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Biography 23.2 (2000) 393-396

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Barbara Frey Waxman. To Live at the Center of the Moment: Literary Auto-biographies of Aging. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997. 185 pp. ISBN 0-8139-1757-3, $36.50.

"It is my contention," writes Barbara Frey Waxman, in the introduction to To Live at the Center of the Moment: Literary Autobiographies of Aging, "that autobiographies of aging and literary criticism's readings of these autobiographies can transform our fear of aging and our wariness of elders" (2). Waxman's earlier From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature (1992) considers representations of aging in the novel. In this new study she discusses autobiographical writing--including journals, memoirs, and diaries--written both by middle-aged [End Page 393] writers testing the waters of late life, and by mature writers navigating from the vantage point of their sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. In particular, Waxman contemplates what she calls "literary autobiographies," texts in which established writers render the experience of aging. She assumes such autobiographies will capitalize upon the resources of literariness, including improvisations with forms of life writing, "literary themes and other uses of language," and techniques such as character description, flashes forward and back, "the interweaving of dialogic voices," and the "unique imbrications of imagery about the aging body, mind, and soul that reinvent our ways of perceiving elders" (14).

Waxman grounds her approach to autobiographies of aging upon several theoretical perspectives. She builds her hope that these autobiographies will expose the stereotypes of aging that undergird ageism on reader-response theories which argue that powerful texts have the power to transform their readers. Analyses of the dynamics of oppression--from the perspectives of feminists, race theorists, sociologists, and cultural historians of aging--inform Waxman's understanding of ageism. The writers she discusses challenge this form of oppression with tales of their own lives and those of older friends, family members, and mentors. Kathleen Woodward's compelling psychoanalytic analysis of the social and psychic construction of aging (argued in many articles as well as her own book) guides Waxman's search for writers' unfolding sense of an aging self. Most ingeniously, Waxman invokes Mikhail Bahktin's concept of heteroglossia--the many and sometimes competing "voices" that Bahktin perceives as a defining constituent of fiction--to illuminate the multi-vocal quality of these autobiographies. Here, attending to the texts' heteroglossia enables readers to eavesdrop on the tensions and accommodations required by the often overlooked differences marking late life: intergenerational struggles; the distinctions sociologists mark as young-old, old, old-old, and oldest-old; discord among members of a single generation; tensions prompted when those of the same age do not share gender, color, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, or the same degree of health or memory; and internalized conflicts about aging within any given individual.

Following the introduction, the book is divided into four chapters. Each chapter elaborates recurring themes in autobiographies of aging by juxtaposing two or more texts. Chapter 1, "Elderly Parents Seen through Middle-Aged Children's Eyes," compares two "biographies" which melt into autobiography as each writer describes a parent's struggle with a devastating disease. Madeleine L'Engle's The Summer of the Great-Grandmother (1974) recounts the year in which she cared for her mother through the last [End Page 394] stages of Alzheimer's Disease. Philip Roth's Patrimony (1991) is a son's tribute to his father, who fights to live richly through the terminal stages of cancer. Waxman shows how each "biography" becomes an autobiography which details the adult child's fears of aging and loss when the conventional behaviors of parent and child give way to the necessities of care-taking. In particular, these authors generate narratives from childhood which keep the midlife parent alive in memory even as the writer mourns the elderly parent's frailty.

In powerful contrast, the voices of older people themselves resoundingly emerge in the next chapter, "The Passage to Seventy." The book's title is taken from May Sarton's...