Biography 25.4 (2002) 674-677
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The ten essays in this collection emerged from a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar directed by John Hall in 1995 at the City University of New York's Graduate Center. The editor, Bette H. Kirschstein,states that a central concern emerging from the seminar "was that casual readers of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs tend to accept what they read as the 'truth'" (1). Thus the group set out to compile an anthology that would "reach a broad audience" of students, writers, teachers, and readers who "are interested in a clearly written, reader-friendly approach to the [End Page 674] practice, problems, and theories of life writing" (1). The result is a highly readable, diverse set of essays that for the most part address an undergraduate-level reader and offer advice to novice practitioners of life writing.
The book is divided into four sections. In the first section, "Memoirs and Letters," three writers reflect briefly on "the complications of writing a memoir," but their essays are primarily interesting as examples of short memoirs. Commenting on memory and the writing process, Frank Bonjione describes material from which he is constructing a "labyrinth of remembrances" of his childhood in a (now disappeared) neighborhood of Italian immigrants, focusing on a day in 1964 when his father took him to see Mickey Mantle play in Yankee Stadium. Bruce McIver, writing a memoir of his experiences in Yugoslavia in 1985 and 1988, concludes that "it is impossible not to fictionalize our own lives, as true to the reality of them as we might try to be" (29). Alicia Hernandez, in the book's most fascinating essay, uses letters from her fourteen year correspondence with "Danny Santiago" to narrate the story of the fraud perpetrated by Dan James, a white, 73-year-old, well-educated writer who posed as a young Chicano from the barrios in order to publish the award-winning novel Famous All Over Town.
Hernandez's essay will prove invaluable for anyone interested in the Santiago/James fraud or similar literary impersonations, such as the Klansman Forrest Carter posing as an Indian to write his popular so-called "autobiography,"The Education of Little Tree. Hernandez began corresponding with "Santiago" in January 1971, praising a story he had published and encouraging him to continue writing. Struggling with her first year of teaching junior high English, Hernandez copied his story for her students and "used it for grammar practice, writing exercises, and spelling" (44). The students loved it and wanted to read more of "Santiago's" work. For the next fourteen years, Hernandez sent "Santiago" commentary from her students as well as her own advice on editing and revision. Thinking she was encouraging a talented, disadvantaged, and much-needed Chicano writer, Hernandez invested heavily in the relationship, expending not only time and professional expertise but also (she makes this clear) a great deal of erotic fantasy. With no forewarning from "Santiago," she learned of the fraud from reading James Gregory Dunne's article, "The Secret of Danny Santiago," published in The New York Review of Books on August 16, 1984. Hernandez's narration, written from the perspective of a complexly involved victim of the fraud, is rich in its description of gendered exploitation and identity politics. The material begs for outside theorists of ethnicity, gender, and class to analyze what James's fraud reveals about the politics of impersonation and the contemporary demand for, and rules by which we judge, "authentic" "ethnic" narratives. [End Page 675] The official view of the case was articulated by the editors of the press (Simon and Schuster/Plume), who responded to Dunne's article by stating: "if the book was good with Danny Santiago's name as author, it's just as good now that we know it was written by James" (The New York Review of Books, October 11, 1984). Having invested so much of her own time and energy "midwifing" the novel, Hernandez perhaps...