- The Ethics of Working Class Autobiography: Representation of Family by Four American Authors
In this text Elizabeth Bidinger takes up the often overlooked problems in writing autobiography that includes family members who, unlike the author, have not chosen to have their lives represented in literature. Given that most recognized writers stand to profit from literary works, there is a power imbalance between autobiographers and their families. This imbalance is heightened when autobiographers from the working-class represent family members, whom Bidinger classifies, following G. Thomas Couser, as "vulnerable subjects." According to Couser, as cited by Bidinger, vulnerable subjects are "persons who are liable to exposure by someone with whom they are involved in an intimate or trust-based relationship but are unable to represent themselves in writing or to offer meaningful consent to their representation by someone else" (3). In essence, working-class people do not have the facility with language or literary standing to represent themselves, and their ability to give meaningful consent is often compromised. Bidinger further argues that the representation of working-class subjects is problematic because many Americans are biased against the lower socioeconomic classes. Authors from working-class families often write with the expressed purpose of giving voice to those who cannot speak for themselves, or of representing an unfamiliar way of life to mainstream America. However, good intentions do not necessarily correlate with ethical representation, which Bidinger finds compromised in many works. Her definition of ethical writing is somewhat vague, but she most clearly articulates it in the final pages when she refers to Lynn Z. Bloom's view that in ethical autobiographies the truth is conveyed through characters and story "untainted by vindictiveness or special pleading" (190). Elsewhere in the text, Bidinger cautions against autobiographers demonizing or Orientalizing their subjects.
Bidinger begins with a chapter in which she analyzes some twentieth-century texts for their strategies in representing working-class relatives: Theodore Dreiser's Dawn, Richard Wright's Black Boy, Anzia Yezerska's Red [End Page 227] Ribbon on a Horse, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory. In Dreiser's and Wright's work, she finds the genesis of the contemporary tendency to showcase family secrets, and in Wright's case, to distort familial characterizations for ideological purposes. Yezerska's autobiography laments her distortion of family members' lives in her fiction while simultaneously continuing the distortion by glaringly omitting her child from her autobiography. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings achieves an aesthetic and ethical excellence because it presents family members as complex characters who enabled her creativity and ambition. Angelou neither romanticizes nor demonizes. Bidinger's discussion of this text is especially illuminating in presenting a model of an ethical autobiography, and in doing so, further explaining the extraordinary power of this work. Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory is seen as a noteworthy departure from the genre of ethnic autobiography. While most of these works represent the development of an ethnic identity, Rodriguez explores the transformative impact of an education that alienates him from his roots.
Bidinger is a keen, close reader and a skillful prose stylist. Yet it's difficult to place this chapter in the context of the book, for the works discussed here are rarely—if ever—mentioned later in the text. Bidinger also offers no rationale for beginning with works written in the early twentieth century when, as she briefly notes, Ben Franklin's autobiography, slave narratives, captivity narratives, and many other forms of personal writing existed before the American republic. Finally, while Bidinger is well versed in the scholarship on autobiography, she seems unfamiliar with that in working-class studies, with the exception of Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb's The Hidden Injuries of Class. The Ethics of Working Class Autobiography is, unfortunately, weak on class analysis.
The body of the book is comprised of four chapters, each of which focuses on a contemporary autobiography. Bidinger praises...