Krishna Barua
Dept.of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.
We begin here at a unique literary form -- the
most personal branch of literature–
 autobiography offers its close readers a complex
set of interpretive problems written in the first
person singular “I”, who is both subject and
object of the narrative.
 Autobiography articulates itself in a variety of
forms , not only in diaries, testimonies, journals,
letters, and memoirs but also in poetry, painting,
film, and more recently in the personal webpage,
chat rooms and emails.
Autobiography is most commonly defined as “the
biography of a person narrated by that person”,
or “the story of a person's life as told by him or
herself .” Autobiography is not therefore just the
story of a life; it is the recreation or the discovery
of one. Often, of course, autobiography is merely
a collection of well-rehearsed anecdotes; but,
intelligently written, it is the revelation, to the
reader and the writer, of the writer's conception
of the life he or she has lived. Simply put,
autobiography is a reckoning !
The difference between biography of course, is
point of view: an autobiography is from the
viewpoint of its subject. Biographers generally
rely on a wide variety of documents and
viewpoints; an autobiography may be based
entirely on the writer's memory.
 In a sense, there is a continuous relationship
between writing about oneself and writing about
another. There is therefore a play between
literary fiction and autobiography on the one
hand and historical fact and biography on the
Let us see what the critics say about this genre
 an “ideal” autobiography, according to Buckley
(1984), is one which takes a retrospective glance
at the life and personality of a person, one in
which the facts carry less importance than the
veracity and profundity of the experience.
 Roy Pascal's analysis is that “ The ‘true’
autobiography, tells us not merely of
remembered deeds and thoughts, but is for both
author and reader "a spiritual experiment, a
voyage of dis-covery."
To what extent could the life of a human being be coherent
and how much coherence could one expect from a genre
which purports to report the life story of an individual?
What is the borderline between fact and fiction in personal
writings and how does the author project reality in his
What criteria does the autobiographer use to select events
in his personal life and how much documentary accuracy
does the reader expect from an autobiographer?
What are the roles of rhetoric, authenticity and imagery in
the personal writings?
How much freedom can an editor take when selecting,
rearranging or editing an autobiography?
We can trace the growth of autobiography from
the Middle Ages, its mode of expression as a
distinct history of the human mind and renewing
of individuality .The origin of the genre goes
back to post-Homeric Greece and works by
Hesiod and Plato (Epistle 7) and Isocrates,
developed in the Roman world in Ovid's
autobiographical poems, Cicero's Brutus Marcus
aurelis’s meditations(180 C) and Julius caesar’s
commentaries It was around circa 43. That St
Augustine's Confessions proved a “brilliantly
successful landmark” (George Gusdrof ) as the
first Western autobiography.
In oriental and Byzantine literature, as well as
records of Babylonian ,Egyptian and Assyrian
kings there were personal narratives accounts
of their own empires. Extended records of
Accouoli’s (1364) with those of Chines ssu-ma
Chien or Stephanos Sachlikis and Babar’s
memoirs of the sixteenth century did follow
some elements of the life narrative.But it
remains a fact that autobiography is essentially
European in origin.
Scarce in the Middle Ages, the genre flourished in
the Renaissance, inspired by antiquity (St.
Augustine's Confessions and Julius Caesar's
Commentaries) as well as by the humanist ambition
of celebrating intelligence (Cellini and Geronimo
Cardano) and of painting, through one's individual
life, "the entire human condition" (Montaigne).
Though early modern men and women could hold
the Christian belief that the "self is despicable"
(Pascal), they would set out to recount their life
moved by spiritual reasons (Teresa of Avila )or the
need to illustrate their intellectual trajectory (René
writing about the self was to be found in the
essay form (Montaigne's enormously
influential Essays [1580, 1588]); Following this
historical landscape,Seventeenth century
England witnessed an extraordinary outpouring
of spiritual memoirs aristocratic memoirs—
sometimes even written in the third person,
in journals such as the Diary of Samuel
Pepys, or in letters.
 John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of
Sinners (1666) which took its form from the
experience of spiritual conversion, was both
didactic and exemplary.
