Fictions in Autobiography: Studies in the Art of Self-Invention (Princeton Legacy Library)
Paul John Eakin
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Investigating autobiographical writing of Mary McCarthy, Henry James, Jean-Paul Sartre, Saul Friedlander, and Maxine Hong Kingston, this book argues that autobiographical truth is not a fixed but an evolving content in a process of self-creation. Further, Paul John Eakin contends, the self at the center of all autobiography is necessarily fictive. Professor Eakin shows that the autobiographical impulse is simply a special form of reflexive consciousness: from a developmental viewpoint, the autobiographical act is a mode of self-invention always practiced first in living and only eventually, and occasionally, in writing.
Originally published in 1988.
But— this little book must be true to its title. Poe correctly surmised that the lure of this model of auto biography, its appeal for the opportunist with an itch for no toriety ("STAR TELLS ALL"), is irresistible, and constantly exploited. Poe himself, however, would have none of it, be cause he believed that the psychological resistance to such a revelation was insurmountable: "No man dare write it."2 Rad ically opposed though they are about the possibility of enact ing the confessional
they do not demonstrate how the literary project accomplished this therapeutic task. We can test this view and enlarge our un derstanding of the autobiographical act by examining James's own testimony, both in the text itself and in his many letters to others about it. I. "I AT ANY RATE WATCH THE SMALL BOY DAWDLE AND GAPE AGAIN" James frequently addresses himself to the nature of the auto biographical process in which he is engaged, but his numer ous pronouncements in the text do not add up
deletions made by Lubbock, in her essay "Autobiography as Fiction: 'The Usurping Consciousness' as Hero of James's Memoirs," Twentieth Century Literature, 23 (1977), 242-44. As her title sug gests, Tintner regards Λ Small Boy and Notes as examples of "a new kind of 'experimental' novel" (239). HENRY JAMES have been led to expect earlier on. As Bosanquet pointed out, "an entire volume of memories [A Small Boy] was finished be fore bringing William to an age for writing letters,"22 and no
case the autobiographer is an established writer of fiction re calling in a series of sketches that look very much like short stories the truth about a self she portrays as a liar. McCarthy herself dramatizes the ambiguity of the fiction writer turned autobiographer when she observes of one of the chapters of her "memoirs," "This is an example of iStorytelling'; I arranged actual events so as to make 'a good story' out of them. It is hard to overcome this temptation if you are in the habit of
ache of my afternoon with that inward inter pretation of it, I felt the latter—or rather doubtless sim ply the entire affair—absolutely overarched by the majes tic manner in which the distress of our return drew out into the lucid charm of the night. To which I must fur- HENRY JAMES ther add that the hour seemed, by some wondrous secret, to know itself marked and charged and unforgettable— hinting so in its very own terms of cool beauty at some thing portentous in it, an exquisite claim