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Biography 23.2 (2000) 396-400

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Diane Bjorklund. Interpreting the Self: Two Hundred Years of American Autobiography. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. 263 pp. ISBN 0-226-05447-0, $25.00.

Reading Diane Bjorklund's Interpreting the Self was a little like sitting down in the wrong movie theater. In the end I liked what I saw, but only once I had stopped expecting something different. Bjorklund analyzes more than one hundred autobiographies published in America over the past two centuries. Her purpose is to identify and track changes within the "culturally shared ideas" which Americans have used to define and discuss the notion of the self since 1800. To that end, she outlines in exhaustive detail four paradigms of selfhood--characterized as "ideal-types" after Max Weber--and situates them to varying degrees in their historical contexts. What Bjorklund discovers is not precisely what she sets out to look for; yet it is quite worthwhile in itself, and rewards the considerable labor that went into producing it. The studies are rich in historical and textual detail, and should provide valuable resources for cultural historians. [End Page 396]

Bjorklund is a sociologist, and in her introduction she negotiates a variety of disciplinary tensions and boundaries as she endeavors to bring autobiography into the ranks of what qualifies as "data." She does so with confidence, firm in her belief that she has discovered a mother lode of unmined sociological information. In my view, the book's interdisciplinary bent is the source of both its greatest strengths and weaknesses. Among the strengths stands Bjorklund's ability to introduce a certain precision and scholarly context to terms like "self-concept," "personality," and "development," shedding light on issues obscured by the sometimes sloppy appropriation of social scientific terminology into literary criticism. Her methodical approach, which involves breaking analyses into four distinct categories--"human nature," "components of self," "changes to self," and "self and society"--enables a multilayered comparison across different eras and cultural contexts. Generally speaking, the study is very well organized, lucidly written, and thoroughgoing within the limits it sets for itself. These limits, however, are significant, and only some of them are acknowledged.

Above all, there is the question of what the research actually succeeds in discovering. Does it make good on the ambitious aim of cataloging the past two hundred years of ideal-typical American selfhood? Bjorklund acknowledges that the paradigms she defines are not "comprehensive," and that not every autobiography will fit neatly within them. However, she maintains that they do have representative value, and offers as proof their tendency to present "purer and more coherent patterns of ideas than occur in the vast majority of autobiographies" (13). Here the analysis would have benefited much from considering the ways that "ideal-types"--or, in a different vocabulary, master narratives--do less to reflect majority consensus than to perform it. The absence of such a consideration is especially problematic in light of Bjorklund's data pool: the autobiographical canon as codified more than fifteen years ago in bibliographies from 1976 and 1982. Only one out of every five writers in her sample is a woman, and an even smaller percentage are people of color. When she treats her four paradigms as universally applicable, then, she elides, and thus threatens to duplicate, the process by which the power imbalances that structure all cultural production present those paradigms as "pure"--that is, as neutral and natural, rather than as produced by, and in service to, those imbalances. Bjorklund is not unaware of this difficulty, of course. She explains that her goal "was to explore changes in the content of ideas about the self rather than the uses to which such ideas are put in terms of broader power relations" (171). And yet, this defense rests upon a false opposition of content and use, thus risking the entire project on the shaky supposition that there is any level at which self-constructions do not engage in power relations. [End Page 397]

A more intriguing issue, also related to Bjorklund's research design, concerns her...


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