feeling self” (emotions being equally unreliable) or even as a “religious self” (since his knowledge of God was no more certain than either sense or emotion). He knew only that he was thinking about the problem, and so the only statement he could make with any assurance was that “‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”

So if these autobiographers don’t know exactly who they are, what is the purpose of autobiography?

As it turns out, skepticism doesn’t actually change the purpose of autobiography. The story of a life still serves as an example for readers, a model by which they can understand their own lives. But the skeptical autobiographer doesn’t assume that readers are pursuing holiness above all else; knowledge of God, after all, is no longer the journey to self-knowledge. Instead, the skeptical autobiography demonstrates how the writer has shaped his (or her) story so that he is able to define his (or her) self in the absence of certainty—in the absence of the God who gave concrete shape to Augustine’s journey. The skeptical autobiography tells the reader: Here is the meaning I chose for my life. I discovered that my elusive self was a thinking being. Might this be a meaning that you too could choose?

That elusive self might not prove to be a thinking being, as it did for Descartes. Instead, the self might turn out to be an American, as in Richard Rodriguez’s autobiography. (You too can find a balance between your heritage and your present national identity.) Or it might prove to be a woman struggling against the pressure to be domestic, as in Jill Ker Conway’s autobiography The Road from Coorain. (You too can discover your self to be a scholar, even though all around you are telling you that your self’s identity is simply daughter.) Or your self might turn out to be an entrepreneur who can make it big in America despite humble beginnings, as in Benjamin Franklin’s tale of his life in the New World. But whatever the self is discovered to be, the writer argues for its genuineness, its authenticity—and offers it as an example for you to follow.

This sort of autobiography may be post-Augustinian, but Augustinian autobiography didn’t go away. John Bunyan published the story of his life, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, to an enormously receptive public in 1666; it went through six editions in two years, and spiritual autobiographies abounded for the next two centuries. Every book on the list at the end of this chapter is either spiritual or skeptical, a guide to God or a guide to self-definition. The two types of autobiography remain cousins, with a certain family likeness that they owe to their common ancestor, Augustine.

These cousins have continued to lend to and borrow from each other. The skeptical autobiography often indulges in a kind of confession, very like the confessions of sin found in spiritual autobiography. In skeptical autobiography, though, confession is not a path to God’s favor. Instead, the willingness to expose yourself, warts and all, becomes a mark of sincerity, a further reason for your readers to believe you and (perhaps) adopt your way of life. Nor does spiritual autobiography escape from the skeptic’s need to justify the ways of the self to readers who question its sincerity. Teresa of Ávila offered her story to God, but she also wrote to defend herself (and her plans to establish a convent) against her superiors, who doubted the reality of her religious visions. Charles Colson’s Born Again may offer readers a path to God, but Colson has certainly not forgotten all those other readers who would prefer to know exactly what went on at the Watergate.

A FIVE-MINUTE HISTORY OF AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL CRITICISM

Like novels, most autobiographies have plots: beginnings, middles, and ends. But while novelists are aware of themselves as craftsmen (and women), autobiographers are often “accidental writers” who would never consider themselves professionals. Novelists think about the conventions and difficulties of writing fiction, and sometimes even write long essays about how novels should be constructed. But most autobiographers put down the events of their lives without consulting experts or discussing theories of autobiographical composition. Novels can be assigned to schools or movements, such as realism and naturalism; autobiography doesn’t have convenient literary labels.

But the artlessness of autobiography is an illusion. Writers of autobiography do use technique. Not only do they restructure the past so that it brings meaning to the present, but they follow certain conventions as they retell their lives. They may do both unconsciously—but this is still craft.

Consider the most classic of all autobiographical openings, the one used by Benjamin Franklin in his Autobiography: “I was born,” Franklin writes, “in Boston, in New England. My mother was . . . daughter of Peter Folger, one of the first settlers of New England.” When the American ex-slave Frederick Douglass sets down the story of his life, he too begins with his birth and ancestry. “I was born in Tuckahoe,” he tells us. “I have no accurate knowledge of my age. . . . I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life. . . . She left me without the slightest intimation of who my father was.”

But although family provides Franklin with a prototype for himself (his ancestors were free men who valued reading and writing and refused to kowtow to unreasonable religious authorities), family has no part in the rest of Douglass’s story. Why, then, does he begin with his birth and parentage? Because, although he has never studied a book about writing autobiography, he has read other life stories, and his reading has made him aware that a “proper” autobiography begins with birth and family ancestry.

This is a convention of autobiography.

These conventions went more or less unexamined until the 1950s, when academics finally turned an interested eye toward life stories. Autobiography had always been considered a sort of second-class literary undertaking, slightly indulgent, requiring no skill other than an endless fascination with yourself. But during the fifties, a cluster of books and articles suggested that autobiography was in no way the simple, straightforward activity it had seemed. Rather, the autobiographer, as Roy Pascal wrote in 1960, “half discovers, half creates a deeper design and truth than adherence to historical and factual truth could ever make claim to.”3

Why autobiography should suddenly become a topic of critical inquiry in the 1950s has never been explained, but—like most midcentury phenomena—this new interest probably had something to do with post–World War II trauma. Roy Pascal claimed that autobiography can be a way of discovering a truth that is more true than historical fact, because he lived in a time when sensible people longed to triumph over historical facts (that bare record of inexplicable slaughter and holocaust). The notion that the critic, viewing those facts through the lens of a life story, could find a deeper truth beyond them must have seemed beautifully, unbelievably promising.

By the 1950s, Freudian psychology had also become completely popularized. The idea of the subconscious had entered our language, and had irrevocably dyed our ideas about that elusive self.

Freud explained that our subconscious directs us even when we’re not entirely aware of it, and must be excavated if we ever hope to act with any sort of freedom, rather than as puppets of unexplained impulses. Saint Paul, of course, had provided an explanation of the conflict between conscious and subconscious a couple of thousand years earlier, when he lamented, “What I would not do, that I do; and that which I must do, I would not do.” But Paul’s model of two opposing selves required a belief in the Augustinian view of the authentic self as the image of God. Freud’s model was much more congenial to the scholars and theorists who had long accepted the skeptical, Enlightenment view of the self as self-designing, self-governing, and (in the end) self-understanding. So Freud was a better fit than Paul when it came to explaining inexplicable human acts. He offered a solution that required, not submission to some external divine power, but rather a greater and greater understanding of the space within. Autobiography, like an extremely useful psychotherapy session, examined the space within and ordered it, identifying and classifying each urge.

So in the Freudian era (and we’re still in it), critics become increasingly interested in the strategies that the “I” of an autobiography uses to organize that space within. How does the conscious mind (the ego) justify its acts? How does it account for those impulses rising out of the subconscious? The autobiographer tries to figure out why she has always resented her older brother and uses the autobiography as a way to explain.

Like the conscious mind, the self who sits down to create an autobiography has been pushed, pulled, and driven by forces it has never fully understood. This self begins to set her life down on paper—and, as she reflects on past events, begins to discover her own motivations, her own subconscious impulses. She writes in the first person—as “I”—but the I of the autobiography lives through those past events with a knowledge denied to the self when those events took place. In the end, the I of the autobiography turns out to be a very different person than the self it represents.

This was not a brand-new insight. An occasional autobiographer had reflected on this paradox, all the way back to Montaigne, who wrote in 1580: “In modelling this figure [the “I” in his essays] on myself, I have had to fashion and compose myself so often to bring myself out, that the model itself has to some extent grown firm and taken shape. Painting myself for others, I have painted myself with colors clearer than my original ones. I have no more made my book than my book has made me.” But Freud supplied a language that allowed literary critics to discuss the paradox as a theoretical problem. The initial burst of books and articles in the mid- to late 1950s led to an ongoing critical discussion that still prospers: any university library will yield titles ranging from the simple to the unintelligible, from Robert Sayre (“The person who can write his own story can rise from the status of the unknown and inarticulate”) to Rodolphe Gasche (“Autobiography is not to be in any way confused with the so-called life of the author, with the corpus of empirical accidents making up the life of an empirically real person”).4

This ongoing critical discussion (besides winding itself into unintelligibility fairly frequently) has also produced, somewhat after the fact, genre labels for autobiography. Sometime in the early 1970s, scholars realized, with great surprise, that women think of their lives differently than men do. Augustine, the first autobiographer, was raised on the tales of Greek and Roman heroes, men whose virtues he was to emulate. And so his spiritual journey took on the flavor of an epic spiritual quest.

But Margery Kempe was never given the option of modeling herself after an epic hero. Like most women, she was uneducated; rather than epic tales, she heard stories of domestic fulfillment. Besieged by her husband and fourteen children, she was unable to think of her life as a solitary journey. So why should Augustine’s experience shape her life story?

As a genre, women’s autobiographies seemed to be distorted by an intractable literary tradition that insisted they view their struggles and achievements through male eyes. Told that they should be patient, quiet, and devoted to the men in their lives, women produced autobiographies in which the I was patient, yielding, and passive. The spiritual autobiographies of women dealt not with an active grappling with sin, but the difficulties of passive submission to the male God. Through the nineteenth century, the I in a woman’s autobiography was more likely to confess her inadequacy than to act vigorously in the face of opposition. As Patricia Spacks observes, the autobiography shows a public face, but while the “face a man turns to the world . . . typically embodies his strength,” a woman’s public face must show a “willingness to yield.”5 Even in the case of social activists such as Jane Addams and Ida Tarbell, this publicly yielding face persists. In her study of women’s stories, Jill Ker Conway points out that the personal correspondence of these women is forcible and full of conviction, but that their autobiographies portray them as passively called to activism, sought out by causes rather than seeking them.

The genre of “black autobiography”—particularly in the United States, with its slave-holding past—suffers from the same sort of distortion. African American autobiographers found themselves copying the forms practiced by whites, even when those forms didn’t suit the shape of their lives. In the earliest African American autobiographies (the “slave narratives”), the writer inevitably begins with birth and parentage, just as a white writer would. But the real beginning of the story comes slightly later, in an event that becomes a convention of black autobiography: the recognition of blackness. Each African American writer views herself as, simply, a person—until a point at childhood where she is suddenly gazed at, by someone else, with disdain or horror. At this moment, the I sees itself, no longer as “normal,” but as something different: as black. From this moment on, the African American autobiographer struggles with double vision. Like the white autobiographer, she tries to create herself in the pages of her book, but as she does so she cannot help seeing herself through the hostile eyes of others. Blackness becomes (in the words of Roger Rosenblatt), both identity and tragic fate, a “condition that prescribes and predetermines a life.”6

A second convention marks almost all African American autobiography: entry into a world of reading and writing. When Frederick Douglass was a child, his mistress began to teach him to read. But her husband halted the lessons: “Learning will do him no good, but a great deal of harm,” he told his wife sternly. “If you teach him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”7 So the instruction ceased, but Douglass convinced his young white acquaintances to explain the ABCs. Learning to read was Douglass’s conversion, the point at which he stepped over into a new world. Through reading, he gained a vocabulary that (as Douglass himself puts it) “enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance.”8 And through writing, he entered the white world not just as victim, but as witness and activist. Writing gave him power even over his enslaved past, since he could now record his days as a slave and fill them with moral judgment on the slaveholders. “It did not entirely satisfy me to narrate wrongs—I felt like denouncing them,” he writes. “I could not always curb my moral indignation for the perpetrators of slaveholding villainy long enough for a circumstantial statement of the facts.”

Autobiography allows a writer to recreate his own life, to read meaning back into past events, to give shape and sense to what has been meaningless. So how is it different from fiction? (And should we get upset if the facts appear to have been stretched just a bit?)

