We are living in an autobiographical era, as readers all over America can readily attest. Jay Parini, in his introduction to the Norton Book of American Autobiography (1999), deduces that “the immense interest in this form of writing owes something to a moment when our culture as a whole has turned introspective, interested in (some might say obsessed by) self-definition” (p. 19). According to Paul Gray, writing in an April 1997 issue of Time, memoirs have now replaced novels as the major American publishing product, with hundreds published every year, many by first-time writers. These recent memoirs deal with topics once reserved for fiction—child abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, incest—and some critics wish that fiction is where such “taboo” subjects would stay. Those who deplore the upsurge in self-writing note its emphasis on narcissism and self-pity: one such critic even titled his review of the new memoirs “Read about Why I Love Me and How Much I've Suffered.”
Lynn Orilla Scott
Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts of the physical and spiritual journey from slavery to freedom. In researching her groundbreaking 1946 dissertation, Marion Wilson Starling located 6,006 slave narratives written between 1703 and 1944. This number includes brief testimonies found in judicial records, broadsides, journals, and newsletters as well as separately published books. It also includes approximately 2,500 oral histories of former slaves gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in the 1930s. The number of separately published slave narratives, however, is much smaller. Although exact numbers are not available, nearly one hundred slave narratives were published as books or pamphlets between 1760 and 1865, and approximately another one hundred following the Civil War. The slave narrative reached the height of its influence and formal development during the antebellum period, from 1836 to 1861. During this time it became a distinct genre of American literature, and achieved immense popularity and influence among a primarily white, northern readership. A few, in particular The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself (1845), displayed a high level of rhetorical sophistication. With the end of slavery, however, interest in the narratives declined sharply. Furthermore, one consequence of the social and political repression of the black population following Reconstruction was the “loss” of the slave narratives for sixty years. During the last few decades of the twentieth century, scholars recovered, republished, and analyzed slave narratives. Both historians and literary critics came to value their importance to the historiography of American slavery and to the development of African-American autobiography and fiction.
In the decades immediately following the Civil War, and even to some extent throughout the years of actual battle, hundreds of Americans published memoirs describing their experiences during this cataclysmic event. Such an outpouring of autobiographical material following the war is not surprising, since otherwise ordinary individuals are often prompted to write their life stories after extraordinary experiences. Because the American Civil War was arguably the most extraordinary event in this nation's history, as attested to by the debate that raged (occasionally even to this day) over its proper title—the Civil War, the War between the States, the War for Southern Independence, the War of Northern Aggression—the personal experiences of Americans who lived through it retain substantial contemporary interest. Many of these autobiographers were men, soldiers who had fought with Grant or Lee or Sherman and who often identified themselves with these heroes in their titles. Yet women also wrote of the war, in diaries and memoirs, describing their experiences as the mothers and sisters who stayed home or became refugees, as nurses in military hospitals, as spies, even as soldiers. This essay discusses several diaries composed during the war itself as well as memoirs published soon after the war's end. While such memoirs continued to be published for decades, the writers' goals shifted—and their memories became less reliable—as Reconstruction ended. (By 1900, for example, very few writers claimed to have supported slavery.) These writers consistently return to similar questions: What exactly is an appropriate role for a patriotic woman during a war? What is the enemy like, and how does one respond when he quite literally steps onto one's front porch? What will or should happen to the thousands of slaves whose very existence is so peculiarly entangled with the war itself?
As a teenager James Baldwin abandoned the pulpit after a year and a half, but it would be fair to say that he always remained a preacher. For Baldwin, the life of an artist was a higher vocation, and he plunged into that life with inexhaustible, at times desperate, fervor. While he insisted that the writer's primary responsibility is to his or her craft, he was equally adamant that the writer has an obligation to serve as witness for society; in doing so, the writer plays an essential role in the construction of a better future. Baldwin certainly demanded of himself this double purpose, and when the two are in accord—often in his essays, occasionally in his fiction—it is easy to see his work as among the most important in twentieth-century American literature. For many, though, Baldwin's early promise as a novelist was never fully realized; according to this not entirely unsound perspective, the tumult of the 1960s took a heavy toll on the writer and rendered his fiction didactic and disheveled. His reputation sagged, not least among black radicals who considered Baldwin to have been co-opted by the (white) literary establishment. Years after his death, opinion is still divided over the merits of Baldwin's fiction and even his later essays. What Baldwin wrote in his essay, Alas, Poor Richard (1961), published after the death of Richard Wright, could be said of himself: “The fact that [Wright] worked during a bewildering and demoralizing era in Western history makes a proper assessment of his work more difficult.”
