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Biography 26.2 (2003) 298-306

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Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001. 296 pp. ISBN 0-8166-2882-3, $37.95 cloth; 0-8166-2883-1, $14.95 paper.

"Getting a life means getting a narrative, and vice versa" (80)—so say Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson in their latest collaborative work of life-writing scholarship. Reading Autobiography is their fourth major joint venture, the others being De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women's Autobiography (1992), Getting a Life: Everyday Uses of Autobiography (1996), and Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (1998). This is a momentous event in life-writing pedagogy: here, for the first time, we have an overview of the field of "autobiography" that includes history, poetics, theory, politics, criticism, terminology, and research resources. The nearest competitor is William Spengemann's admirable but more selective The Forms of Autobiography, published in 1980. In a mere 219 pages of main text Smith and Watson cover a remarkable amount of ground. This book would be worth reading for its breadth of reference to "autobiographical" texts alone. Its bibliography of primary and secondary sources will be a major resource for life-writing scholars, teachers, and students for years to come.

The volume comprises seven main chapters. The first deals with definitional issues, then moves to theoretical topics, and in particular, "autobiography"'s relations to history, and the question of "autobiographical truth." Chapter 2, "Autobiographical Subjects," begins with an impressive, multi-faceted account of "memory," then considers the nexus between "the autobiographical subject" and "experience"; it then moves to various sites and registers of "identity," a very good discussion of "embodiment," and a less satisfactory account of "agency." The third chapter, "Autobiographical Acts," provides a usefully detailed, and sometimes innovative, poetics and rhetoric of the genre. While it's particularly good on "sites" of telling, reception and representation, and modes of emplotment, its account of "modes of Self-Inquiry" is suggestive but limited in philosophical scope. Chapter 4, "Life Narrative in Historical Perspective," attempts the impossible: an historical account of "autobiography" from Augustine to now, ranging across cultures, and through canonical and marginalized voices—all in twenty-five pages. Given the awesome constraints under which they're operating, Smith and Watson do a fine job here. They're interesting on some of the canonical [End Page 298] texts, and strong on various registers of political, ethnographic, immigrant, autopathographical, postmodern, and other forms. Here, as throughout the book, they're superb on "the inextricability of genre and gender" (141), and quite brilliant in providing an encyclopedic array of textual examples. The chapter is organized around various historical manifestations of the "autobiographical subject": Antiquity and the Middle Ages, "The Humanist Subject, Secular and Spiritual," "The Migratory Subject of Early Modern Travel Narratives"; Enlightenment, Dissenting, Bourgeois, and Modern subjects; "New Subjects" in the eighteenth century; nineteenth century Romantic, Bildungsroman, and American subjects; then "New Subject Formations" in late modernity. Inevitably, given the brevity of this vast historical sweep, the quality of these expository vignettes is variable. I'll come back to the least satisfactory of them—the Enlightenment—shortly.

Chapters 5 and 6 constitute a two-part "History of Autobiography Criticism." They're typically wide-ranging and are packed with useful information. Building on some of their groundbreaking earlier work, there is some telling critique of Misch and other scholarly fashioners of the atomistic masculinist autobiographical subject. Much of the commentary is incisive, and the overviews of recent developments are particularly valuable. These chapters are structured around the leitmotif of the "wave": three "generations" of life-writing criticism are adduced, the wave metaphor suggesting, despite occasional disclaimers (162), a teleological account premised on the familiar notion of "paradigm shift" (135) in literary and cultural studies. One gets the impression that the latest "wave" in autobiography studies is where the important work is being done. They see this "third wave" as essentially postmodern and antihumanist in character. Some readers of these chapters will be surprised to know that, for instance, James Olney'...


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