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AFTERWORD WHO IS BEST QUALIFIED to describe a life—the one who has lived it or one who has observed it? What is the purpose of autobiography? And what is the function of scholarship about autobiography? These questions absorbed my attention as I read and thought about the essays that constitute this volume. I contemplated as well the matter of objectivity versus subjectivity, with respect to both the autobiographer and the student of autobiography. Through my dual roles as researcher and psychoanalyst, and particularly in my most recent project, a literary biography of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I have had to examine closely the blurry line between observable events and emotional experience. I have concluded , along with many others in both disciplines, that literary encounters, like those in psychoanalysis, always involve at least two subjectivities—writer and reader, writer and critic, or patient and analyst. This duality has special ramifications when the dyad involves an autobiographer and a scholar of autobiography. A patient of mine once remarked: "You know, it's funny: in the barnyard, all chickens look the same, but every artistic replica of a chicken is different." How well the essays in this special issue of Prooftexts reflect that observation. For, while all the essays profess the same topic, American Jewish autobiography, they all bear the distinctive stamp of the individual author's method, style, and concerns—even when dealing with overlapping material. Each article reveals the subjective creativity of the critic. Each concentrates on the significance of the American Jewish autobiography as it links up with such larger themes as immigration, language, and gender. Each scholar was singularly compelled by the tellers of their own stories. Diversity notwithstanding, the articles have two elements in common. First, certain themes surface regularly: the centrality of Jewish identity, the importance of America in shaping that identity, and the role of personal and historical circumstances in strengthening—or undermining—a tradition of Jewish autobiography . Second, some points clearly are not pivotal: the autobiographer's PROOFTEXTS 18 (1998): 277-280 C 1998 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 278JANET HADDA renown, the original reception of the autobiography, the impulse that prompted the writing. The division between "truth" and fabrication, which might appear to be crucial, proves irrelevant, with fiction viewed as autobiography and autobiography exposed as fictionalized. I would go so far as to say that, at bottom, the autobiographer and the student of autobiography operate at cross-purposes. Or, at the very least, they have different agendas. The autobiographer wants to assert a particular version of his or her life, explain a particular understanding of the twists and turns that life has taken. If the author is a writer of fiction, like Henry Roth, Philip Roth, or Arthur Miller, the intent might be to cleave a line between fact and fiction, to defend against rumors and innuendo, to reveal hidden or not-so-hidden connections that will help clarify how the literary product is a reflection of the life. If the writer creates nonfiction, the purpose might be to chart the course of mental and emotional development, to pay homage to mentors and colleagues, or to defend a particular philosophy or theory. The purpose of the scholar, in contrast, may be to study the narrative structure of the work, to underscore the autobiography's position in literary history, to place the work within a theoretical context of autobiography as a genre. Somewhere in between, the biographer seeks to use the autobiography to illuminate the author's life or work interpretatively. The autobiographer wants to explain something about his or her own life, while the scholar of autobiography wants to explain something about the vehicle through which the life is expressed: the text itself. The autobiographical works in this volume span almost the entire twentieth century, from Mary Antin's The Promised Land (1912) to Henry Roth's multivolume novel of the 1990s. These two writers, both Yiddish-speaking immigrants, are otherwise quite different from each other. Moreover, in their differences, they highlight some of the underlying, although not always explicit, distinctions discussed in this volume. Mary Antin, who denies that she is the young woman named Mary in her own story, is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3311
Print ISSN
0272-9601
Pages
pp. 277-280
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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