As autobiographical criticism began to gain steam, more academics began to question the line between fact and imagination. Faith in the existence of cold, hard facts—knowledge that can be proved by observation or experimentation or some other scientific method of establishing truth—became part of our Western point of view around the time of the Renaissance; this reliance on scientific proof as the ultimate test of truth separates the “modern era” (which began sometime around Copernicus) from what came before. But in the last third of the twentieth century, thinkers began to question the infallibility of scientific proof. They pointed out that there are many different types of certainty, and that “proof” in the modern sense exalts scientific certainty above all others. They pointed out that scientists were people too, and were apt to find facts that they hoped for, as well as facts that existed. They pointed out that a “fact,” particularly in autobiography, is a slippery object. If two historical personages write down two different accounts of the same event, might both accounts be true—depending on point of view?

These questioners of modernism were labeled postmodernists. (Modernism and postmodernism are slightly different, in this context, from the literary modernism and postmodernism discussed in the last chapter.) Postmodernism helped autobiography to prosper, since postmodernists generally resist labeling one point of view as more “worthwhile” than another, which means that the suburban mechanic has just as much right to tell his life story as the president. But in praising each individual point of view as worthwhile (“Both accounts of that battle are true—the writers were standing on opposite sides of the field, that’s all!”), postmodernism gradually released its hold on the “normative” point of view: that which is true for everyone. You no longer read an autobiography to find out the truth about past events (an assumption that governed the memoirs of political retirees for decades). Rather, you read autobiography to find out what it’s like to see the world from another point of view, from inside the skin of another person. If the point of view is vividly drawn, so that you understand life as a woman or an ex-slave or a second-generation Mexican immigrant, does it really matter whether the events are “accurate”?

Like many questions posted by postmodernism, this one remains unanswered. But in most cases, the reader who peruses autobiography is a practicing postmodernist, even if he doesn’t realize it. He’s not searching for the “facts” so beloved by modernists. He’s demonstrating (in James Olney’s words) “a fascination with the self and its profound, its endless mysteries and, accompanying that fascination, an anxiety about the self, an anxiety about the dimness and vulnerability of that entity that no one has ever seen or touched or tasted.”9 The reader of autobiography (whether spiritual or skeptical) is hoping for a map through trackless waters, a handbook to the deep interior spaces. And if he does happen to discover exactly what happened at the Watergate, this is simply an unexpected bonus.

HOW TO READ AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY

The First Read-Through: Grammar-Stage Reading

In your first reading of an autobiography (the “grammar stage” reading), you’re asking a simple question: What happened? Take the writer’s assertions at face value. You won’t be able to see the overall shape of the life until you’ve read the entire work, so don’t begin to criticize the author’s interpretation of the past until your second read-through. Remember to mark in some way—by turning down a page, or making a note in your reading journal—passages that seem to carry some extra significance. Although you don’t yet know what this significance is (and the passages may, on second reading, turn out to be unimportant), these notes will simplify your search for answers to the analytical questions that I’ll suggest later on.

Look at the title, cover, and table of contents.    This initial survey of the book is always your first step. Follow the same process as you did with the novels you read for Chapter 5: With your journal and pencil close by, read the title page and the copy on the back. Write the title of the book, the author’s name, and the date of composition on the top of a blank page. Also write a short sentence saying who the author is (scholar, nun, politician, slave).

Glance through the table of contents. Many autobiographies don’t have chapter titles, but those that do will give you a preview of the shape that the writer is giving to his life. Mein Kampf, for example, begins with “In the Home of My Parents,” and continues on to “Why the Second Reich Collapsed,” “Race and People,” “The Strong Is Strongest When Alone,” and “The Right to Self-Defence,” which gives you a foretaste of Hitler’s take on himself: He identifies himself with the German people, so that his own “suffering” and rise mirror those of the German nation. (This also allows him to do pretty much anything he pleases in his rise to power, since, in his own eyes, he isGermany.) If you do get an overview of the writer’s purpose, write a brief sentence or two about what this purpose might be.

What are the central events in the writer’s life?   When you did your initial reading of the novel, you jotted down the main events of each chapter to provide yourself with a brief outline of the plot. When you first read an autobiography, you should note the events of the writer’s life. Although the writer’s focus may be on intellectual development or a change in mental state, the physical events of a life nevertheless provide a framework to hang internal developments on. List these events in order, down the left-hand side of a page. Try to limit your list to a single page; an autobiography may be crammed with incident, but you don’t need to record all of these incidents in your initial outline. Pick out the central happenings. For each chapter, ask yourself: Out of all of these happenings, which two are the most important? (This is a somewhat mechanical narrowing device, so if there seem to be three important events in a single chapter, don’t feel bound to eliminate one—and for a long autobiography with many short sections, such as Gandhi’s, you’ll need to eliminate entire chapters.) Birth, education, traveling, marriage, taking on an occupation, catastrophe (a plunge into poverty, imprisonment, divorce, death of a loved one), parenthood, great achievement, retirement—these form the “skeleton” of a life. As you list these events, try also to note what makes them unique—not “Took first job” but “Began work as a lawyer, hated the job at first.”

An occasional autobiography (such as those written by Descartes and Nietzsche) have very few (or no) external events; in Descartes’ Meditations, “I cleared my schedule today so that I can sit down and write all this in one sitting” is all the physical event you get, and Nietzsche has no “happenings” at all. In this case, try to note the primary intellectual events—the conclusions that the writer comes to as he marshals his evidence. Look for the words “Therefore” or “I concluded” or “Clearly” (or some synonym) in order to identify these conclusions; these “terms of conclusion” tell you that, having put together a number of facts, the writer is ready to tell you what those facts mean.

What historical events coincide—or merge—with these personal events?   As you list personal events on the left-hand side of your page, keep your eyes open for historical events—those great happenings in the outside world (outbreak of war, a change in laws that affects the narrator’s rights, natural catastrophes). List these down the right-hand side of the page, across from the personal events with which they coincide.

The part that history plays in the retelling of a life varies. Sometimes historical events directly affect the writer’s life: the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act makes Douglass’s position in the North precarious; Gandhi’s life in India is changed forever by the unrest caused by a British crackdown on indigenous freedoms; Maya Angelou’s childhood is shaped by Jim Crow. Sometimes wars and catastrophes just echo dully in the background; sometimes historical events are referred to only obliquely, because in the writer’s time they formed part of a common knowledge that has faded in the present day. In Chapter 5, I suggested that a one-volume world history would set the novel in perspective; you might want to refer to it now, in order to get more details about events that seem blurred in autobiography. You might also make use of The Timetables of History, a reference work that lists major events for each year of recorded history in seven different categories (politics, art and music, literature, and so on). You can easily scan the years that cover the writer’s life and make notes of happenings that seem significant. (The absence of an important historical circumstance from a writer’s autobiography may be as meaningful as its presence.)

You can jot down this additional information on the right-hand side of the page as well, but write it in a different color—or in some other way distinguish it from the historical information provided by the writer himself.

Who is the most important person (or people) in the writer’s life? What events form the outline of that story?   Human beings define themselves against others: We find our self-definition in our uniqueness. Uniqueness is that which no one else has. As we tell the story of what makes us unique, we must tell others’ stories too, in order to show that our story is different.

So every autobiography outlines more than one life. Each autobiographer tells at least one other story that plays counterpoint to his own. Often, this story is that of a parent; Jill Ker Conway’s autobiography is largely the story of her relationship with her mother. In the telling, she sketches a compelling portrait of this tragic figure, a woman of energy and talent who is kept from exercising her gifts, and so sinks into paranoia and instability. The story runs side by side with Conway’s and informs it with a certain fear: What if Conway, energetic and talented like her mother, is also unable to overcome the restrictions her society places on women?

Nietzsche talks about his father, Harriet Jacobs about the master who torments her, Gertrude Stein about the painters of Paris, Elie Wiesel of the small sister who disappeared into the concentration camps and who comes to symbolize all helpless Jewish children destroyed by hatred. As you read, try to identify the figure who stands at the center of the writer’s life. On another sheet of paper, make a brief list of events that shaped this life—as told by the autobiographer at one remove.

Give the book your own title and subtitle.   As you did with the novels, try titling and subtitling each autobiography after you’ve finished it. This title will serve as a memory hook for you as you move into the stage of analysis and try to discover the writer’s purposes. If you’re having difficulty, use this format:

A____’s Story: In Which [Writer’s Name]. . . .

To fill in the first blank, use a single noun that best describes the author; in the second sentence, list one or two of the writer’s most notable achievements. So Franklin, the father of American autobiography, appears as:

A Businessman’s Story: In Which Benjamin Franklin Manages to Rise to Wealth and Prominence Through Determination and Hard Work, Despite Starting With Absolutely Nothing.

Or, alternately:

An American’s Story: In Which Benjamin Franklin Frees Himself From All Oppression and Creates Exactly the Life He Wants.

There are many ways to title an autobiography, since lives have many facets; don’t get hung up on wondering whether you’re doing it “right” or not. You’ll return to this titling again later, and decide whether the title you’ve settled on is still your first pick.

The Second Level of Inquiry: Logic-Stage Reading

Now that you’ve identified the autobiography’s main events, you need to discover the overall plan (the theme) that ties the work together. Go back to those passages that you marked as interesting or confusing and reread them. Glance back over your outline as well; reread those sections of the autobiography that seem most central to the writer’s life.

Then use your writing journal to make notes of your answers to the following questions. Each aims to help you answer the most central question of all: What pattern has the writer discovered in his or her own life?

What is the theme that ties the narrative together?   Begin by making a hypothesis: Form a first theory about the autobiography’s theme.

First, determine whether the autobiography is primarily spiritual or skeptical in orientation. Spiritual autobiography has the writer’s relationship with the divine as its organizing plan. True knowledge of God, or a change in spiritual state, serves as the life’s climax. But this movement toward religious fulfillment might take different forms: a journey; a battle; the facing of a trial that must be endured; a psychological revelation that uncovers the true nature of the self. What sorts of metaphors does the writer use to represent this spiritual movement? And what does this reveal about her understanding of the divine? Is the knowledge of God a new world to be discovered, a territory to be conquered by force, or a mirror where we see our own true faces?

If the autobiography is skeptical, the writer is trying to understand her own story without spirituality as its primary organizing theme. “Skeptical” doesn’t necessarily mean “secular”; religious experience can still play a role, but some other theme gives the story its beginning, middle, and end. What is this theme? Is it “relational,” describing the writer’s slow resolution (or dissolution) of relationships with parents, siblings, lovers? Is it “oppositional,” presenting the life as a conflict between two different possible choices? For women, this may involve choosing between domestic and professional lives, between a conventionally feminine life and a life of intellectual or social activism. For men, this opposition might take the form of conflict between an expected career and a desired career; or perhaps between existence as a public figure and happiness as a private figure. Is it “heroic,” casting the writer in the mold of a mythic hero or heroine, conquering difficulties and overcoming obstacles? Is it “representational,” transforming the writer into a symbol for all other men or women who share the same condition? (Harriet Jacobs represents the enslaved mother, Benjamin Franklin the young American man seeking wealth and freedom.) Or is it “historical,” describing a historical movement (the emancipation of women, for example) through the lens of one writer’s experience? These themes can serve you as starting points for your own thinking, but you shouldn’t feel bound by them; you can create your own categories as you read.

When you’ve settled on a possible theme, write a couple of sentences describing it. You’ll come back and revise the theme at the end of your analysis.

