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Reviewed by:
  • Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative
  • David McCooey (bio)
Paul John Eakin. Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2008. 184 pp. $17.95.

Ever since the publication of Fictions in Autobiography in 1985, Paul John Eakin has been a major presence in the field of autobiography studies. As with his other monographs, Eakin’s latest work, Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative, brings together elegance and range, as well as clarity and conceptual complexity. Like his other works, too, Living Autobiographically covers a wide range of theoretical and autobiographical texts. While not indifferent to literary theory per se, Eakin (as has been apparent for some time) is profoundly stimulated by theory that goes beyond not only the literary but also the humanities. Most notable in this monograph is Eakin’s use of recent research in neurobiology. With regard to his choice of autobiographical texts for discussion, most are American, though Eakin does discuss the Australian writer David Malouf (a long-time favorite of Eakin’s), as well as the Norwegian autobiographical narratives analyzed in Marianne Gullestad’s Everyday Life Philosophers: Modernity, Morality, and Autobiography in Norway (1996). Eakin’s interest in Gullestad’s work, which is based on a project that elicited autobiographical narratives from “ordinary” individuals, shows that he is not solely concerned with so-called “literary” texts, something also seen in his discussion of the “Portraits of Grief ” series that appeared in the New York Times in the wake of 9/11.

Bringing together such disparate texts, auto/biographical procedures, and theoretical concerns is an ambitious enterprise. Most ambitious of all is that Living Autobiographically brings “culturalist” and biological frameworks together as a way of answering the question “Why do people tell and sometimes write their life stories?” (151). Eakin begins his study into “how we create identity in narrative” by reiterating and developing some of the insights of his previous work, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves (1999). Eakin argues that narrative and identity are essentially continuous, pointing to the role that narrative plays in identity formation in children, as well as to the effect that pathological inability to effectively self-narrate (caused by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease) has on identity. It should be said that Eakin’s interest in the narrative basis of identity is neither novel nor especially original. David Carr’s Time, Narrative, and History (1986), which uncovers “the narrative features of everyday experience” (16), has clear implications for any [End Page 344] study into the link between narrative and identity. Eakin’s use of the term “narrative identity” is strikingly similar to my use of the term “narrative self” in Artful Histories: Modern Australian Autobiography (1996), which similarly proposed that narrative was not merely a medium for the description of identity, but constitutive of identity itself. There are numerous other examples of scholars who have taken this line of thinking.

Where Living Autobiographically is strikingly original is in its attempt to trace not only the cultural determinants of narrative identity but also the biological ones. The book is made up of four parts. The first two are theoretical chapters. Chapter one deals with the cultural influences on narrative models of identity (with particular emphasis on the ethical ramifications of determining when a human subject does and does not have an “identity”), while chapter two deals with the relationship between biology and selfhood. The third and fourth chapters offer practical discussions of these two areas of concern, focusing on a handful of texts to illustrate the theoretical positions outlined in the first two chapters. The first half of the book, then, “identifies the raw materials of the pervasive self-modeling that structures our living,” while the second half “shows this identity work in action” (xi).

While this split may be simple enough, it hides a major complication that Eakin does not sufficiently address. Eakin repeatedly speculates that autobiography is not simply “something we read in a book,” but is also “a discourse of identity, delivered bit by bit, in the stories we tell ourselves day in and day out . . .” (4). As he puts it elsewhere, “I am approaching autobiography not...