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Biography 24.4 (2001) 781-805



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Coordinated Lives: Between Autobiography and Scholarship

Jeremy D. Popkin

Autobiography is usually thought of as a solitary endeavor, like crossing the ocean in a rowboat. Philippe Lejeune's well-known definition of autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the storyof his personality," in which "the author, the narrator, and the protagonist . . . must be identical," emphasized the individualism of the genre and the difficulty of conceiving of autobiography as a collaborative project ("Autobiographical Pact" 4, 5). As Lejeune continued his exploration of the genre, however, he came to realize the importance of texts that could not be fitted into this definition, such as ethnographic narrative and ghost-written celebrity memoirs. 1 Other critics, too, have come to question autobiography's "illusion of self-determination," as Paul John Eakin has called it (43), and to underline the degree to which "autobiography is an inherently social act, in that an individual's narrative is dependent on other individuals," as David McCooey has written (46). Some autobiographers themselves have also challenged the notion that a single ego must be at the center of such a text: Carolyn Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman interweaves her own story with that of her mother, and Luisa Passerini asserts that she could only give shape to her own story in conjunction with her effort to recapture the experience of the student generation of which she had been a part (174-75).

Despite these theoretical and practical efforts to relativize the autonomy of autobiographical authors and subjects, most discussion has continued to deal with texts which can be read as though they had a single dominant narrator, even if their process of composition raises problems about authorial authority and point of view, and if their content stresses the connections between the author/narrator and the other people whose lives figure in the [End Page 781] text. Other forms of collaborative autobiography also exist, however, and it is with one of them that I will concern myself here; namely, the phenomenon of autobiographical texts specifically composed for publication as part of a coordinated project, particularly when they are published in collaborative volumes. In these cases, we encounter a form of autobiography with multiple narrators, and autobiographical projects that are at the same time inner- and other-directed. Although there are examples from earlier periods and other countries, such collections appear to be one of the characteristic forms of contemporary American autobiographical writing, and especially of academic autobiography, whose rapid expansion is one of the significant aspects of our current introspective culture. 2

The idea of publishing several distinct autobiographical texts in a common framework--either as parts of a single volume, or in a series--has a long history. Robert Folkenflik cites a German volume of Selbstbiographien berühmter Männer [Selfbiographies of Famous Men], edited by David Christoph Seybold and published in 1796 (3). Felicity Nussbaum mentions a 34-volume collection issued in England from 1826 to 1834, which established "a kind of eighteenth-century canon, the first of its kind," distinguished by the heterogeneity of its contents; around the same time, several French publishers put out series of memoirs by participants in the French Revolution. 3 These were collections of texts that had been written under very different circumstances from one another, and usually published separately before they were reprinted in combination with other life stories. Since they only became parts of a collective publication through the intervention of an editor, their authors could not have been influenced by the structure of the collection in which their writings later appeared, and in many cases, the authors were dead long before their work was put into this form. 4 Such collections already pose questions about how our reading of autobiographical texts is altered when we have a number of them side by side. The original authors may or may not have been conscious of the existence of other autobiographers, and they may or may not have imagined...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 781-805
Launched on MUSE
2001-09-01
Open Access
No
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