Where is the life’s turning point? Is there a “conversion”?   “Conversion” is the point at which the writer comprehends a great truth about herself and changes the direction of her life, or experiences something so shattering, or so magnificent, that she is never the same afterward. Even skeptical autobiographies contain conversions. Transformation from one state of being to another is necessary for autobiography; if the writer had always been the same, she would have no purpose in laying out the chronological events of her life. She could simply write a history, with herself as an objective, unchanging narrator. But autobiography isn’t history; it is the story of a growing, changing life. Look for the change. As we saw above, African American writers often trace their change to a first recognition of blackness, when they see themselves, for the first time, through the eyes of another. Many female autobiographers come to a slow understanding of themselves as independent, powerful people, not as adjuncts to someone else. Spiritual autobiographers see the divine and find their vision permanently altered.

Glance back at your outline. Is there a chapter in which important events seem to cluster? This cluster might occur just before or just after a transition point. Can you find the key words “For the first time”? Frederick Douglass is raised by his grandmother and surrounded by “kindness and love”—until she takes him to his master’s plantation and leaves him there. When he looks around, his grandmother is gone. “I had never been deceived before,” Douglass reflects, “and something of resentment mingled with my grief at parting with my grandmother . . . [T]his was my first introduction to the realities of the slave system.”

An autobiography may contain more than one turning point; there are other transitions in Douglass’s story (his mastery of the alphabet, his battle with the slave master Covey), although this is the first and most fundamental. You may be able to finger one transition as most central, or it may seem that two different points in the story are equally important. You may also find that although a definite change takes place between the beginning and the ending of an autobiography, so that the “I” who narrates the first chapters seems quite different from the “I” at the end, the change is more gradual. Make a note of whether the “conversion” is immediate or slow, and how the narrator is changed.

For what does the writer apologize? In apologizing, how does the writer justify?   “I am an ornery character,” writes poet May Sarton, “often hard to get along with.” But she adds immediately, “The things I cannot stand, that make me flare up like a cat making a fat tail, are pretentiousness, smugness, the coarse grain that often shows itself in a turn of phrase. I hate vulgarity, coarseness of soul.” Well, who doesn’t? That makes us all hard to get along with. Since no life is blameless, every autobiography contains an accounting of faults. And since humans find it psychologically impossible to live with guilt, apologies for these faults are almost always followed by justifications.

If you can find and mark these confessions and justifications, they will help to bring the pattern of the writer’s life into view. Apologies appear differently in spiritual and skeptical autobiography. Spiritual autobiography requiresconfession of fault without self-justification; the writer is able to pour out her faults before God, because the grossness of the sin doesn’t affect God’s forgiveness. The presence of the divine eye makes honesty possible. (As a matter of fact, in some spiritual autobiographies, the worse the sin, the better the forgiveness.) In the Christian tradition, forgiveness means that the soul is reborn, becomes new. So the writer who tells, postconversion, of her preconversion life, is in effect writing about a different person—which allows even more devastating self-criticism.

On the other hand, the writer of spiritual autobiography is perfectly well aware that readers (not counting God) are finding out about these faults too. So even as the writer confesses to God, she may justify herself to you, the reader. Does this happen? If so, where?

In skeptical autobiography, confession of faults takes a different form. Honest confession is difficult—perhaps impossible—when a writer unfolds his soul to an unknown mass of listeners. Honest acknowledgment of fault requires that the confessor be sure of the listener’s sympathetic ear. In the absence of assured forgiveness, the writer has to hedge confessions about with explanations, so that readers who might not be inclined to gracious forgiveness cannot dismiss his entire life as unworthy. Very typical of such a confession is Gandhi’s explanation of his failure to provide his own sons with a decent education: “My inability to give them enough attention and other unavoidable causes prevented me from providing them with the literary education I had desired, and all my sons have had complaints to that . . . the artificial education that they could have had in England or South Africa . . . would never have taught them the simplicity and the spirit of service that they show in their lives today, while their artificial ways of living might have been a serious handicap in my public work.” In admitting his fault, Gandhi not only hedges it (“unavoidable causes”), but provides a reason why his fault led to a better outcome.

What is the model—the ideal—for this person’s life?   The autobiographer apologizes for her life at the point where the story she is telling diverges from the one she wishes she could tell. She apologizes because she has fallen short of some ideal. What is this ideal? The perfect scholar, the ideal wife/daughter/mother, the dynamic leader?

Whatever it is, the autobiographer is always measuring herself against it. “One senses a straining toward perfection in all autobiography,” writes Roger Rosenblatt, “perfection of a kind that connects the individual with a cosmic pattern. . . . There is for every autobiographer an absolute ideal. Falling short of it is perhaps what inspires the autobiography in the first place; but if we are to understand the lives detailed before us, we must know this ideal as fully as we know the ‘realities’ given us.”10

Look again at your title, subtitle, and theme. Glance back over the apologies that the writer makes. Ask yourself: If this writer could be perfect, who would she be? What characteristics belong to that ideal figure that she seems to be comparing herself to? And is there any hint where this ideal may have originated? The mother who feels guilty over losing her temper with her children has absorbed an image of the Ideal Mother (always patient, always cheerful, able to entertain a three-year-old for hours with only two Popsicle sticks and glue). The autobiographer who apologizes for her failings as wife, as daughter, has also absorbed an image of what she should be. Perhaps it has come from her reading, from her parents, or from her religious community. Or perhaps from that vague thing we call “society,” which encompasses the media, schooling, and the opinions of random acquaintances. Can you trace the ideal image back to its source?

What is the end of the life: the place where the writer has arrived, found closure, discovered rest?   It is a peculiarity of autobiography that the writer must bring the story to an end before it has ended. As Montaigne remarked in his Essays, no life can be fairly evaluated until after death; because of “the uncertainty and mutability of human affairs which lightly shift from state to state . . . [All] the other actions in our life must be tried on the touchstone of this final deed. . . . The assay of the fruits of my studies is postponed unto death.”

But the self-written story of a life can’t wait until the author’s death. So the autobiographer creates an end, a stopping point. “Many more of the dealings of God towards me I might relate,” Bunyan concludes in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, “but these out of the spoils won in battle have I dedicated to maintain the house of God.” Won in battle: Although the “real” John Bunyan continued to fight doubts and temptations for the rest of his life, the “autobiographical” John Bunyan—the I who tells this story—has found final victory.

This “stopping point” question, perhaps more than any other, highlights the difference between the narrator of autobiography and the actual person who stands behind that narrator. How can any living person know the final shape of her life? In the absence of this certainty, she must create a final meaning for her life and set it down for us to see.

Reread the final chapter of the autobiography. Look for statements of conclusion, which often (though not always) are introduced with “time words” such as so or from then on or now or during. (Darwin’s memoirs, for example, end with the statement, “I am not conscious of any change in my mind during the last thirty years,” which places the end of his written life startlingly early.) Remember that the writer has selected this particular chapter as a vantage point from which he can look back and see his whole life spread out in a meaningful pattern behind him; the last chapter usually contains the final puzzle piece, the one that makes sense of all else.

Write a brief paragraph (two or three sentences) describing the writer’s position at the end of the autobiography (where is she? what is she doing?), and quote any evaluation that the writer herself supplies.

Now revisit your first question: What is the theme of this writer’s life?   Look back at the theme you suggested at the beginning of this evaluative process. Does it still ring true, now that you’ve examined transitions and endings, apologies and ideals? Each of these elements should have clarified the theme: You should now have a better idea of how the writer is constructing herself on paper, how the I of the story is formed. If your ideas have changed, revise your description of the autobiography’s theme. Then revisit your title and subtitle. Do these, too, need revising in the light of your deeper study?

The Third Level of Inquiry: Rhetoric-Stage Reading

Your evaluative reading of the autobiography centered on the individual life portrayed. As you move into your third and final stage of reading, broaden your point of view beyond the single written life. What broader conclusions does the writer draw about the group he or she belongs to (men, women, immigrants, activists), or even more broadly, about human nature in general?

Remember that this stage of reading is best done in the company of another reader. Answer the first question (in writing or in conversation), and ask your reading partner to respond. Then have your partner answer the second question; you supply the response. This dialogue allows each of you to play the part of devil’s advocate in turn.

Is the writer writing for himself, or for a group?   Does the writer see himself as a solitary soul, unique to the point where he cannot be imitated? This is very rare; much more often, the autobiography represents a pattern that could be adopted by a larger group of people—or a way of life that certain classes of humans are forced into.

Does May Sarton write for the creative soul; Frederick Douglass, for the black man; Harriet Jacobs, for the enslaved mother; Richard Rodriguez, for the Hispanic American? If so, which ones? Beware of overgeneralizations. Which readers can truly identify themselves with the situation of the autobiographer? Rodriguez describes an experience that, perhaps, is recognizable to most second-generation Hispanic Americans—but which parts of his story are unique to him, to his particular family and education? Does he make the mistake of assuming a universality to his experience that others might not share?

Ask these questions for each autobiography. What parts of the writer’s experience does he assume to be universal? Which does he view as unique to himself? Are you part of the “group” which might be expected to identify most closely with the writer’s experience? If so, does it ring true for you? And if not, what parts of the story do resonate with your own experience?

Finally, make a moral judgment. If the writer is laying down a pattern for others to follow, do you find this pattern to be good? And be sure to define what you mean by good. Does “good” mean “socially constructive” (“If everyone behaved that way, society would run smoothly”)? Or “ethically consistent” (“This pattern lines up with the laws of morality, or of God, as I understand them”)? Or “self-fulfilling” (“Anyone who behaved in this way would reach their highest potential as a human being”)? These are three very different meanings of the word good, although we tend to use such common words without thinking carefully about which meaning we intend. But think now. Precise use of language marks an educated reader.

What are the three moments, or time frames, of the autobiography?   Remember that each autobiography has three distinct time frames: the time during which the events actually happened; the time during which the writer is putting the events on paper; and the time in which the autobiography is read. 11 In your first stage of reading, you became familiar with the first time frame, when you listed the happenings of the writer’s life. Now take some time to think about the second and third frames.

The second time-frame moment, during which the autobiographer writes, is an intriguing one. Why does the writer sit down, at a particular point in time, and decide to put down his life? Did a child request family information? (This is Benjamin Franklin’s stated purpose for writing.) Is death approaching? Has a political or cultural event shoved the narrator into the spotlight, so that the public is demanding details? Has he been arrested, jailed, elected president?

Find the writer’s stated reason for putting down his life in writing. (Only the most maniacal ego—Nietszche springs to mind—assumes that it is intrinsically interesting.) Ask whether this reason rings true. (Did Franklin’s son really ask for his father’s entire life to be set down in writing? We never hear about the son again after the first paragraph, after all.) And then ask: Was the writer at a high or low point when writing? Was the story written in a three-month burst, or over twenty-five years? An autobiography written in prison (as Bunyan’s was) creates a different pattern for past events than one written at the high point of a life, after immense achievement and public acclaim. An autobiography written in a short period encapsulates the narrator’s attitude at one brief time in life; one written over years may show more perspective, as the writer revises and returns to the pattern again and again.

Finally, how has the autobiography been changed by the years that have passed since its publication? Books are living objects; they change from reader to reader, from decade to decade, from age to age. Hitler’s autobiography, published before World War II, sounds to our ears both pathetically deluded and weirdly threatening. Franklin’s autobiography has limitless confidence in hard work and thrift and their ability to launch even the poorest immigrant to the highest level of American society; in today’s world, this confidence sounds naive. Margery Kempe’s visions, which begin right after the birth of her first child, can be easily diagnosed as postpartum psychosis; Booker T. Washington’s appeal to ex-slaves to forget about political power, at least for now, grates on contemporary ears.

