Biography 26.2 (2003) 323-325
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Stephen Arch is interested in nineteenth century history and literature, especially in the emergence of autobiography as a genre. Shaping his entire critical enterprise, I think, is the fact that we live, and have lived for the past fifty years or so, in an age that has "witnessed a remarkable outpouring of criticism on the genre of autobiography" (3). That critical writing (cultural, literary, historical), however, may very likely spring from the outpouring of autobiographies, memoirs, and reminiscences that novelists, poets, journalists, public intellectuals, and college professors have produced. We learn the smallest details and secrets of their lives in multi-part articles, in thin books, and in fat tomes. We seem to have a fascination with people telling their own stories, and then we raise the questions, "What is autobiography? What is the self? What is it to write about the self?" Against this cultural landscape, Arch looks at a period in American history (1780-1830) that also saw an explosion of "self-writing"; that is, of texts by individual Americans in the new nation who tried to understand how to "represent" themselves. He contextualizes this very nicely against the debates in the polity itself over linguistic, political, and geographical representation (124). This plethora of stories of [End Page 323] individual lives, however, is not in fact autobiographical in the sense that we understand the word, but rather "self-biographical." Autobiography, Arch insists, did not and could not exist until after the 1820s, and until after the coining of the word, which was first used by Mathew Carey in 1829 in the title of his narrative, Auto Biographical Sketches (21). It is ironic, Arch argues, that Benjamin Franklin's History of My Life, "which so consistently and insistently describes a self formed in reaction and relation to others, has been enshrined as the first classic American autobiography" (157). His writing may be a classic, but it is not an autobiography.
Eighteenth-century self-narratives take a step to modernity as they become secularized. They no longer serve as stories of conversion and salvation where the self, rather than having its own independence and tale to tell, is dependent on a divinity. Anne Bradstreet and John Woolman, for example, write for God. The transitional "self-biographies" that came at the end of the eighteenth century moved beyond traditional conversion narratives, but they are still not those of free individuals. Benjamin Rush in his self-biographical narrative, Travels through Life(which, somewhat ironically for Arch's argument, in its modern edition is retitled The Autobiography of Benjamin Rush), senses the potential for "self-invention or self-creation in the modern world," but shies away from it on religious grounds (77). When the young physician in training in Edinburgh describes a defining political moment in which he first hears the authority of kings questioned, he uses empirical and scientific language to name it, but he is really describing the tumult of a religious experience (81). He has not achieved the status of a completely modern self. This book raises important questions. Although Arch correctly insists upon viewing autobiography historically, he also probes the theoretical question of what autobiography actually isand what citizens and writers of the nineteenth century mean by the concepts of "self," "identity," "fiction," and "history." He is well versed in the secondary reading on the subject, from Jay Fliegelman to William Spengemann. But the book is at its best when it looks at the individual texts. It recovers works for the modern reader that have been understudied or misread because of faulty definitions of autobiography. Arch points us to some wonderful texts, texts were read and were influential in part because the expansion of book trade networks made it possible to get the works into the hands of a growing audience of readers.
Who are the...