In this admirable, gracefully written book, author Rachel McLennan sets out to produce a work that, perhaps surprisingly, has never before existed: the very first textbook to focus exclusively on American autobiographical forms. According to the book's back cover, American Autobiography seeks to provide "an accessible guide in the major forms of autobiographical writing in America." Drawing on an extensive range of American autobiographical authors, texts, and central issues, McLennan both skillfully accomplishes and also confidently surpasses this principal objective.
McLennan's American Autobiography is the most recent volume in Edinburgh University Press's valuable British Association for American Studies (BAAS) series, which is edited by Simon Newman and Carol R. Smith. As described on the back cover of this book, the series aims to supply "clearly written introductions designed to offer students definitive short surveys of key topics in the field." American Autobiography is then intended as an introductory overview of its subject. Before readers begin McLennan's book, we are faced with the realization that this inaugural textbook on a vital American literary subject has been written by a respected scholar outside the United States, as well as published by a respected academic press that is also outside the United States. Such arrangements gesture to the wide academic interest that now exists regarding American autobiography, life writing, and auto/biographical forms in general. At the same time, these arrangements do underscore that this first introductory textbook concerning American autobiography is not written by a US scholar and/or published by a US press. While I do not wish to place undue emphasis on this matter, it is worthy of our notice and consideration. However, to say this is not to reject the notion that the geographical and cultural distances that are necessarily present in this book's British view of American autobiography may better position McLennan to consider objectively key issues such as the American nature of autobiography as well as attendant topics such as the roles of multiculturalism and transnationalism in American autobiographical forms. [End Page 329]
American Autobiography is divided into two parts, "Exemplary Subjects" and "Contemporary Subjects," and four chapters. Each chapter is centered on a key theme. The first two chapters focus on "Properties," while chapter three focuses on "Gifts and Giving," and chapter four on "Recoveries." McLennan explains that "these thematics facilitate engagement with questions ('properties') central to autobiography—those of definition, identity, relationships, representation, agency, intention, the law, ethics of writing, autobiography, truth, reference, and genre" (21).
Though the whole of McLennan's book is consistently accomplished and interesting, the learned and readable introduction is particularly effective. In the introduction, McLennan directly engages the absence of any textbooks focused on American autobiography, arguing, "The fact that no textbook on American autobiography exists (until now) signifies [a critical] impasse…. If 'autobiography' is difficult to define, then 'American autobiography' is even more so" (18). McLennan then proceeds to unpack these signal difficulties, concisely and fluently discussing the various and varying definitions of autobiographical writing that have been put forth by influential critics such as Philippe Lejeune, G. Thomas Couser, Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Paul John Eakin, Alix Kates Shulman, Timothy Dow Adams, Nancy Miller, Leigh Gilmore, and others. McLennan grounds this noteworthy introductory essay in incisive, detailed readings of such autobiographical texts as Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father, and other works. Further, McLennan directly addresses the necessary limits of any introductory discussion of American autobiography: "This textbook cannot discuss every important American autobiography, so the stories it tells and the relations it describes are also, necessarily, marked by exclusions. The texts included within its pages are not representative of the 'best' or most important American autobiographies; they are chosen because they introduce students to (some) major practitioners and properties (thematic concepts and interpretive difficulties) necessary to the study of autobiography" (23). McLennan proceeds to identify the complex and evolving nature of her subject, plainly stating that, "This volume refuses to offer a history of autobiography which is linear, definitive or exhaustive" (22). In her clear identification of American autobiography's...