You will never rid yourself of your contemporary glasses, but you can at least be aware that you have them on. Beware of chronological snobbery: People in the past were not more ignorant or less insightful than people today. A good dose of antidepressants might have put an end to Margery’s visions, but they would not have solved most of the underlying difficulties in her life, and modern medical science hasn’t dealt with postpartum psychosis any better than Margery’s confessors—who confirmed her religious calling, and thus gave her permission to retreat from a life which she found literally unendurable.

Make an effort to understand each autobiography on its own terms—and then put it into the frame of your own time. Ask yourself that most characteristic rhetoric-stage question: Do I agree? Which is more valid, our own contemporary understandings, or those of the time? In the sixteenth century, Margery walked away from her fourteen children, abandoning them for a life of religion. In the twenty-first century, a Texas woman under similar stresses took drugs prescribed by her psychiatrists, stayed home with her five small children, and drowned them all in the bathtub. Who acted more responsibly?

Where does the writer’s judgment lie?   In the “Note to the Reader” that prefaces Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, William H. Shannon remarks that it contains three levels of meaning:

First, there is the historical level: what actually happened in his life. Second, there is the remembered level: what Merton was able to recall of the events of his life. Memory is often selective, which means that the remembered past may not always coincide with the historical past. Finally, there is the level of monastic judgment. . . . [Merton’s] monastic commitment colors the way Thomas Merton (his religious name was Father Louis) tells the story. The Seven Storey Mountain, I believe it can be said, is the story of a young man named Thomas Merton being judged by a monk named Father Louis [and judged very severely, Shannon notes].12

These same levels of meaning can be found in every autobiography. Each story has a historical dimension, a “remembered” dimension, and a dimension of judgment. What, or whom, does the writer judge? Is his critical eye turned on himself, or on others? If he criticizes himself, what basis does he use for judgment? (Remember that Ideal from your logic-stage reading?) If he judges others—society, family, God—is his criticism valid? Who is ultimately responsible for his successes and failures: society, family, God?

Do you agree? Does the writer, in your view, shift blame—or judge himself too harshly?

Do you reach a different conclusion from the writer about the pattern of his life?   As you glance through the outline of events that you sketched out on your first reading, and then at the evaluations you jotted down on your second reading, you may see two very different patterns. The autobiographer’s life may seem self-destructive to you, or petty, or vindictive; yet the writer sees a pattern of generosity and victimization. Or you may see great self-sacrifice and courage, but the autobiographer sums up with: How wretched and unworthy I am!

If you were finding a pattern to the events presented, what pattern would you find? This is a difficult exercise, since you haven’t necessarily been given all the information you need; remember that the writer includes those parts of his life which fall into a pattern, and eliminates those which don’t seem to fit.

But you can ask a related question: What’s missing? What might you expect to find in this work that isn’t there? And why did the writer choose to gloss over it?

You can get at the “missing element” in two ways: through your knowledge of the writer’s life gleaned from other sources (you know that he was married to the same woman for thirty-five years, yet he never mentions her; why?), or through hints that the writer himself drops. Thomas Merton refers to a “past” that barred him from entering a religious order on the first try, but never writes of what that past is (although Shannon spills the beans in the “Note to the Reader”). Franklin remarks that he committed only three past actions that were less than perfect (somewhat hard to believe). May Sarton writes of a love affair so obliquely that you might miss it on a first reading. Why? How would the missing elements throw the pattern that the writer is assembling off balance? Would it produce a different pattern altogether?

Do you agree with what the writer has done? Has he been honest, according to his lights—or, on reflection, do you feel misled?

What have you brought away from this story?   What expectations did you bring to the story? Did you hope to find out how genius worked, or how a difficult marriage can be endured, or how madness was overcome? And did the recounting of the author’s life help you to understand this? Or are you still peering at Rousseau’s tales of adolescence and thinking, Yes, but that still doesn’t explain why a man gives all of his children away to a foundling hospital.

Lying behind this question is an assumption worth examining: that scientific brilliance, or literary glory, or a new system of philosophy can be explained if we examine the life of the man or woman who achieved it. Each of the autobiographies in the following list was written by a man or woman of accomplishment; this accomplishment justified the writing of the autobiography. Yet how far do the events of a life go toward explaining what a man or woman has accomplished?

In an autobiography, you can see, however tentatively, a successful human being groping for the secret of success. But you may come away wondering how far even a genius understands the workings of his own mind. Sometimes autobiography seems very much like dating. The people involved are incapable of making any sort of objective evaluation—but no one else can make this evaluation for them.

So finally: Do you understand more about creativity, or about slavery, or about the experience of God, than you did before you began to read? Or do you remain on the outside?

THE ANNOTATED AUTOBIOGRAPHY LIST

AUGUSTINE

The Confessions

(A.D. C. 400)

Best translations: There are several good choices for reading the Confessions in English. Henry Chadwick’s 1991 translation (Oxford World’s Classics) is perhaps the most widely read, particularly by academics; it tends toward the literal, but also makes use of modern English structures to keep the narrative flowing forcefully forward. Maria Boulding’s 1997 translation (The Confessions, Revised: The Works of St. Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 1) is slightly less literal, more dynamic, and so occasionally moves a little too far toward paraphrase, but also in many places gives a more faithful sense of Augustine’s own rich prose style. Frank J. Sheed’s 1948 translation, republished by Hackett, is still preferred by many, particularly within the Catholic community, since it is the most poetic and lyrical of the three.

How does a rebel against God become a man who has God as the “light of my heart”? Augustine’s account of his life lays out the answer: He finds that, as a baby, he already had memories of God, his Creator. But his will and intellect did not know God. As a boy, he studies only for self-glorification; as a young man, he indulges his “habits of the flesh” and takes a mistress. Aware of a certain “poverty of mind,” he tries to fill this empty place through becoming a teacher (in Carthage), and through becoming a follower of the radical prophet Manes. He stays in the Manichean sect for nine years, awaiting the arrival of an expert who can answer all of his deepest questions about good and evil. But when the expert finally arrives, Augustine discovers that he is “ignorant of the liberal arts” and has only “knowledge . . . of a very conventional kind.” His intellect unsatisfied, his enthusiasm for the sect starts to dwindle. So does his enthusiasm for teaching, since his students become rowdier and more ignorant every year. “Here I was already thirty,” Augustine writes, “and still mucking about in the same mire.”

In an effort to regularize his life, he rejects his long-term mistress (and their son), goes to Milan to teach, and studies first Neoplatonism, and then Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Both offer more intellectual satisfaction than Manichean theology—but although his mind becomes convinced of the truth of Christianity, his will lags behind.

Sitting in his Milan garden, “weeping in the bitter agony of my heart,” he hears a child’s voice saying, “Pick up and read, pick up and read.” He picks up the Epistle to Romans and reads, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.” He writes then, “At once, with the last words of this sentence, it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.” He stops teaching, becomes baptized, and goes back home.

So how did the rebel become a saint? His will finally joined his memory and his intellect in the knowledge of God. Augustine is the first autobiographer to divide man into three; since man is made in the image of God, who is Three in One, human beings consist of memory (reflecting the Father), intellect (reflecting Christ, the “Logos” or Word), and the will (the Spirit). These three parts are independent of each other—in fact, they battle with each other. God is in man’s memory from birth; any questing mind, searching for truth, will also encounter God; but for conversion to come about, the will must also come into line with the will of God—as it finally does, for Augustine, in the garden at Milan. But even as he divides man into three neat parts, Augustine laments the inadequacy of the scheme: “I find my own self hard to grasp,” he writes, “I have become for myself a soil which is a cause of difficulty and much sweat.”

MARGERY KEMPE

The Book of Margery Kempe

(c. 1430)

Best translations: John Skinner’s translation into contemporary English (Image, 1998) is both readable and faithful to the original. Barry Windeatt’s 1986 translation for Penguin Classics is slightly more archaic sounding, but still accessible. The 2001 Norton Critical Edition, The Book of Margery Kempe: A New Translation, Contexts, Criticism, translated and edited by Lynn Staley, offers additional helps by footnoting all unfamiliar geographical, historical, and theological vocabulary. (Remember to save the critical essays until you’ve done your own first reading.)

Margery Kempe dictated her autobiography to a townsman in 1432, just before her death at the age of fifty-nine; four years later, a priest transcribed these notes into a third-person narrative which refers to the narrator as “this creature.” Although Kempe’s words have been through two sets of male hands, they show a wholly female life, fenced in by constant pregnancy and the demands of domesticity. Like Augustine, Margery Kempe is torn by desires; unlike Augustine, Kempe isn’t free to wander about the medieval world looking for satisfaction. Nevertheless, she is constantly tugged toward the divine. After the traumatic birth of her first child, she sees “devils . . . all inflamed with burning flames of fire,” ordering her to abandon her faith. Her family, afraid she will do herself an injury, keeps her “bound” until she has a vision of Christ sitting beside her bed. At this, she is “stabled in her wits,” goes back to daily life, and becomes first a brewer and then a miller.

Both of these businesses fail, and Margery has a vision telling her to live without the “debt of matrimony” so that she may understand heavenly mirth. Mr. Kempe, unconvinced, replies that he will give up sex when God appears to him also. So Margery goes on paying her matrimonial debt, giving birth to fourteen children. She also begins to have mystical visions, traveling through time and space in the company of an angel. When Margery prays that her husband will be chaste, he’s stricken with impotence (“You are no good wife,” he protests plaintively). Eventually they come to an agreement: If he promises not to “meddle” with her, she will pay his debts with her own money.

Kempe’s spiritual calling is finally recognized by the archbishop of Canterbury, who gives her permission to wear nun’s clothing. Despite opposition, she becomes more and more prominent as a “holy woman,” making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome and meeting with the famous female mystic Julian of Norwich. But even as she becomes a public figure, she is pulled back toward domesticity; her aging husband sinks into senility, and Kempe returns home to care for him. “And therefore,” Kempe writes, “was her labor much the more in washing and wringing, and her expense in making fires; and hindered her full much from her contemplation.”

MICHEL DE MONTAIGNE

Essays

(1580)

Best translation: The Penguin Classics paperback edition of The Complete Essays, translated and edited by M. A. Screech (1993).

Because Montaigne continued to revise these essays up to the year of his death in 1592, there is, as Screech notes in his foreword, “no such thing as a definitive edition.” This Penguin edition follows the fairly common practice of marking chunks of the essays with A (for the first edition), A1 (for the 1582 edition), B (for the 1588 edition, which made enormous changes to the original essays and added an entire new book), and C (for the final edition being prepared at the time of Montaigne’s death). Screech also adds ’95 to mark additions from the first posthumous edition. These letters in the text are slightly distracting at first, but once your eye becomes accustomed to them you can simply ignore them and read the text as a coherent whole.

The external events of Montaigne’s life appear only obliquely in his essays; he attended college and became a lawyer; married and had several children (only one, a daughter, lived); inherited the family property and sold his law practice to devote himself full-time to study. But his study was disturbed by a slide into “melancholy humor” and disordered “ravings.” In order to control his disorderly thoughts, he set about writing the Essays; without political or academic qualifications, he chose to write about what he knew: “I am myself the matter of my book,” he tells the reader. At a time when only the powerful and famous wrote about the splendid events of their lives, Montaigne claimed that the real interest of a life lay not in outward events (which are public), but in the thoughts, habits, and emotions that make up the private self.

