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Reviewed by:
  • American Autobiography by Rachel McLennan
  • William Boelhower (bio)
Rachel McLennan. American Autobiography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2013. BAAS Paperbacks. 161pp. ISBN 978-0748644605, £17.56.

Rachael McLennan, who teaches in the School of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, provides full discussions of a good fifteen “American” autobiographies, and cites in passing many more. Contemporaneously, she carries on a lively and often contentious conversation with the major scholars who have written on her mostly canonic and always prominent selection of works, which efficiently covers the historical peaks (but not the crowded valleys) of the genre: Mary Rowlandson, Benjamin Franklin, Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, Maxine Hong Kingston, Art Spiegelman, Anatole Broyard, Lyn Hejinian, Lucy Grealy, and Lance Armstrong. [End Page 397] McLennan also uses this “national” genealogy to cover the full range of issues and features that identify autobiography as a recognizable, albeit volatile, text-type. Her gender-sensitive discussions are consistently cogent, comprehensive, pointed, and often feisty. She obviously has mastered her subject matter and writes clearly and well. I highly recommend the book for both students and scholars of the genre.

That said, McLennan makes an overall claim that is as important as it is unsustainable: “This textbook aims to provide students with a comprehensive and informative guide to the history and importance of autobiographical writing in America” (20). The author insists that no textbook of American autobiography exists—“until now” (18)—and this state of affairs has led to a “critical impasse” which she aims to remove. Surely, she means British students (or students outside the United States), for her “textbook” is sponsored—or commissioned (we do not know)—by the British Association of American Studies and belongs to a series that has its own restrictions and requirements. Such an imposition has its advantages: the author, who lives and teaches in England, is immediately provided with a standpoint and a perspective that should generate any number of useful comparative observations. Unfortunately, McLennan does not exploit the privilege of writing about “American” autobiography from the point of view of East Anglia—thereby ignoring that a view is always from a point. Still, the problematic mission of writing a textbook remains.

McLennan approaches her pedagogical challenge by trying to define what autobiography is, and as she goes along, she admits that she is dealing with more of an ongoing problematic than a problem that can be laid to rest. Her rewarding tug of war with the prominent US (not British or European) critics of autobiography finds its animus here. In the end, her view of the genre rejects a rigid morphology for a makeshift topology of singular historical descriptions, although there remains the metahistorical presence of American exceptionalism and that hyperborean category “Western, white male” that, McLennan notes, is rooted in the Enlightenment and conditions the figurative outcomes of most US autobiographies, male and female. Had she dipped back further, to hagiography, McLennan would have found a rich literary tradition that accommodates the lives of many exemplary women, and this might have led her to mention the heroic and extremely productive lives of Frances Xavier Cabrini, Katharine Drexel, and Dorothy Day, to name a few. Although the author sets out with a definitional approach to her genre as a central highway to what she means by “textbook,” along the way of her Introduction and four chapters she actually provides a very convincing constellation of ambiental questions and abiding challenges that keep autobiography [End Page 398] (and life writing in general) from dissolving into its neighboring literary modes and systems.

Among other things, McLennan considers Philippe Lejeune’s influential notion of the autobiographical pact, but only to contend with its now discredited qualifications. For example, she substitutes ethical for legal pact and notes that not even the use of an author’s proper name is enough to shore up referential verifiability and truth-telling. Instead, McLennan prefers Leigh Gilmore’s notion of autobiographics, especially for contemporary life writing, but on her own terms and with a different sense of the field and history of application. In seeking to forestall the naïve tendency to confuse self, life...