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Writing Home: A Literacy Autobiography by Eli Goldblatt (review)

From: Community Literacy Journal
Volume 7, Issue 1, Fall 2012
pp. 161-163 | 10.1353/clj.2012.0048

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The literacy autobiography is often assigned to help writers become more aware of how their literacy pasts affect their written present. In Writing Home: A Literacy Autobiography, Eli Goldblatt similarly reconstructs his literacy history to contextualize his current literate commitments. In the process, he stretches what he calls “the clinical-smelling term ‘literacy’” until it is pliable and durable enough to account for a lifetime of literate experiences beyond books and schools (5). In its exploration of personal language history, Writing Home resembles Keith Gilyard’s Voices of the Self, Min-Zhan Lu’s Shanghai Quartet, and Victor Villanueva’s Bootstraps. But Goldblatt’s book uses less academic theory than these and lets the social tumult of literacy acquisition speak for itself. The humor and raw candor with which he tells his stories pulls literacy theory out into the daylight of lived experience, showing the full pleasure and pain of finding one’s home through writing.

Writing Home is built around the tension between writing alone and writing with others. The desire to bridge community, school, and personal literacies is familiar ground for Goldblatt, but here the taut stretch among these literate realms is given the context of one full life. While the book’s chronological chapters follow the phases of Goldblatt’s life, the narrative within the chapters often jumps forward and circles back, resembling oral more than written storytelling. As it moves through specific literacy events and practices, the narrative spirals around explorations of gender, race, religion, and class, as one might expect from a writer who takes the social grounding of literacy seriously.

The first two chapters detail Goldblatt’s childhood and schooling, beginning on the army base in Germany where his father was employed and ending in a suburban U.S. high school where he finds his poetic aspirations. These two chapters span the longest period of time in the book and contain as many life-altering realizations as any childhood might. Here, Goldblatt’s insights are mostly literate: he comes to appreciate school as something he “always knew how to do” no matter where his army family was relocated (29); he comes to understand literary analysis as construction of meaning “deeply embedded in context but careful in respect to text” (37). The scenes in which religious literacies come to the fore—Goldblatt and his uncle analyze the kaddish prayer together after his father’s death; he learns to lay tefillin, the leather strap wound around the hand to form Hebrew letters in prayer—are beautiful and resoundingly significant, showing Goldblatt’s growing awareness of literacy as routine and pain, “brute work” and “mystical event” (42). Here he comes to know how the daily activity of literacy “requires considerable devotion but rewards effort with an ineluctable sense of belonging” among others who practice literacy with a shared sense of history (43).

The third and fourth chapter narrate the evolving split in Goldblatt’s identity as a solitary “brooding intellectual” and public, social writer. Here we see Goldblatt as college student: following historical threads through literature, aligning himself with William Carlos Williams, transferring colleges, specializing in classics, working at a printing press. We watch him creating a myth of himself as the hard-working poet/manual laborer, which in doses of authorial self-consciousness he both treasures and gently self-mocks. The chapters expand the tension between the “ordinariness” of public working life and the liveliness of an inner literary life, with Goldblatt’s ascetic tendencies running up against his real world literacy encounters. The period culminates in a resigned understanding that he “didn’t need to be a monk for poetry” and might instead look outward to cultivate what he calls a poem-life (94).

Throughout the next three chapters, Goldblatt’s narrative wanders along with his post-college experiences. He criss-crosses the U.S. for work and romantic relationships, doubling back to revisit childhood understandings of Judaism and his father’s medical profession. He enters and leaves medical school, struggles to find work in recession-era Philadelphia, commits to teaching and a marriage, all the while developing a meta-awareness of his everyday encounters with language. He begins to take his literary self more...

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