ENG 624: American Autobiography
“I am a freak in secondhand velour, a leper who uses L'Oréal Anti-sticky Mega Gel. I am rootless, ripped from all foundations, an orphan raising an orphan and wanting to take away everything there is and replace it with stuff I've made.”
This course will survey provocative works in one of our country’s favorite genres. We seem to thrive on self-help books and the Enlightenment tradition of human perfectibility. From the moment Benjamin Franklin delineated the contours of his own bootstraps and how he had climbed them, we have been sold on letting our famous and infamous tell us their stories and taking from those narratives how then we too might choose to live. Because we are English majors and felicitous prose style matters to us, we will look only at autobiographical works by canonical writers: Franklin’s Autobiography (1790), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1955), Flannery O’Connor’s The Habit of Being (1979), John Updike’s Self-Consciousness (1989), and Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000).
Two good options are available to us. First, we can simply survey the extensive list above and drum up scholarly business toward your seminar papers from the usual sound offerings on the MLA International Bibliography; second, we can choose to read fewer primary texts in this genre in order to leave us time to work in its nearest neighbor: biography—for example, Henry Salt’s 1890 biography of Thoreau along with Walden; Paul Brody’s Hemingway in Paris (2014) along with A Moveable Feast; Frances Kiernan’s Seeing Mary Plain (2000) along with Memories; Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life (2009) along with Habit; and / or Adam Begley’s Updike (2014) along with Self-Consciousness. We may also opt for an extensive unit on the text / context of Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1975). Option B will also involve purchase and study of Paul John Eakins’s Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (1989).
Those who sign on early for the course are invited to have input into these options. We will not read more than five or six main texts. Class meetings will consist of lively discussions / debates about interpreting what we have experienced, based on close reading and annotating of the primary text and on critical sources that we will share responsibility for finding and adding to the mix. Written work will include short papers on half or so of the primary texts (by turns), a seminar paper fully researched and then presented to the group, and one or more opportunities for substantial autobiographical writing of our own. The final exam will be quote identifications and an essay.