In personal memoirs, widely popular among the
seventeenth-century French aristocracy, writing
about the self stemmed from the wish to bear
witness to history because of the authors' high
political rank (La Rochefoucauld, Cardinal de
Richelieu), because of their proximity to power or,
conversely, due to imprisonment that prompted selfexamination .
presented the author as an intrinsically public,
political being, and said little about his or her more
intimate self. They had no literary pretensions and
sought mainly to redress history.
Some other aspects, however, were more
characteristic of autobiography:
 a wish to relive one's past,
 to give sense to one's life,
 a pleasure felt in writing that often comes
as a surprise to the author,
 finally the presence of the genre's defining
feature, what Philippe Lejeune calls the
"autobiographical pact" made with the
reader in which the promise to tell the
truth is sealed by the author's name and
In the eighteenth century, autobiography was one of the
highest forms of literary art.
The English word “autobiography”, however, was first
coined when the genre began to flourish in the late
eighteenth century in Europe and North America, with the
birth of the Romantic fascination with the complex
individual soul and the interaction of nature with social
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1766–1770),
which is considered the first autobiography in the
modern sense, Benjamin Franklin's Autiobiography
(1784), Fredrick Douglass' narrative, Casanova's Histoire
de ma fuite des prisons de Venise (1788) and Gibbon's
Memoirs (1796 ).
Fiction was deemed unworthy, while narration of
facts was aesthetically and philosophically
pleasing. Rousseau's Confessions, a work marked
by extensive use of emotional rhetoric ushering
in a radical internalization of personal identity :
 “I have begun on a work which is without
precedent, whose accomplishment will have no
imitator. I propose to set before my fellow-mortals
a man in all the truth of nature; and this man
shall be myself..”
The 19th century saw a gradual alignment of autobiography with
the value accorded to author ship. In 1799, William Wordsworth
began writing his long autobiographical poem The Prelude which
was a poetic reflection on his own sense of his poetic journey.
The poem, revised numerous times, marks the birth of a new
genre of poetry preceding “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman,
and autobiographical novels such as Dickens' David Copperfield.
While John Henry Newman’s autobiography Apologia pro vita
sua (1864) became the chief authority of literary confession ,
Montaigne's essays, the diaries of John Evelyn(1816) , Samuel
Pepys’(1893-1899) and James Boswell were published in the
same century.
James Olney (1980) has noted the appeal of
autobiography in the 19th century enabled an
escape from the closed ground of “intertextual
play” and the aesthetic dimensions of fiction
towards the historical, socio -cultural and
 But Mazlish thinks that autobiography is a
literary genre “produced by romanticism, which
offers us a portrait, from the point of view of the
present, of the formation of an individual past,
achieved through introspection and the memory,
and in which the I appears as an entity in
development ‘(1970, 28)
“Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up
Fostered alike by beauty and by fear:”
William Wordsworth The Prelude
What formal features are shared by works like St.
Augustine's Confessions, John Bunyan's Grace Abounding
to the Chief of Sinners, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe's
Dichtung and Wahrheit, William Wordsworth's The
Prelude, Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Henry Adams's
The Education of Henry Adams and Henry David
Thoreau's Walden ?
The literature of the self has a long tradition in America;
 the Emersonian "I," declaring the primacy of subjective
consciousness, was a vigorous 19th-century theme, nowhere
more pronounced than in Whitman's "Song of Myself." The
hunger for authenticity found expression in stories that were
realistic but fictional. Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson,
Fitzgerald and Dos Passos worked close to the vein of
autobiography, drawing on the material of their own lives.
The history of American literature is a history of private
experience enacted on a public stage.
But the proliferation and multiple forms of the
autobiographical act as well as its different
functions provide further evidence of its
essentially performative nature, with its blending
of fact and fiction, memory and amnesia, the
referential and the textual, the historical
and the rhetorical. Autobiography, it appears,
did not die even after the Author was famously
deprived of his privileged status and given a
ceremonial burial. In fact,the autobiographical
impulse, or the urge to tell one's own story, seems
to have proliferated, as has the urge to read other
people's stories
The last three decades of the Twentieth century
saw the genre move from the peripheries to the
center of the literary canon, for reasons which it
may be helpful to inspect. This was a period
when criticism was dominated by poststructuralist and postmodernist theorisation of
the text as a purely textual object, a selfreferential weave of codes whose significance
could only be explained by probing of memory,its
persuasive, creative, interpretations of
 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
At all times the autobiographer means to express
a personal truth, and it is this intention that
produces results different from fiction.