You need not read every essay unless you’re particularly interested in sixteenth-century French warfare. Begin with Montaigne’s direction “To the Reader.” In Book 1, read Chapters 2–4, on the power of emotion and grief to shape (and distort) the self; Chapter 9, on memory; Chapters 19–21, on the shape of a life that looks inevitably forward to death; Chapter 26, on education (for boys); Chapter 28, “On affectionate relationships” (this has elsewhere been titled “On friendship” and is the best known of Montaigne’s essays); Chapter 29, on man’s relationship to society; and Chapter 51, on the untrustworthy nature of words.

In Book II, read Chapter 1 and Chapters 5–8, on the various qualities that make up what we think of as our “core” or “true” self; Chapter 10, on the value of studying the lives of great men (Montaigne winks at the reader here, encouraging us to view his own life as “great”); and Chapters 17–21, 29, and 31, which complete Montaigne’s musings on the virtues and vices that make up the “self.” Finally, in Book III, read Chapters 1–2, on the difference between “useful” actions and “good” actions; and Chapter 13, “On Experience.” Here Montaigne ponders the nature of truth: can the mind think its way to certainty? Drowning in speculation, Montaigne casts a lifeline around the details of everyday life; he chooses, willingly, to limit his vision for the sake of sanity, placing a border around the too-wide world. “If you have been able to examine and manage your own life,” he concludes, “you have achieved the greatest task of all.”

TERESA OF ÁVILA

The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself

(1588)

Best translations: The excellent Penguin Classics edition, translated by J. M. Cohen (1998). The 1946 translation by E. A. Peers, which is slightly dated but still readable, has also been republished in a Dover edition as The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila ( 2010).

Written in Castilian Spanish and first translated into English in 1611, Teresa’s autobiography begins in childhood. Like Augustine, she knows the goodness of God, but rejects it. But while Augustine yields to intellectual temptations, Teresa is seduced by physical vanity; she tries to “attract others by my appearance . . . using perfumes and all the vanities I could get.” Sent to school in a convent, Teresa learns that “the world is vanity, and will soon pass away.” She is afraid that she will go to hell and so forces herself to become a nun, taking the habit through sheer self-determination, without any true love of God. God rewards her with joy in her vocation, but she soon realizes that lax observance of the Rule within the convent allows her too much freedom to indulge her vanity. She wanders from God, but he reproves her and teaches her to return to him in prayer. (Here Teresa stops her narrative to describe the four states of prayer and their place in the soul’s experience of God.) As her story resumes, Teresa tells of her greatest vision (of the torments of hell) and her calling to establish a convent in which the Rule would be kept “with the greatest possible perfection.” With the help of a “widowed lady” of means, Teresa founds the House of St. Joseph, where the nuns can live a more penitential life. She is opposed by her superiors, who think that her visions are delusions. But in fighting this “severe persecution,” Teresa is given a revelation: “a spiritual transport of a kind which I cannot describe . . . a truth which is the fulfillment of all truths.” This nonverbal truth—greater than the truths of “many learned men”—is a rapture in which she glimpses the truth of the Trinity. Augustine anchors himself in Neoplatonism and the New Testament, and Montaigne in the certainties of daily life; but Teresa finds truth neither in the intellect nor in physical existence. She points her readers toward a direct, mystical experience of God, a “state of ecstasy” in which the soul can receive “true revelations, great favours and visions.” And she tells her readers, again and again, to trust their own visions—even, perhaps, when learned men condemn them as illusory.

RENÉ DESCARTES

Meditations

(1641)

Best translations: Readers have a number of good options, including the Penguin Classics paperback, Meditations and Other Metaphysical Writings, translated by Desmond M. Clarke (1999); Hackett’s Meditations, Objections, and Replies, edited and translated by Roger Areiw and Donald Cress (2006); and the Cambridge University Press translation by John Cottingham, Meditations on First Philosophy, with Selections from the Objections and Replies (rev. ed., 1996). The last is probably the most contemporary sounding of the translations, and also includes the most scholarly apparatus.

Perhaps Descartes envied Teresa’s certainty; he was a deeply religious man, but temperamentally incapable of accepting divine truth without question. In the Meditations, Descartes doesn’t tell the story of his physical life (“I was born . . .”) but rather the tale of his intellectual life, which “begins” on the day when he sits down to arrange his thoughts and discover which ones are actually trustworthy. He begins with his senses, asking, Do I know that my experience of the physical world is true? No, he answers; sometimes, his senses have deceived him (telling him, for example, that a distant object is nearer than it actually is). If his senses deceive him in one thing, it is possible that they deceive him in all, and that all his ideas of the outside world are wrong. Nor can he prove, without a doubt, that God (whom Descartes believes, rather than knows, to be powerful and good) would not allow him to be deceived; it is possible that some evil force has intervened and is holding him in a state of deception.

Descartes may be deluded about the things that he perceives, but one thing is certain: he is thinking about the problem. And if he is thinking, he must exist. So he concludes, “I certainly did exist, if I convinced myself of something. . . . Thus, having weighed up everything adequately, it must finally be stated that this proposition ‘I am, I exist’ is necessarily true whenever it is stated by me or conceived in my mind.”

Having settled this problem, Descartes can turn to other questions—the existence of God, the nature of truth, the relationship between the mind and the body. “I will now close my eyes,” he continues, “block my ears, and shut down all my senses. I will erase from my thought all images or physical things . . . addressing only myself and looking more deeply into myself. I will try to make myself gradually better known and more familiar to myself. I am a thinking thing. . . .” Augustine, Margery Kempe, and Teresa attach their sense of self to their relationship with God; Montaigne, to his daily existence. But Descartes finds himself in his mind. He does not exist as a sensing thing (this could be deceptive) or as a feeling thing (emotions being equally deceptive) or as a religious man (since his knowledge of God is also full of doubts); he exists, without debate, only as a thinking thing. This vast change in the way that the self considers itself echoes throughout all later autobiographies, which continue to excavate the mind, assuming that what we think will reveal who we are.

JOHN BUNYAN

Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners

(1666)

Best editions: Now in the public domain, Bunyan’s memoir has been republished by Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Vintage (as the joint volume The Pilgrim’s Progress and Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners). It is also available in multiple places online as a free ebook.

As a Nonconformist, Bunyan rejects the Church of England—its rites, its doctrines, its authority, and its congregations. And this makes him very much alone. He longs to join other believers; when he hears “three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God,” he longs to enter into a brand new life. But the women, he writes, seem to be “on the sunny side of some high mountain . . . while I was shivering and shrinking in the cold.” Between the women and himself, Bunyan sees a wall; he can’t find a way through, until he discovers “a narrow gap . . . [A]t last, with great striving, methought I at first did get in my head, and after that by a sideling striving, my shoulders, and my whole body; then I was exceeding glad, and went and sat down in the midst of them, and so was comforted with the light and heat of their sun.”

Finally in the company of others who also believe, Bunyan should be secure and full of grace. But the temporary comfort and hope that he feels is followed by an obsessive desire to blaspheme, and the cycle continues; Bunyan fights off temptation, is “put into my right mind again,” is assaulted by temptation again, understands grace, struggles against guilt again. Finally he grasps that his righteousness is not his own, but that of Jesus Christ. “Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed.” Is this the final act? Not quite; darkness descends again on his soul, until God assures him with a final scripture: You are come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God . . . to the general assembly of the first-born . . . to the spirits of just men made perfect. At last Bunyan has found his company, where others stand with him in the presence of God. He is no longer alone. Has he reached salvation at last? Perhaps, but for Bunyan, conversion is not a single shining moment, but a long path down which he walks, with an eye always cautiously behind: Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan was threatened by the “door to hell, even at the gates of heaven.”

MARY ROWLANDSON

The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration

(1682)

Best editions: The narrative can be found in the collections The Account of Mary Rowlandson and Other Indian Captivity Narratives, ed. Horace Kephart (Dover, 2005), and American Captivity Narratives, ed. Gordon M. Sayre (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). The St. Martin’s Press stand-alone volume, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together With the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, is edited by Neal Salisbury; published in 1997, it is now out of print but widely available secondhand.

Captivity narratives were a peculiarly American form of autobiography in which white settlers, trying to tame the American wilderness and beset by thorns, weeds, plague, and storms, are (as a last straw) kidnapped by hostile Indians—who become an embodiment of spiritual evil, determined to wipe out colonists who are trying to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

In Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, Indians attack the little settlement of Lancaster, Massachusetts, while Mary’s husband—the town minister—is away in Boston, asking the governor of Massachusetts to station soldiers in Lancaster to protect its residents. Mary sees her oldest sister and her nephews killed, but she is captured alive, along with her young daughter (wounded by an Indian musket ball) and her other children. Nine days later, the little girl dies. The Indians bury her, and Mary and her surviving children are kept for ransom. To avoid reprisals, their captors march them into less populated areas. Mary records each day’s march in her journal; throughout, she reflects on the similarity between her own plight and the plight of Old Testament characters who also suffered. Her experience is always compared with theirs, with God’s possible response charted in the same terms. Threatened with death if she stirs from the wigwam where she is confined, Mary laments, “Now may I say with David, II Sam. xxiv. 14, I am in a great strait. . . . This distressed condition held that day and half the next; and then the Lord remembered me, whose mercies are great.”

Put to work, Rowlandson encounters both kind and unkind Indian masters (the women are particularly disagreeable to her). Finally she is ransomed and meets her husband in Boston. Although their children are still held captive, eventually they are redeemed and reunited with their parents. “I have learned to look beyond present and smaller troubles,” Mary writes, “and to be quieted under them, as Moses said, Exodus xiv. 13, Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.”

JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU

Confessions

(1781)

Best translations: The Oxford World’s Classics translation by Angela Scholar, edited by Patrick Coleman (2000), remains the most readable and energetic contemporary version. J. M. Cohen’s 1953 translation (Penguin Classics) sounds very slightly dated, but is still accessible; it has also been recorded unabridged by Frederick Davidson for Audible.

Rousseau’s autobiography is roughly modeled on Augustine’s; like Augustine, Rousseau announces that all men are alike in their sinfulness. “Assemble about me, Eternal Being, the numberless host of my fellow-men,” he writes, “Let each of them, here on the steps of your throne, in turn reveal his heart with the same sincerity; and then let one of them say to you, if he dares: I was better than that man.” Unlike Augustine, though, Rousseau claims sinfulness as the quality that makes him human; he celebrates it, rather than lamenting it. He tells us of his perverse sexual tastes, his propensity to steal (“I decided that stealing and being beaten went together and constituted in some sense a contract. . . . On the strength of this idea I began to steal with an easier mind than before”), his decision to put all five of his children into a foundling hospital (he refers to the birth of his second child simply as an “inconvenience”), his feuds, his hatreds, his failings. And he claims all of these as an essential part of a self that was formed, not by God, but by a random set of childhood influences and social strictures. Rousseau paints no picture of the self he should have; he merely lays out the self that he is, refusing to apologize for it.

Without any “ideal” self to use as a pattern, Rousseau is unable to bring order to the tale of his life. “The further I advance into my narrative,” he writes, “the less order and sequence I am able to introduce into it.” But ultimately he triumphs over this muddle by simply announcing, I am, like God in the desert. (The echo of Exodus is intentional; Rousseau is not the image of God, or a thinking being, but simply himself.) And, like God, he cannot be judged. The Confessions ends with Rousseau’s account of a public reading of this autobiography before several prominent citizens. He ended this reading, he tells us, with a challenge: “As for me, I hereby declare publicly and without fear: that anyone who . . . examines with his own eyes my nature, my character, my morals, my inclinations, my pleasures, my habits, and can think me a dishonorable man, is himself a man who ought to be choked.” In the face of this declaration, his audience falls silent, refusing to speak; Rousseau is as he is, and no one dares to judge him.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

(1791)

Best editions: This has been in the public domain for years and is available in multiple editions, as well as online as a free ebook. The Autobiography and Other Writings, ed. Kenneth Silverman (Penguin, 1986), contains the Autobiography, selections from Franklin’s letters, and excerpts from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Other editions have been published by Oxford World’s Classics, Dover Thrift Editions, and Signet Classics. Ten different unabridged audio versions are available from Audible.

