- More Than One Way to Tell a Story:Rethinking the Place of Genre in Native American Autobiography and the Personal Essay
Native American autobiography is a problematic genre for historians and literary scholars alike for a number of reasons. First, there is the persistent question of authorship: because so many early Native autobiographies were, to varying degrees, recorded, edited, rearranged, and coauthored by whites, some scholars contest the idea that they be studied as samples of Native American writing at all. Next is the cultural specificity of the Western understanding of "autobiography," arguably a wholly foreign concept to the traditions of story-making characteristic of Native groups. The differences between Native autobiographies and their Western counterparts raise an array of problematic questions, not only about the conventions of autobiography as a literary genre, but also about the notions of self-hood and identity that characterize the people who write autobiographies. A case has been repeatedly made by literary scholars for the inability of Native American writers to conceive of themselves independently of their notions of tribal identity, for example. Other similar derivations argue for Native views of the passage of time, personal success, cause and effect, the nature of history, and meaning-making as differing from Western perceptions, all in ways said to be observable through analysis of these written records. Some writers seem content to draw conclusions about Native peoples based on such observations; others, frustrated with the degree of textual variation and authorial complexity these writings offer, have wondered whether Native autobiographies should be considered a different literary genre entirely. [End Page 22]
Although I begin with an investigation of some of these complexities as they currently influence, and arguably impede, literary study of Native autobiographies, my contention is that this last question is both the most promising and the most emblematic of the basic assumption clouding the work of those scholars who have tried for years to unravel the mysteries of Native American autobiographical writing. In order to understand these early writings it is necessary not only to separate them from the conventional expectations of the generic Western autobiography but also to distinguish between literary and rhetorical notions of genre itself.
Two Conceptual Approaches to Genre
Literary genre, following the classification system established in Aristotle's The Poetics, has been traditionally understood as "a formalistic classification of types of texts" (Devitt 697). In application, although this is an oversimplification, a text belongs in a genre both because of how it is like other texts in that genre and because of how it is unlike texts in other genres.1 To question the inclusion of a particular work in the category of "autobiography," or to examine the ways in which its textual features distinguish it from other autobiographies, is to examine the work through the lens of this literary view of genre, one which leads directly to the kinds of broad cultural assumptions made above: if these autobiographies are not like other autobiographies, it must be because their authors are not like other authors.
Current rhetorical study, however, tends to approach genre in a very different way. In a rhetorical understanding of the term, according to scholars in the branch of rhetoric now calling itself "genre theory," genres are not forms at all but rather "typified rhetorical actions based in recurrent situations" (Miller 31), where "recurrent" describes similar situations arising under similar circumstances and inspiring similar responses, and the forms produced are the result of the rhetorical action best suited to the situation, becoming typified by repeated application. Following this definition, a rhetorical understanding of autobiography can only be gained through an [End Page 23] understanding of the situations that prompt a writer to tell the story of his or her life. And if a piece of writing does not seem to be an autobiography, what needs to be known to understand the piece as it is, is not how it differs from things that do seem to be autobiographies but what rhetorical context called it into being, and what purpose was served by the rhetorical action the written product represents.
The Question of Authorship
By definition, in literary studies, an autobiography is a reflexive...