- Autobiography, Ecology, and the Well-Placed Self: The Growth of Natural Biography in Contemporary American Life Writing by Nathan Straight
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In this short but well-executed book, Nathan Straight reads some of the West’s best-loved memoirs through an ecocritical lens to locate a turn in life writing and autobiography more generally. This turn toward an emerging genre that he terms natural biography offers us new stories to tell, stories that more fully describe the complexity of what it means to be human in the world.
Straight begins by outlining the ideological burdens borne by traditional US life writing. Autobiographers have too often reproduced in their texts a rugged individualism that perpetuates Cartesian mind/body dualism and excises the ordering mind of the narrator from its material environment. In contrast, the author says, stand works that strive to situate the author’s identity by examining embodiment and considering interdisciplinary perspectives. Such works conceive of identity as an ongoing process that relates to ecology, region, and culture. Straight offers William Kittredge, Terry Tempest Williams, and Mary Clearman Blew as exemplary writers of such works, devoting a chapter to each.
The author supports his thesis with readings of the three prominent writers. He finds that Kittredge employs the features of natural biography to build a narrative that owns up to his and his family’s complicity in the capitalist development that has jeopardized life in Warner Valley, Oregon, for humans and nonhumans alike. Kittredge’s commitment to being fully situated enables the discovery of this complicity. Williams writes as a natural biographer in Refuge (1991) when she allows the Great Salt Lake and its migratory birds their own agency and personality in her book, noting the flux that similarly marks the lake’s life and her own. Straight’s reading of Blew finds the traits of natural biography helping her highlight tensions that inhere in her effort to simultaneously acknowledge and resist frontier mythologies. Her multivocal account of her life in western places keeps her identity open to influence and redaction.
Straight’s real contribution in this book is to name a mode of writing as the “I” that incorporates poststructural insights about subjectivity without falling prey to the sometimes endless signification and unreality of postmodern aesthetics. Since it is attention to place that grounds the poststructural tenets discussed by the author, his book has particular relevance to scholars of the West and suggests the continued salience [End Page 465] of our regional focus. Given the scope of his inquiry, Straight surprised me by not discussing the work of Western Literature Association scholars who have written on similar topics. Straight’s bibliography may owe its omission of scholars like Judy Temple, Melody Graulich, Kathleen Boardman, Gioia Woods, and Tara Penry to the book’s brevity; its actual text occupies a scant 130 pages.
Written in prose that is always accessible and occasionally evocative, this is a book that gets you thinking. I recommend interested readers examine the list of “natural biographies” that Straight gives in his appendix; I was pleased to see many unfamiliar titles alongside old favorites. He is modest about his claims, seeking not to “prescribe the genre” with his description of natural biography but to better understand “its strategies and its potential” (120). The full measure of that potential will be realized as scholars and writers pick up on Straight’s themes if not adopting his terminology outright.