With his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin invents the American Dream: The poor boy from Boston succeeds in business without the help of family connections or inherited wealth. And Franklin’s character is as self-made as his fortune; he decides what virtues he ought to have and sets out to achieve them through sheer hard work: “Humility,” he writes. “Be like Jesus and Socrates.” He also deals with flaws sans outside help; Franklin marks faults on an ivory tablet with a lead pencil, and wipes them away with a wet sponge once they are overcome. Throughout his Autobiography, Franklin consistently refers to his mistakes (and his sins against others) as errata, printer’s errors that are unintentional and easily corrected in the next edition; he is able to make himself flawless just as easily as he makes himself rich. But this picture of a self that prospers all alone is an illusion; Franklin’s family gave him the invaluable skills of reading and writing, and his oldest brother gave him his first job. And Franklin’s rejection of his faults is equally suspect; his reluctance to admit serious error introduces a note of arrogance to the character of the self-made American man. For the next two hundred years, this character takes its clue from Franklin’s aside in Part I: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

(1845)

Best editions: Douglass wrote his autobiography three separate times. The first version, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, was published in 1845; the second, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855; and this third and final version in 1881. Each autobiography retells and alters stories from the previous version. Although you can simply read the earliest Narrative (available from Dover Thrift Editions and Penguin Classics), the Library of America version edited by Henry Louis Gates (Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave/My Bondage and My Freedom/Life and Times of Frederick Douglass) contains all three.

Born to parents he never knew, Frederick Douglass is raised by his grandparents; they are loving and kind, skilled at fishing and gardening, well respected by their neighbors. But when he is old enough to work, Douglass is taken to his master’s plantation and abandoned amid a crowd of other children. Stripped of his family identity, he is treated like an animal (the children eat from a trough “like so many pigs”). But Douglass refuses to be an animal, instead struggling toward a new understanding of himself. He learns to read despite his master’s objections (“If he learns to read the Bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave,” the man declares) and begins to consider himself a thinking, speaking human being. When he is beaten and abused by the brutal slavemaster Covey, Douglass wrestles Covey to the ground—and is finally able to think of himself as a man. “This battle with Mr. Covey,” writes Douglass, “revived a sense of my own manhood. I was a changed being after that fight. I was nothing before—I was a man now.” Equipped both mentally and emotionally for life as a freedman, Douglass runs away to Massachusetts and is recruited by abolitionists to tell white northern audiences about his experiences as a slave. Again he remakes himself, this time as a speaker and thinker—too successfully for his abolitionist friends, who advise him to keep “a little of the plantation speech . . . [I]t is not best that you seem learned.” Their fears come true when Douglass is denounced as an imposter; his audiences begin to say that he does “not talk like a slave, look like a slave, or act like a slave.” “They believed,” Douglass writes, “I had never been south of Mason and Dixon’s line.” In answer to this accusation, he sets down the entire story of his life as a slave in writing—thus reclaiming, as an essential part of his newidentity, the years spent in bondage.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

Walden

(1854)

Best editions: Published as a stand-alone by Dover Thrift Editions, and in collections with other essays by Modern Library Classics, Signet Classics, and Bantam Classics.

Thoreau is the anti-Franklin; Franklin’s story tells American men how to make themselves into men of wealth, but Thoreau sees the American economy as a morass that traps all men, rich and poor together. Even those who inherit land become slaves to it, they are forced to work like “machines” in order to make property pay. “The mass of men,” Thoreau writes, in his most famous line, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” So Thoreau offers a new pattern for American lives. He retreats to a hand-built cottage on the shores of Walden Pond; this withdrawal from the American economy is purely symbolic (the cottage is only a mile and a half from the center of the nearby village), but it allows him to construct a temporary identity as a man free from economic necessity, rejecting the need to buy, sell, or work.

Thoreau’s descriptions of his simple life at Walden are not an economic solution (he knows perfectly well that all of America cannot retreat to the woods) but a form of protest. His essays don’t progress chronologically; rather, they discuss different aspects of his life at the pond—life in solitude, how to treat visitors, the value of reading, his attempts to grow food. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau preaches. “The nation itself . . . is . . . an unwieldy and overgrown establishment . . . ruined by luxury and heedless expense, by want of calculation and a worthy aim, as the million households in the land; and the only cure for it as for them is a rigid economy, a stern and more than Spartan simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.” Thoreau sets himself up as an example of this simplicity; his months at Walden are a pattern for us to follow. Walden demonstrates the possibility of a new kind of existence, a “beautiful and winged life” that must break out from the dry husk of the old.

HARRIET JACOBS

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written By Herself

(1861)

Best editions: Available from Dover Thrift Editions and Penguin Classics; also published by Modern Library Classics in a collection along with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (ed. Kwame Anthony Appiah), the earliest version of Douglass’s autobiography (see above).

Raised by a strict grandmother to be virtuous, Harriet Jacobs is faced with an insoluble dilemma: Her master, “Dr. Flint,” is determined to make her into his mistress. When he forbids her to marry the black man of her choosing, Jacobs is faced with a difficult choice: not between keeping her virtue and giving it away, but rather between giving it away by choice or surrendering it to the master she hates. So in order to protect herself, she begins an affair with a white neighbor and bears two children by him. This relationship with “Mr. Sands” serves as temporary protection, but Dr. Flint continues to be obsessed by her; he refuses to sell her, and eventually Mr. Sands marries a white woman and ends the connection with Jacobs. Several times given the chance to escape, Jacobs refuses because she would have to leave her children behind. Finally, desperate to avoid Dr. Flint’s attentions, she fakes an escape—and lives for seven years in a crawlspace in her grandmother’s attic. Eventually Jacobs and her children do escape, but the Fugitive Slave Act means that they can be arrested, even in the North. At last Jacobs is bought by a sympathetic white friend and set free, but she finds this a bitter victory: “A human being sold in the free city of New York! . . . I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured [my freedom], but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.”

Jacobs knows that her use of fictional names (she calls herself “Linda Brent”), her good English prose, and her seven-year existence in an attic make her story difficult to believe, so her autobiography includes letters from respectable whites, vouching for its credibility. White voices thus become an inextricable element of Jacobs’s story, reflecting the reality of slavery itself: “Slavery is a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks,” Jacobs writes. “It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual; the sons violent and licentious; it contaminates the daughters, and makes the wives wretched. And as for the colored race, it needs an abler pen than mine to describe the extremity of their sufferings, the depth of their degradation.”

BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

Up from Slavery

(1901)

Best edition: The Oxford World’s Classics paperback, edited by William L. Andrews (2000).

Slavery ends during Washington’s childhood, but in the post–Civil War economy, jobs for freedmen are scarce and unpleasant. Washington, his mother, and his stepfather go to West Virginia to work in the salt mines there. Although Washington isn’t a slave, he is imprisoned by poverty. Education becomes for him, as it was for Douglass, the way to form a new identity. Washington remakes himself as a scholar and teacher. He works his way through night school and then through Hampton University, goes on to do graduate work, comes back to Hampton University as a teacher, and in 1881 heads up a “normal school” for black students at Tuskegee. The school aims to teach practical skills; in Washington’s view, Negroes can form a new racial identity for themselves—as citizens, not slaves and victims—through patience, education, hard work, and good manners. Forget about political power for right now, he advises his readers; improve your hygiene, your table manners, and your ability to handle money, and whites will eventually grant you political power out of respect.

Washington appears, in his autobiography, as a humble, hardworking, and thoroughly admirable man, an ideal leader for a troubled people. But his “accomodationist” view of race relations brings Washington into conflict with other black intellectuals, who accuse him of ignoring the need for equality in favor of peace. But Washington sees himself as a model for his race. Throughout his autobiography, Washington refers to his own experience as the ideal for other young black men. He works in the salt mines and goes to school at night; so, too, can they. He is willing to wear a homemade cap as a child, rather than insisting that his mother spend precious money on a new one; they should be content to scrimp and save toward economic independence, rather than splashing money around in an attempt to be like whites. He rose to prominence and power through the same patient persistence he recommends to others.

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is

(1908)

Best translation: Duncan Large’s translation, republished as an Oxford World’s Classic in 2009, makes Nietzsche as accessible as possible while retaining his idiosyncratic style and punctuation. The unabridged audio version from Audible is the older Anthony M. Ludovici translation; it is a perfectly fine rendering, but sounds a little more dated and archaic than the Large version.

Although Nietzsche announces a conventional autobiographical purpose (he is going to trace the influences that have made him into the man he is in 1888, at the age of forty-four), his chapters (beginning with “Why I Am So Wise” and “Why I Am So Clever”) are neither chronological nor logical. As autobiography, Ecce Homo parallels Descartes’ attempt to find his “self” in his intellect, or Bunyan’s attempt to find his “self” in the love of God—or Washington’s attempt to find his “self” in hard work and education. But Nietzsche finds his “self” elsewhere. Nutshelling Nietzsche’s philosophy is impossible, since he was an existentialist, and since existentialism is a rejection of all systems of philosophy and all explanations for human existence. Instead, each human action (and each human life) must create its own meaning. Each man is completely free to choose his own path. Existence is so infinitely varied that it cannot be reduced to any sort of system. There is no “moral code” in the universe—no “right” or “wrong.” There are simply choices, with consequences that must be endured after the choices are made.

So Nietzsche’s autobiography is a hymn to the uniqueness of his own existence; it is a record of his choices and their consequences. At its end, he rails against the “concept of the good man,” who is “weak, sick, ill-constructed . . . an ideal made in opposition to the proud and well-constituted, to the affirmative man”—the man who boldly chooses and in the act of choice finds meaning. Nietzsche wrote Ecce Homo in three weeks and then went mad, two weeks after sending the manuscript to the printer; the title is drawn from the New Testament, where Pilate uses it to point out Jesus Christ to the masses before his crucifixion. But for Nietzsche, Christ is not “the man”; he is. He does not offer himself as a model (that would set up a standard, an “ideal” that applies to all), but rather as an example—a man who finds meaning in making his choices and living with their consequences.

ADOLF HITLER

Mein Kampf

(1925)

Best translations: The earliest translation into English was sponsored in 1938 by the American publishing company Reynal & Hitchcock. It was closer to a paraphrase than a translation in many places, so the 1939 translation by James Murphy—the only one approved for accuracy by the Third Reich—is preferable. It is not easy to find in print, although several ebook versions are available. The slightly later translation by Ralph Manheim (1943) has been republished by Houghton Mifflin (1998) and is just as accurate, although it lacks the historic interest of the “approved” English translation. Avoid the so-called “Ford translation,” which (despite aggressive marketing) appears to be a self-published effort by an uncredentialed translator.

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) while in jail for a failed attempt to prevent Bavaria from seceding from the German republic. In Hitler’s account of his own life, every choice that he makes is dictated by his attempts to restore Germany to its previous glories; he is Every(German)man; his defeats represent Germany’s humiliations, and his rise to power parallels Germany’s return to glory.

