Biography 27.3 (2004) 635-638
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Lauren Rusk's consideration of "life writing," as opposed to traditional autobiography, focuses on "writing that is from as well as about the subject's life" (3); such writing participates in a dialectical process of complex social as well as aesthetic engagements with its readers. For the four writers Rusk discusses, such engagements emerge from the construction of a "textual self" that invokes the writers' otherness within mainstream society, thus engaging, potentially, with multiple audiences. The book constellates an interesting group of twentieth century writers and texts, draws upon a wealth of critical perspectives on both life writing and the individual texts under consideration, and educates its readers well with regard to the concept of life writing. Rusk also provides her own critical readings of the texts under discussion. Particularly useful for students embarking on the concept of life writing as well as the study of these particular texts and writers, more advanced readers will also find the book engaging in several ways. Unfortunately, its overall tone and structure remind us that it originated as a dissertation (part of Routledge's Outstanding Dissertations series; Rusk took her Ph.D. from Stanford); it is limited by a fairly traditional organizing framework—overall, and within each chapter—and overuses citation in the development of its analysis. In spite of these and additional limitations noted at the end of this review, Rusk's text enables readers to contemplate their own "self-invention" (Paul John Eakin's term) as they encounter these four innovative narratives of life writing.
Rusk chooses these "hybrid texts" because of their challenge to readers "to work through puzzles in ways that mirror the writers' own struggles to wrest sense from the contradictions they've faced. Thus the books strive to transform how their readers perceive one another and, ultimately, how they act" (1). Discussion of Woolf's A Room of One's Own opens the analysis, following Rusk's introductory critical synthesis. Woolf's overtly acknowledged influence on the two contemporary writers addressed, Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts) and Jeanette Winterson (Oranges are Not the Only Fruit), is noted and becomes part of the threading process Rusk employs in discussing the way life writing emerges from textual community. James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son shares with Woolf, in Rusk's view, a focus on what she calls the "collective self" that "both writers emphasize . . . but wish they didn't need to. And each speaks to an audience that is riven in two by social difference" (31). Rusk, a self-identified heterosexual, white, middle-class female reader of these texts, [End Page 635] finds affinities with each writer's construction of self. She is at her best when she focuses on the nuances of such construction. As she states in her introduction:
works that concern otherness . . . represent the self collectively, as a subject shaped by those forces that designate the less powerful as "other." These three views of the self—which I call, in order of increasing breadth, the unique, collective, and inclusive—manifest the competing claims of individuality, social difference, and hoped-for common ground. Although I consider mainly these three aspects of selfhood, two others also enter into the discussion—the communal and the familial. Communal, in contrast to collective, selfhood is a matter of affinity within a group, rather than awareness of prejudice against the group.
Zeroing in on what she calls "innovative, writerly autobiography of otherness" whose "practitioners are members of groups that are not dominant in society" allows her to contemplate multiple readers' responses:
Portraying the self as, in part, collective raises the issue of whom that representation addresses: those in the narrator's social group or groups? those against whom the collective self is defined? Generally, the text speaks to a multiple, divided audience, fractured along the stress lines of social dynamics. Its...