Russell Banks's short stories and novels portray working-class people trapped in mundane lives filled with violence and trauma. His themes include the cycle of violence from father to son and the exploration of the difference between the psyches of women and men and between those of people of varying races and economic classes. In Banks's world, these dichotomies lead to conflict, the outcome of which is most often tragic, and to a crushing sense of personal guilt. Redemption, however, is always hard-bought. In addition, Banks's work offers one of the most severe indictments of the American dream ideology in contemporary literature. His characters reach after what they think will make them happy, striving for self-transformation and “successful” lives. All but a few, however, find themselves thwarted.
Djuna Barnes was a poet, journalist, playwright, theatrical columnist, and novelist. She was also an accomplished graphic designer and artist, often illustrating her own work. But Barnes is mostly known for writing the modernist classic Nightwood (1936). Djuna Barnes was born 12 June 1892 near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, to Wald Barnes, an American, and Elizabeth Chappell Barnes, a British subject. Barnes was raised in Cornwall-on-Hudson until her father bought a 105-acre farm on then-undeveloped Long Island because he desired a life free from society and its conventional morality. In fact, he built a mostly self-sufficient (some say polygamous) family unit and also wrote a credo, a statement of the beliefs by which he shaped his life. Young Djuna Barnes was educated at home by her paternal grandmother, Zadel Barnes, an early feminist and journalist who lived with the family.
Donald Barthelme was born in Philadelphia on 7 April 1931. He was the oldest of five children, all of them talented writers—including the prominent minimalist Frederick Barthelme (b. 1943). From the late 1960s until his death in 1989, Donald Barthelme produced a body of experimental fiction regarded as central to the postmodernist movement. Along with Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and others, Barthelme tested boundaries of perception and assumptions about fiction in the development of a new style. Although he shared with other postmodernists an ironic tone and a keen imagination for literary structure, Barthelme was in many ways ideologically separate from his peers. Through his father, a renowned architect, he internalized the principles of the Bauhaus—a school of artists, designers, and architects that originated in Germany early in the twentieth century whose proponents firmly believed that excellence of form and design could substantively improve the quality of human existence. Whereas many postmodernists were busy breaking down overused literary structures in order to demonstrate the fundamental flimsiness of them, Barthelme wanted to hatch new forms that could hold up under scrutiny. His short stories, which make up most of his work, almost always engage a distinctive innovation of form. Each of his four novels, too—Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986), and The King (1990)—playfully redirect novelistic conventions.
John Barth is counted among the first generation of American postmodernist writers. Of this group, which includes Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, John Hawkes, and Donald Barthelme, Barth has been identified by turns as the most nihilistic and the most hopeful; indeed, his fiction explores just this sort of irreconcilable dualism.
The Beat movement was America's first major Cold War literary movement. Originally a small circle of unpublished friends, it later became one of the most significant sources of contemporary counterculture, and the most successful free speech movement in American literature. It is at once a reclamation of poetry from the modernist pedestal of the New Critics and an attempt to infiltrate the academy itself; as closely associated with the proliferation of Eastern spirituality in America as it is with the drug culture and jazz rhythms of the street.
Enthralled by literature but disenchanted with graduate school, Ann Beattie began writing short stories and resolutely submitting her unsolicited manuscripts to The New Yorker. She racked up nearly two dozen rejections, but her determination finally bore fruit when the preeminent weekly magazine accepted “A Platonic Relationship” in 1974, thus launching a controversial and significant writing career.