Even as a child, Hitler writes, he wonders why all Germans did not have “the good luck to belong to Bismarck’s Empire.” He believes that Bavaria’s defeat by France and its following subjection to French rule (which Hitler continually calls “the time of Germany’s deepest humiliation”) could have been avoided if the German people had been united. So from his earliest days he is determined to restore the divided parts of Germany to the “great German Motherland.” He refuses to become a government official and turns to painting, not for personal reasons, but because he cannot bear to be part of a government that serves French, rather than German, interests. His study in Vienna, his initial involvement in politics, his service in the Bavarian army during the First World War, his membership in the German Labour Party, and his impatience with the “faulty and ineffective” German government are all motivated by an “intense love” for the German people and a “profound hatred for the [French-dominated] Austrian State.” Hitler sees himself as the only man able to “employ any energetic and radical methods” to restore German power; his ravings on the demonic influence of Jewish blood and the “loss of racial purity” that “will wreck inner happiness forever” are eerily combined with constant calls to end tiresome bureaucracy that sound perfectly reasonable. Plowing through all the vituperation is tiring, so you need not read the entire biography. In Part I, read Chapters 1–6 and Chapter 11; in Part II, read Chapters 2–4, 10, 11, and 15, which clearly demonstrate Hitler’s fantastic understanding of propaganda techniques. The twenty-first century may have rejected Hitler’s doctrine of racial purity, but his techniques of propaganda are still much in use—although they have been turned to the service of the market, rather than the nation-state.

MOHANDAS GANDHI

An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth

(1929)

Best translation: The Beacon Press paperback, translated by Mahadev Desai (1993).

Gandhi’s autobiography is a life in borrowed clothes: he is an Eastern thinker using a Western form to tell the West of his search for spiritual truth. “I know of nobody in the East having written [an autobiography],” a friend tells him, as he begins the task, “except those who have come under Western influence. And what will you write? Supposing you reject tomorrow the things you hold as principles today . . . ?” So Gandhi’s autobiography is, in part, an apology for being autobiography at all. He writes that he intends to describe his arrival at the spiritual truths which then shaped his political actions, and “as my life consists of nothing but those experiments, it is true that the story will take the shape of an autobiography.”

Gandhi is born in India, under British rule; he marries at thirteen (an Indian custom, for which he feels he must apologize), and at nineteen travels to England (without his wife and young son) to study law. He then returns to India as a barrister, but finds himself without much work. Taking a temporary position in South Africa, he discovers that the Indian population, classed as “colored,” suffers from discrimination. He stays in South Africa for almost twenty years, working for Indian rights. Finally returning to India in the middle of post–World War II unrest, he finds the British overlords tightening restrictions on their Indian subjects. His nonviolent protests against this repression culminate in a countrywide eruption of civil disobedience, which finally forces the British to take notice. Throughout the story, Gandhi examines himself to find spiritual principles that will govern his political actions. Chief among these is the principle of Ahisma, or nonviolence, which becomes the directing principle of Gandhi’s life; a “votary of Ahisma,” Gandhi writes, “remains true to his faith if the spring of all his actions is compassion, if he shuns to the best of his ability the destruction of the tiniest creature.” And he discovers this spiritual truth through “deep self-introspection”; he has, he tells us, “searched myself through and through, and examined and analysed every psychological situation. . . . For me [my conclusions] appear to be absolutely correct, and seem for the time being to be final.”

GERTRUDE STEIN

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

(1933)

Best edition: The Vintage Books paperback (1990).

Gandhi borrows an unfamiliar form, but Gertrude Stein borrows someone else’s life; her autobiography is, in the words of Estelle Jelenik, “a disguise of the self in words.”13 She uses the voice of her companion, Alice B. Toklas, but only the first few pages deal with Toklas’s life; the tale then turns to Stein herself. The autobiography begins with the classic “I was born,” chronicling Toklas’s birth in California and takes her up through her late twenties in a mere three pages, when the (apparently) transitional point of her life occurs: she meets Gertrude Stein, and writes that she has “met a genius.” From this point, Stein adds in Toklas’s voice, “my new full life began.” This mockery of the standard autobiographical “conversion” shifts the tale to Gertrude Stein, her life in Paris, her friendship with the painters Pablo Picasso, Pierre Matisse, and Paul Cézanne; the German offensive that forces her to leave Paris; and her work in a war hospital. The narrative runs constantly away into capsule biographies of other personalities; the cumulative effect is something like one of those portraits made up of hundreds of colored squares that, when examined closely, each turn out to be a picture of something else. At the end, the reader has been given a portrait of Gertrude Stein, made up of dozens of portraits of other people.

Stein’s autobiography displays characteristics that critics have labeled “typically feminine” (as opposed to the “typically masculine” autobiographies that came before): She writes anecdotally, telling stories of people rather than politics; and her story is told nonchronologically (were the chapters in chronological order, Chapter 4 would be the first, followed by Chapters 3, 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7). This disregard for order turns Stein’s autobiography into a game, something close to a literary version of Clue; to get any glimpse of Stein’s true self, the reader has to reorder the clues and find out what’s missing.

THOMAS MERTON

The Seven Storey Mountain

(1948)

Best edition: The Mariner Books anniversary edition (1999).

Thomas Merton became a new man when he entered the Trappist order; his autobiography tells the story of the “old” Merton, a selfish and self-centered intellectual who is now (figuratively) dead. So he judges his own life very harshly indeed, accusing himself of lacking love, that central virtue of the Christian life, from his earliest days. His exclusion of his small brother from his childhood games, he writes, is “the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that . . . it does not please us to be loved.” Merton’s story of his youth, education, and time at Cambridge aims to show us that his sin did indeed follow this pattern, as he continually rejects God’s love.

Merton’s mind begins to accept God before his will does. When he reads a book on medieval philosophy, he begins to realize that his ideas about God—“a noisy and dramatic and passionate character, a vague, jealous, hidden being”—come, not from God, but from images made by other men. Freed from this distorted idea of God, Merton begins to read theology to find out who God is and is drawn to the Catholic Church and its theology—“a tremendous, profound, unified doctrine.” This intellectual understanding, though, does not bring Merton much closer to accepting the love of God; he condemns himself for talking “for hours about mysticism and the experimental knowledge of God” while “stoking the fires of the argument with Scotch and soda.” In the end, he is able to submit to the love of God only by surrendering to the institution of the church, and accepting, with humility, its dictates. “The conversion of the intellect is not enough,” he writes, a theme that echoes in conversion stories from Augustine to Colson; “as long as the will . . . did not belong completely to God.”

C. S. LEWIS

Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

(1955)

Best edition: The Harcourt Books reprint of the 1955 edition. Audible publishes the unabridged audio version.

Lewis’s autobiography is partly the story of his intellectual and imaginative development, and partly the tale of his coming to grips with Christian faith. This double tale is haunted by the possibility that the two might conflict, perhaps fatally. The title of Lewis’s story comes from his attempt to discover the source of Joy, a piercing experience that he is not entirely able to describe in words: “It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? . . . Something quite different from ordinary life . . . something, as they would now say, ‘in another dimension.’” Lewis’s pursuit of Joy turns out to be the thread that binds his intellect and his faith together. At first, he chases Joy with his intellect, studying Norse mythology and other subjects that have brought him that unexpected stab of Joy in the past. The middle section of the book traces Lewis’s education, painting a delightfully vivid portrait of his life at school, the tutor who introduces him to Greek, and his delight in finding book after book that speaks directly to his longing for Joy.

But as Lewis’s delight turns “imperceptibly into a scholar’s interest,” he realizes that Joy has flown. Around the same time, he becomes convinced of the intellectual truth of theism; “I gave in,” he writes, “and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” But Lewis’s will is not yet God’s. He is still determined “not to be ‘interfered with’ . . . ‘to call my soul my own.’” Joy, imagination, and intellect do not come together until the story’s end, when Lewis’s will is finally converted in a way that is completely inaccessible to his reason: “I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.” Only then does Lewis again find himself able to experience Joy—not as an end in itself, but as a signpost pointing him to the divine.

MALCOLM X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

(1965)

Best editions: Available from both Ballantine Books and Penguin Modern Classics.

Malcolm X’s autobiography was written by someone else: Alex Haley, who convinced Malcolm X to tell him his thoughts on an ongoing basis, while Haley shaped those thoughts into an autobiography. This collaboration with another writer introduces a different voice into the core of the story, and in the end changes its entire form. Haley began work on the autobiography while Malcolm X was still a follower of Elijah Muhammad and the chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam (which preached the need for reparations and the establishment of a separate black nation inside America). In 1964, Malcolm broke with Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, disillusioned over Muhammad’s extramarital affairs (“I had always taught so strongly on the moral issues,” he writes, sadly, “I had discovered Muslims had been betrayed by Elijah Muhammed himself”) and uncomfortable with the Nation’s increasingly violent rhetoric. (After the break, he discovers that the Nation has approved his assassination.) He forms his own organization and begins to preach the “spiritual force necessary to rid our people of the vices that destroy the moral fiber of our community.” But although Malcolm wanted to go back and rewrite the earlier parts of his autobiography, which speak glowingly of the Nation of Islam, Haley protested. In the end, the completed sections of the autobiography remained unchanged, so that The Autobiography of Malcolm X shows with unusual clarity a “conversion” from one state of mind to another. It also shows a weird prescience: In the opening chapters, Malcolm writes, “It has always been my belief that I, too, will die by violence.” In the final chapter, he sums up his life as “a life that has, as it were, already ended . . . now, each day I live as if I am already dead.” In the epilogue, Haley tells of Malcolm’s assassination, which happened after the autobiography’s completion but before its publication.

MAYA ANGELOU

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

(1969)

Best edition: Ballantine Books (2009). I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first (and most central) of Angelou’s seven autobiographies; it is collected, along with five others, in the Modern Library edition, The Collected Autobiographies of Maya Angelou ( 2004). The unabridged audio from Audible is read by Angelou herself.

The autobiographies of African American women, writes critic and scholar Joan Braxton, are “a tradition within a tradition”; black men may have re-invented the tradition of white male autobiography to fit their own lives, but black women have had fewer models, along with a very different experience to relate. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the story of Angelou’s life until the age seventeen (when she gave birth to her son) tells of a series of deprivations: her childhood innocence (taken from her at the age of seven in an assault by her mother’s boyfriend), her racial identity (“I was really white,” she thought as a child, “[but] a cruel fairy stepmother . . . had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth”), her family ties (absent father, enigmatic grandmother, and elusive mother), even her name (her white employer insists on calling her “Mary,” objecting that her given name is “too long”). The arrival of puberty reveals that her sexual identity too has been stolen from her: “The Black female is assaulted in her tender years,” Angelou writes, “by all those common forces of nature at the same time that she is caught in the tripartite crossfire of masculine prejudice, white illogical hate and Black lack of power.” In this trackless waste, Angelou finds a faint path leading out: not in written words, as Douglass did, but in the power to speak. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper,” an older woman tells her. “It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning.” Encouraged, Angelou begins to rediscover her own voice—but the autobiography does not simply end with her ability to read, write, and speak. Taught since childhood to view her own physical being as not white enough (and so not feminine enough), Angelou must also find a way to reclaim her body. At the book’s close, she discovers her natural ability to protect her baby son, even in sleep; her ability to mother is the beginning of her reconciliation to her own femaleness.

MAY SARTON

Journal of a Solitude

(1973)

Best edition: The trade paperback from W. W. Norton (1992).

