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Reviewed by:
  • Modernism and Autobiography ed. by Maria DiBattista and Emily Wittman
  • Claire Battershill
Modernism and Autobiography. Maria DiBattista and Emily Wittman, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xix + 318. $95.00 (cloth).

At first glance, modernism and autobiography seem like strange bedfellows. How can autobiography be compatible with modernism’s supposed impersonality and disinterest? This new collection of essays explores the variety of ways in which modernists question the fundamental assumptions of autobiography: the referentiality of “I”; the relation of the narrating voice to the essential person; and the reliability of memory. Writing of Jean Rhys’s sidelong autobiographical gaze in Good Morning, Midnight and Smile, Please, Emily Wittman suggests that Rhys’s modernity rests in her “rejection of the premises and promises of post-Enlightenment autobiography, in particular the premise of a stable and triumphant sovereign self who narrates his autobiography” (195). But this rejection, as Wittman shows, does not prevent Rhys from adopting autobiographical narrative practices or tackling the classic autobiographical questions about what it means to live and to write about your own life.

This gathering of sixteen new essays is the second joint editorial project this year by Maria DiBattista and Emily Wittman. In their Cambridge Companion to Autobiography, published in May of 2014, DiBattista and Wittman gather essays that cover a range of historical texts in the genre from Augustine to contemporary “creative non-fiction.” The present volume narrows the chronological range and addresses an aspect of literary culture that has tended to be overlooked in modernist studies, in part because of the ontological uncertainties and the perceived rejection of positivist accounts of the self embraced by earlier conventions of the genre. In short, the very features that Wittman cites as characteristics of Rhys’s modernity are the features that have traditionally been read as at-odds with earnest autobiographical practice. Max Saunders’s Self Impression recently argued persuasively that “to synthesize modernism and life writing is to redefine modernism” (14). This essay collection offers sixteen case studies that join a recent special issue of Modern Fiction Studies on life narratives, and several panels and seminars at MSA, in amply supporting his contention. This volume shows that modernism’s sidelong looks at autobiography are gazes worth adopting not only for strictly autobiographical texts but also for fictional works that flirt with autobiographical tactics and tropes. There is something fundamentally personal about avoidance, reticence, and skepticism, and this collection teases out the many ways in which even reluctant, Freud-influenced modernist narrators are still telling their own stories in their own ways.

One central paradox that the book embraces is that autobiographies need not be found in autobiographies. DiBattista and Wittman begin their introduction by pointing out the modernist tendency to find life writing everywhere: in unconventional forms and in unexpected [End Page 216] places. A striking example in the collection of the genre’s ubiquity is Alan Hepburn’s essay on Elizabeth Bowen’s approach to autobiographical blurbs written for her publisher. Bowen never wrote a formal autobiography, but Hepburn finds ample evidence of her preoccupation with autobiography’s “interrogative, rather than its declarative, qualities” in paratexts, letters, and fragments (98). Michael Wood similarly explores characters’ autobiographies of themselves in Beckett’s fiction, and Jonathan Greenberg’s lively essay on Waugh’s Labels finds autobiography in an entertaining travel book.

The collection’s overall structure suggests an evolutionary trajectory for the development of the autobiographical genre in the first half of the twentieth century. The essays begin by establishing an aesthetic and epistemological lineage and end, appropriately, with Wood’s eloquent essay on Beckett’s disappearing autobiographical subjects. The first of four sections, “Ancestries,” consists of essays on Edmund Gosse, Yeats, Conrad, Henry James, and Woolf. The second, “Emerging,” on Waugh, Stein and Toklas, Elizabeth Bowen, and Ralph Ellison. The third, “Surviving,” on Indian Soldiers in the First World War, Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Hemingway. The final section, “Disappearing,” contains essays on: Jean Rhys; “Abstraction, Impersonality and Dissolution” in the works of H. G. Wells, Stein, DuBois, and others; and Beckett.

The modernism presented in this collection is transatlantic and ranges chronologically from the early 1900s to the 1950s. And yet...


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