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HANA WIRTH-NESHER Facing the Fictions: Henry Roth's and Philip Roth's Meta-Memoirs AUTOBIOGRAPHY IS OFTEN an attempt at setting the record straight, of telling the "facts." The form of this corrective telling will depend in large part on the intended audience and how much information about the life is already available to that audience before the autobiographer assumes the authority that comes with being the subject of the story. And this, in turn, will depend on the extent to which the autobiographer will present his or her life as representative of a collective identity or as a unique subject who has been heretofore either unknown or known but misrepresented. These are not mutually exclusive. When Frederick Douglass sets the record straight in Narrative ofthe Life ofFrederick Douglass, he does so as a representative slave who may be personally unknown to his white readers but whose collective life he believes has been distorted and misconstrued by those readers. When he publishes his second autobiography , it is to set the record straight about the personal details of his own experience after he has already attained public recognition and fame.1 Mary Antin wrote The Promised Land to cast her life as the representative Jewish-American immigrant and in so doing, to make her individual mark as an American writer. Autobiographers such as Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams were already well-known public figures when they narrated their lives, the former with the bold assertions that emanate from a person aware of his legendary appeal and the latter with the selfconsciousness of a class aware of its dwindling importance.2 PROOFTEXTS 18 (1998): 259-275 C 1998 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 260HANA WIRTH-NESHER Setting the record straight assumes even more complex twists when the public figure is an artist whose fictions have been the source of their readers' constructions of their "real" lives. Having drawn on their lives for their fictions, authors nevertheless insist on the autonomy of art, and when the public persists in "misreading" the art and the life, the author may eventually give in to the temptation to relate the "truth." How do we read the autobiographies of writers who have previously been obsessed with storytelling and the creation of fictional worlds and later shift into a genre that presumably unmasks the author and disarms him as well? Both Henry Roth and Philip Roth have recently published autobiographies that they claimed were motivated by the need to tell the facts, record the life, and set the record straight. But their writings share three features that thicken the plot of the writer's self-exposure: (1) Their art has been the source of intense public debate, and hence, their lives have received extensive coverage; (2) The ardent interest in their work has been partly due to their perceived representativeness as Jewish-American writers; this accounts for the drama of their reception and for the public debate; (3) Their autobiographical writings are self-reflexive responses to public discussion of their careers, and they engage in metanarrative strategies in the course of their "telling" of their lives. The world of Philip Roth's fiction is located two generations from immigration, and its recurring theme is the split identity of the American Jew, torn between the fantasy ofmaking it as an American and the fantasy of a counterlife to American assimilation—either through invoking an "authentic" Eastern European Jewish world, as he does in "Eli, the Fanatic," "I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting; or Looking at Kafka," The Ghost Writer, and "The Prague Orgy," or through an "authentic " national identity in Israel in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock. With his Zuckerman Bound trilogy, he adds the dimension of the Bildung of the artist, the making of the American Jewish writer and his journeys of self-creation from Newark to Prague, Jerusalem, and London. What has marked Roth's career since the publication of Portnoy's Complaint is an aura of scandal as Jewish-American readers insist upon reading his satires as autobiographical works that betray his community by exposing Jewish warts to gentile eyes.3 The attacks on him have been vociferous: he has been accused...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 259-275
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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