Poet and novelist May Sarton wrote a series of journals for publication; each tries to make sense of a particular section of Sarton’s life. This journal is an attempt to understand the nature of solitude, at a time when Sarton is suffering through the end of a romantic relationship. Struggling to find meaning in her isolation, Sarton tries to define the value of her work, which demands that she be alone. She airs her frustrations over her inward suspicion (common to creative women) that she is shirking her responsibilities by being alone with her books, rather than caring for people. As she writes, she realizes that love—the wish to be with another person—has the potential to wreck her work. “It is harder for women, perhaps,” she laments, “to be ‘one-pointed,’ much harder for them to clear space around whatever it is they want to do beyond household chores and family life. Their lives are fragmented.” This journal is full of darkness and fragmentation, but Sarton continually tries to bring sense and meaning to her chaos. “The darkness again,” she notes, one Monday. “An annihilating review in the Sunday Times . . . Now it is the old struggle to survive. . . . On a deeper level I have come to believe (perhaps that is one way to survive) that there is a reason for these repeated blows—that I am not meant for success and that in a way adversity is my climate. . . . Somehow the great clouds made the day all right, a gift of splendor as they sailed over our heads.” Do we really believe that the clouds make Sarton’s wretchedness irrelevant? No, but we can believe that she wants them to.

At the end of her book Sarton continues to feel guilt over her decision (part made, part thrust on her) to live in isolation. But she concludes, “I begin to have intimations, now, of a return to some deep self that has been too absorbed and too battered to function for a long time. That self tells me that I was meant to live alone, meant to write the poems for others.”

ALEKSANDR I. SOLZHENITSYN

The Gulag Archipelago

(1973 in English)

Best edition: The Gulag Archipelago is a massive, seven-volume work that appeared in English (translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets) between 1973 and 1985. Most of those single volumes are now out of print. However, the unabridged work—all eighteen hundred pages of it—is full of details of Russian history and Soviet society that aren’t necessary to the student of autobiography. The best way to read The Gulag Archipelago is to use the authorized Perennial Classics abridgment of the entire seven-volume memoir, translated by Whitney and Willets, abridged by Edward E. Erickson, Jr., and approved by Solzhenitsyn himself (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, rev. abridged ed., 2007). In addition, the first three unabridged volumes have been recorded by Frederick Davidson for Audible.

Solzhenitsyn’s autobiography moves from first to second to third person as it conveys the nightmarish, absurd quality of arrest and imprisonment under the Soviet system. “They take you aside in a factory corridor after you have had your pass checked—and you’re arrested,” Solzhenitsyn writes. “You are arrested by a religious pilgrim whom you have put up for the night ‘for the sake of Christ.’ You are arrested by a meterman who has come to read your electric meter. You are arrested by a bicyclist who has run into you on the street, by a railway conductor, a taxi driver, a savings bank teller. . . .” Solzhenitsyn ascribes the submissiveness of the Russian people (“Almost no one tried to run away”) to “universal ignorance . . . Maybe they won’t take you? Maybe it will all blow over?” But this memoir, written as a call to action, was intended to convince its readers that it would not, in fact “blow over.” Solzhenitsyn leads the reader through arrest, interrogation, and deportation to the “corrective labor camps” where men, women, children survive for decades, working at hard labor in subzero cold, subsisting on grits and gruel.

Solzhenitsyn’s autobiography is the story not just of himself, but of all these prisoners, told in clear detail to make the abstract idea of imprisonment concrete, so that the rest of the world will finally take notice. But Solzhenitsyn the man changes throughout the story as well. He learns that he too is evil: “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. . . . And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.” In his imprisonment, Solzhenitsyn learns that revolution is the wrong solution to oppression. “Even in the best of hearts,” he concludes, “there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil. Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions in the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being. . . . And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them.”

CHARLES W. COLSON

Born Again

(1977)

Best edition: The Chosen Books paperback (2008).

Colson, Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man” during the Watergate years, tells his story, as Augustine does, by locating his central flaw and exposing it in public confession. But this flaw has nothing to do with Watergate, which comes and goes fairly early in the book—and which, Colson continues to insist, involved no wrongdoing on his part. As a confessional, Born Again is endlessly intriguing in its ongoing tension between honesty and PR; the sins Colson confesses are all spiritual, since he denies that any “legal” crimes ever occurred. His crime is his personal pride: “Pride had been at the heart of my own life,” he writes, “as far back as I could remember. . . . Of course, I had not known God. How could I? I had been concerned with myself. I had done this and that, I had achieved, I had succeeded, and I had given God none of the credit, never once thanking Him for any of His gifts to me.” Like Augustine, Colson makes an effort to understand his new belief with his reason: “All my training insisted that analysis precede decision.” Like Augustine, he shares his belief at once with a friend—businessman and entrepreneur Tom Phillips, who has climbed to the top of his company by “shrewd wits and raw ability” and who assures him that his experience is perfectly valid. Like Augustine, Colson comes to faith through a book—in Colson’s case, one of C. S. Lewis’s works on theology. But unlike Augustine, Colson finds a very public dimension in his conversion. “Could there be a purpose to all that had happened to me?” he asks, in his introduction. “And then I began to see it. The nation was in darkness; there was anger, bitterness, and disillusionment across the land. While my inclination was to think in terms of grandiose reforms, God seemed to be saying that the renewal of our national spirit can begin with each person—with the renewal of individual spirit.” Throughout his story, Colson connects personal spirituality with national revival.

For Americans, Colson’s autobiography has probably been the single most influential post-Augustinian spiritual autobiograpy. Colson clearly positions his conversion story, not just as the tale of one man’s fall and rise, but as a blueprint for the “fixing” of America; like Booker T. Washington, he sees in his own story a model for an entire nation. And his interpretation of “born again” helped to fuel an entire cultural and political movement which continues to hold up individual holiness as the key to national renewal.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez

(1982)

Best edition: The Bantam paperback (1983).

The opening chapter of Hunger of Memory sets the stage for Rodriguez’s own understanding of himself, the child of Latino immigrants living in America: “My writing is political because it concerns my movement away from the company of family and into the city,” he writes. “This was my coming of age: I became a man by becoming a public man.” Language becomes the symbol of this movement away from family identity toward public identity; Rodriguez learns to speak English in the classroom only when his parents refuse to speak Spanish to him at home. This is both great gain and shattering loss; Rodriguez is no longer “the disadvantaged child,” but there is now a new quiet at home: “[As] we children learned more and more English, we shared fewer and fewer words with our parents.” The very words that give Richard Rodriguez a public voice silence him at home. But for Rodriguez, the tradeoff is a necessary one. His story serves as a model for other Spanish-speaking children; his autobiography is in part an apology for English education and a rejection of bilingual education, which deprives children of the chance for full public participation. “In public,” he writes, “full individuality is achieved, paradoxically, by those who are able to consider themselves members of the crowd. . . . Only when I was able to think of myself as an American, no longer an alien in gringo society, could I seek the rights and opportunities necessary for full public individuality.” As he continues to tell his story, Rodriguez explores other tensions between public and private selves: the conflict between his public achievement in academics, and his private intellectual life; his relationship with the Church, which through its sacraments and public rituals, “relieved [me] of the burden of being alone before God”; and finally, the very process of writing private scenes in his own life into public autobiography.

JILL KER CONWAY

The Road from Coorain

(1989)

Best edition: Vintage Books (2011). Barbara Caruso narrates the unabridged audiobook from Audible.

Conway’s autobiography begins, not with her birth, but with a fourteen-page meditation on the harsh beautiful Australian landscape. It is this landscape—and the demands it makes on those who try to live in it—that shapes Conway’s childhood and adolescence. She is born on a remote Australian sheep farm, the unexpected youngest child in a family of boys, and from her earliest days carries the image of the “ideal woman” as thrifty, tough, unemotional, a good manager who “was toughened by adversity, laughed at her fears, knew how to fix things which broke in the house, and stifled any craving she might have for beauty.” Her mother is this ideal woman. But as Conway grows, she sees drought, natural disaster, and tragedy deprive her parents of their treasured farm. Determined to escape this hard world, she relies on her intellectual achievement to make a new life for herself as a scholar. But she is still haunted by her mother, who—stripped of her outback farm, the world within which she can do meaningful work—becomes instead a manager of her children, overcontrolling, paranoid, and irrational. Conway writes, “I was seven before I even laid eyes on another female child,” and the story of her life is laced through with her attempts to figure out how women can find a place in the world when that world does not allow them to exercise their talents freely.

ELIE WIESEL

All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs

(1995)

Best edition: The Schocken Books paperback (1996). Although the audiobook version from Audible is abridged, it is narrated by Wiesel himself and is worth adding to your first read-through.

Wiesel’s remembrances of the Holocaust are torn between the wish to find answers, and the knowledge that those answers will forever elude him. “Auschwitz,” he writes in this first painful volume of his autobiography, “is conceivable neither with God nor without Him.” Taken into the camps, Wiesel loses his family; liberated, he discovers that no country will welcome him. Finally Charles de Gaulle invites a group of refugees, including Wiesel, to France. Here, at the age of sixteen, he has to learn again what “normal” life is like. Every certainty, even the ritual certainties of his faith, have become meaningless: “How long would we recite the prayer for the dead? The mourning period normally lasts for eleven months after a relative’s death. But what if you don’t know the date of death? Halachic scholars weren’t sure how to resolve our situation.” Eventually Wiesel is reunited with two of his sisters who survived the camps, goes back to school, and begins his work as a journalist at the Yiddish paper Zion in Kamf. He goes on to describe his continuing involvement in journalism, political speech, and public protest through the establishment of the state of Israel and on into the 1960s. This would seem to close the story nicely, but Wiesel instead ends his memoir with an account of the dream he had just before his wedding: “Of what does a man dream when he is forty years old and has made the decision, consecrated by the Law of Moses, to make a home with the woman he loves? He sees himself as a child, clinging to his mother. She murmurs something. Was it something about the Messiah? He feels like telling her, ‘You died, and He didn’t come. And even if he does, it will be too late.’ He walks with his father to Shabbat services, and suddenly finds himself in the ranks of a procession toward death. . . . He soundlessly calls to a gravely smiling, beautiful little girl and caresses her golden hair. His thoughts scale mountains and hurtle down steep pathways, wander through invisible cemeteries, both seeking and fleeing solitude and receiving stories already told and those he has yet to tell.” Wiesel’s autobiography is an attempt to tell these stories and to bring, for a moment, all of those doomed children, women, and men back to life. His mother becomes all Jewish women, ripped from her children without the chance to say goodbye; his little sister becomes all massacred children; his father becomes all Jewish men, removed from the community of the living before their lives were finished.

ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED RESOURCE

Grun, Bernard, and Eva Simpson. The Timetables of History: A Horizonal Linkage of People and Events, 4th rev. ed. New York: Touchstone Books, 2005.

 

1Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (New York: Bantam, 1982), pp. 21–22.

2In his chronology in Autobiography: The Self-Made Text (New York: Twayne, 1993; p. xvi), James Goodwin pinpoints the “earliest recorded use of word self in the modern philosophical sense of intrinsic identity that remains the same through varying states of mind and experience” as occurring in 1674, in the Poetical Works of the minor poet Thomas Traherne: “A secret self I had enclos’d within / That was not bounded by my clothes or skin.”

3Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 61–83.

4Robert Sayre, The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1964); Rodolphe Gasche, quoted in Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf, ed. Christie V. McDonald (New York: Schocken Books, 1985).

5Quoted in Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Womans Life (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 22.

6Roger Rosenblatt, “Black Autobiography: Life as the Death Weapon,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 171.

7Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself (1845), chapter 6.

8Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), chapter 11.

9James Olney, Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 23.

10Rosenblatt, “Black Autobiography,” p. 176.

11I am indebted to Erik H. Erikson’s Gandhis Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993) for this insight.

12William H. Shannon, “Note to the Reader,” in The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton (New York: Harcourt, 1998), pp. xxii–xxiii.

13Estelle C. Jelinek, The Tradition of Womens Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986), p. 39.