restricted access Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (review)
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Reviewed by
Timothy Dow Adams. Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1990. 218 pp. $24.95.

Readers of autobiographies have always been preoccupied with learning historical truth. Now, however, Timothy Dow Adams, in a book whose evocative title admirably defines its intended scope, is endeavoring to redirect that obsession. For Adams, "autobiography is the story of an attempt to reconcile one's life with one's self and is not, therefore, meant to be taken as historically accurate but as metaphorically authentic" (this last word being his touchstone throughout). He suggests that analysis of falsehood, not fact, should be most meaningful in the study of the genre. But he insists that the celebrated, mendacious literary autobiographers whom he examines—Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Wright, Mary McCarthy, and Lillian Hellman—are, finally, not merely "telling lies but telling their lives." Adams concludes that "each writer's individual approach to the problems of lying . . . reveals far more than inaccuracies conceal." Although his chapters are uneven in their readability and forcefulness, the volume is provocative, meticulously researched, and, generally, quite "authentic" itself.

Telling Lies works best in its scrutiny of individual autobiographies; its theory is compelling, but, presented mainly in just sixteen pages at the beginning, it seems underdeveloped by comparison. The intriguing connections and conflicts that Adams traces among his five subjects well justify their having been chosen. His lengthy discussion of four works by Lillian Hellman (An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, Scroundrel Time, and Maybe) constitutes the book's major accomplishment. According to Adams, Hellman is sometimes "wrongheaded, inaccurate, less than forthcoming . . . and exasperatingly mean spirited," but he defends her autobiographies as "exceptionally authentic portraits." His witty and convincing argument focuses on those writers who have passionately questioned Hellman's veracity—most notably Martha Gellhorn, Samuel McCracken, Stephen Spender, Muriel Gardiner, and, of course, Mary McCarthy, whose public accusations [End Page 588] led to the infamous lawsuit still pending at Hellman's death. Adams' substantial chapter on McCarthy's own works, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew, although clever (especially when it dissects varieties of confession), suffers occasionally from repetitiousness and a moralistic bent.

Of the three remaining autobiographers, Gertrude Stein receives the least fascinating treatment from Adams; the relatively high critical popularity of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas may help to account for that fact. Within this complex section, Adams emphasizes not only Stein's "fictions" but also her acute self-awareness and good humor. In dealing with Sherwood Anderson's A Story Teller's Story, Tar: A Midwest Childhood, and Memoirs, Adams highlights the autobiographer's role as mythic speaker for other Americans. He examines the Anderson legend (tales of boyhood poverty, primitive schooling, troublesome parenthood, and, above all, bohemian flight from bourgeois dreariness) and determines that the author of Winesburg, Ohio is "ultimately fairly trustworthy; his autobiographies, especially self-revelatory." Adams likewise defends the mythic role of Richard Wright, saying that Black Boy is a "truthful account of the black experience in America," in part because Wright's lying—demanded by "his personality, his family, his race"—is his "major metaphor of self."

Above all, Timothy Dow Adams's Telling Lies is a solid, original critical achievement. Its felicitous creativity deserves a wide readership.

Dennis W. Petrie
Tri-State University
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