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Paul John Eakin. Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1985. 278 pp. $26.00. Henry James's autobiographies, A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother, have traditionaUy served as the primary source of biographical fact in critics' and biographers' accounts of James's early years. But the writing of the autobiographies themselves has not been treated as a significant biographical event. Because his hefty chapter on James begins to redress this traditional imbalance, Paul John Eakin's Fictions in Autobiography wiU be greeted enthusiasticaUy by James and autobiography scholars alike. Eakin's thesis in this chapter—that the autobiographical act was therapeutic for James—is not a new one. Robert Sayre and Leon Edel have already argued that the writing of A Small Boy and Notes was a means of deating emotionaUy with the despondency, the illness, and the lapse in creative power James experienced foUowing the failure of the New York Edition and the death of his brother William. But Eakin is the first critic actuaUy to work this thesis out. By far the best discussion of the autobiographies yet to appear, "Henry James and the Autobiographical Act" (chapter two) demonstrates with subtlety and detail exactly how James's "literary project accomplished this therapeutic task" (59). Eakin's study of James is, of course, part of a much larger inquiry into the nature of the autobiographical act as practiced by autobiographers who, like James, "seem to be writing as much to work through something for themselves as to present some finished thing—self or life—for others" (236). The subjects of chapters one and three respectively are Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Jean-Paul Sartre's The Words, and chapter four focuses primarily on the recent autobiographies of Saul Friedländer and Maxine Hong Kingston, When Memory Comes and The Woman Warrior. Eakin's rich and insightful discussions of each of these autobiographical texts is informed by extensive consideration of contemporary literary theory as it concerns the nature of autobiography in particular and the relationship between language and the self in general. Eakin's purpose is not only to come to terms with such recent, divergent critics of the genre as James Olney and Paul de Man—to name just two—but to arrive at a conception of the autobiographical act that accounts for the on-going interest in autobiography by the practitioners of the genre itself. To summarize briefly, Eakin rejects the "two opposing views of the nature of the self and its relation to language that have been the principal subject of debate among theorists of autobiography in recent years: is the self autonomous and transcendent, or is it contingent and provisional, dependent on language and others for its very existence?" (181). Through an extensive inquiry into the relationship between language and identity in both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic development of human beings, Eakin finds that there is a "mutuaUy constituting interdependency" between language and the self at those crucial stages of identity formation, early childhood and adolescence (8). He further argues that the autobiographical act can be seen as "both a re-enactment and an extension of earlier phases of identity formation" in which this "mutuaUy constituting interdependency " between self and language occurs (226). "In this developmental perspective, the autobiographical act is revealed as a mode of self-invention that Review of Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention 149 is always practiced first in Uving and only eventually—sometimes—formalized in writing. I view the rhythms of the autobiographical act as recapitulating the fundamental rhythms of identity formation: in this sense the writing of autobiography emerges as a second acquisition of language, a second coming into being of self, a self-conscious self-consciousness" (8-9). Thus, while some critics proclaim the death of the self and of autobiography, Eakin both analyzes and affirms the imperative that has motivated countless men and women to write about their lives—even as they reflect upon and question the act in which they are engaged. The particular imperative that drives the autobiographical project of Henry James manifests itself...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6555
Print ISSN
0273-0340
Pages
pp. 148-151
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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