A Google search of the word “autobiography” gets you here. An appropriate, not just easy, place to start to explore this word (and the genre, its complicated history–particularly in American culture). [The Wikipedia entry for the word provides a useful overview.] We begin to see that “autobiography” is–perhaps as is the case with all things Google–a mix of relevant contradictions:
about the private and the public; about the personal and the commercial; about revealing the authentic individual, and making or inventing that individual; about inventing the truth; about how to sell your own story.
Yes, Google (and the most prominent and popular sites it brings to the search of the word) emphasizes that autobiography is something to be known: a how-to for becoming famous or for getting your story published or at least into words. But this, we see, takes us back to its beginnings in America: Benjamin Franklin.
One of our approaches in this course, as we explore the nonfiction art of autobiography, will be to consider the ways contemporary autobiographical works (published since the 1970s) reiterate ideas and forms and concerns from ‘classic’ American autobiographies: Ben Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Mary Rowlandson, Walt Whitman. This, if you think about it, suggests another version of the Google contradiction: what makes us unique in our American lives is the way we are like the great autobiographers that have come before us.
Another approach will be to consider autobiography as a writer, not just a reader: that is, to think about our own autobiographical lives. This will culminate in the final project, where you will write an autobiographical essay or chapter of your own–as I like to think of it, the beginnings for the larger autobiography you may well complete some day, given the space and time.
Google brings to us a world web where everyone can be famous and known in their anonymity, familiar and strange, individual linked to every other. Autobiography, we will see, beat the web to such a world. Think of Franklin and his plan or ‘scheme’ or method or art (all related terms) for how he could improve himself as a young man and–connected to this, as he tells us, and as the letter by Vaughan begging him to publish his autobiography emphasizes–how we, readers, young Americans, in need of models, can imitate his example. I think of the plan in part 2 of Franklin’s autobiography, then–particularly the way he reproduces on the pages the pages he creates (schedule, template, checklist, etc)–as a kind of technology or machine for inventing oneself by copying his lead. Franklin as Frankenstein: self-creation. Just as Franklin learns to write–and then uses the analogy of writing to elaborate how his plan works.
But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining but fell far short of it, yet I was by the endeavour a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it; as those who aim at perfect writing by imitating the engraved copies, tho’ they never reach the wished-for excellence of those copies, their hand is mended by the endeavour and is tolerable while in continues fair and legible. [p. 153, Classic American Autobiographies]
In other words, to use our words today: click here for my story of how I became uniquely who I am (worthy of this book, this website, this Google rank); and learn how you, too, can do and be the same.