Biography 26.2 (2003) 312-314
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This is an unusual book to be published by an academic press. Roger J. Porter rarely dates the works he writes about, even by centuries, although he ranges fromThe Odysseyto his own friends' autobiographies, Howard and Arthur Waskow. There are no particular national or linguistic boundaries, as he ranges from Edward Gibbon to Eugene Delacroix to Edward Dahlberg. The only Time is Porter's own life and how autobiographies fit into his spiritual development. The only Place is Home and the memories that take us there. Inextricable from Porter's criticism of autobiographies and his own autobiography, he also provides a professional history of Rockefeller seminars and NEH conferences he has attended and lectures he has given: on Lawrence Durrell in Corfu; on Somerset Maugham in Waco, Texas; on Herculine Barbin at Stanford. In his chapter on Michel Leiris, by trade a museum curator, Porter describes his own library of autobiography studies, collected as a professional academic in the field for over forty years. All of this is quite random (he becomes interested in Delacroix because he lived near the museum in Paris on his sabbatical), except within the frame of Porter's own life, which he organizes under the chapter headings autobiography as exile, as defense, as self-effacement, as posturing, and as self and other. It is an unusual book, for although Porter is no more famous than any ordinary academic, his Epilogue situates himself as a "brother-in-writing" (236) in a genealogy that stretches from Homer to Benjamin Franklin to Barbara Harrison. [End Page 312]
Porter's Self-Same Songs is what one might call a pedagogic criticism, the kind of criticism you would write if you had taught the subject for over forty years. Not really readings of texts, for there is very little actual textual analysis here, but reflective summaries of themes that have settled in the compost heap of memory. I kept thinking of a line from another introspective masculine writer, also enamored of odyssean voyage, Ezra Pound's "What thou lov'st well remains, / The rest is dross" (Canto LXXXI). Porter is reasonably up to date with autobiographical theory, but not exhaustively so, and only when it is relevant. He knows everybody in the field anyway, and as many of his references are to conversations as to print.
The typical structure of a chapter is the establishment of the theme in an autobiography and then Porter's application to his own life. Beginning not with an autobiography but with a definition of autobiography as "the genre of continually blocked homecoming where memory takes the place of home," he sees in The Odyssey an allegory of his own travels abroad, from which he has always returned to Reed College in Oregon. The picture one gets of Porter is of a static English-professor-type who has taught all his life in a liberal arts college, but who lives like an adventurer on his sabbaticals and who returns home to no Penelope and no Telemachus. In contrast to Nabokov's Speak, Memory, where Nabokov honors family and generation, Porter is childless. Throughout I found myself rushing through the literary criticism to see how Porter would relate, say, Benjamin Franklin's micro-managed life to his own serendipitous wanderings, and one should give a flavor of that ingenuity. Somerset Maugham's sexual discretion provokes Porter to nasty confessions in Waco. Edwin Muir's lost paradises in his Autobiography lead Porter to recollect his own submersion into the collectivities of the 1960s. Kafka's nothingness opposite his father's dominant Selfhood elicits Porter's regret for all the unanswered letters he has written to father and lovers. The diary of the nineteenth-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin leads Porter into an ingenuous reading of his own body and physiognomy. Edward Dahlberg's autobiography cum maternal biography positions Porter to reflect on the death of his...