“Truth is the most valuable thing that we have. Let us
economize it." Mark Twain
 Mahatma Gandhi’s An Autobiography :The Story of my
Experiments with Truth.
interpretation and reconstructions of truth as a series of
negotiations of resistance, time and memory. What drove
the transformation in Gandhi was his capacity for selfcreation or, as he termed it, his fascination with
"experiments" in living. If one looks at how Gandhi
structured his weekly reflections, and how he looks back
upon his life as a child, his years in London and South
Africa it is almost reminiscent of his past selves.
Orhan Pamuk transforms the form of autobiography
in Istanbul: Memories of a City mingling personal
memoir with cultural history
. Istanbul tells the story of the city of Istanbul through the
memory of a fifty-year old Pamuk who seeks his cultural
identity in the ruins of the city. Pamuk expresses the
melancholy of Istanbul in the concept of hüzün that is
central to Islamic culture and is cherished by the dwellers
of his city. Hüzün is a Turkish word that denotes “a state
of mind that is ultimately as life affirming as it is
negating”. This paradox of celebration in mourning is
explained by Jacques Derrida that mourning for a person
leads to the interiorisation of the other in the self so that
the other person resides within one’s body.
Traditionally, an autobiography has been a book
about the life of a person written by that person.
However, in contemporary times, the book is no
longer the sole source of dispensing information.
 The internet, which has given many people
unprecedented access to information is rivalling
what has been the traditional privilege of print
Information is freely available, and opinions can
be posted easily by anyone by various internetmeans-of-expression.
Debates are openly held in forums and comment threads of
articles. With the ease of access and publishing, many
forms of expression which earlier had existed exclusively in
print, entered the domain of the World Wide Web. Digital
media has given new dimensions to existing forms of
expression. There are a blogs, vlogs, podcasts, forums,
chatrooms, messageboards, imageboards. philosophical
speculation... basically, anything that can be possibly
Yet some autobiographies do appear under the guise of
fiction, nor by the fact that authors may design their works
to be classifiable under both genres.
These experimental texts which go counter to the rigid
norms of the genre (Borderlands [La Frontera] by Gloria
Anzaldua ,Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird
Sings (1970), show how it is possible to write
autobiography using imagination as well as experience;
Autobiography is thus hardly "factual," "unimaginative," or
even "non-fictional," for it welcomes all the devices of
skilled narration and observes few of the restrictionsaccuracy, impartiality, inclusiveness-imposed upon other
forms of historical literature.
We shall examine now how an autobiography is equally a
work of art and life, analogous to a self-portrait in painting.
Where vision and memory remain the essential controls,
time and space the central problems, reduction and
expansion the desired goals.
It also suggests a double entity, expressed in a a series of
reciprocal transactions. No longer distinctly separate, the
artist-model must alternately pose and paint.
So he works from memory as well as sight, in two levels of
time, on two planes of space, while reaching for those other
dimensions, depth and the future.
We can begin with two Renaissance paintings, both
details from larger frescoes: the self-portraits of
Raphael and Michael Angelo.
At first glance, these pictures seem quite dissimilar.
Raphael is graceful and melancholy, his face blank
except for two large and tranquil eyes.
Michaelangelo appears as a flayed skin, grotesquely
tortured, his face melting into virtual anonymity.
Yet both artists portray an idealized self epitomizing
a stage in their artistic careers: Raphael, dead at
thirty-seven, paints the unblemished purity of Youth;
while Michael-angelo, who reached eighty-nine,
depicts the inevitable corruption of Age.
In his lifetime Rembrandt painted over a hundred
self-portraits, seventy of them full studies. Viewed as
a whole, they form a serial image, like frames in a
strip of movie film
Van Gogh also painted numerous self-portraits, many
as a form of therapy. a clue to his shifting, troubled
With both artists the important element is
uncertainty-they ask themselves no consistent
questions, find no clear answers, and so continue to
revise their self-portraits. Unable to take an overview,
they create a series of tentative pictures, each more
inconclusive than the last. The artists have neither
preached nor performed; theirs is the poetic act of
continuing self-study.
Maya Angelou’s Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The autobiography becomes equally a
work of art and life!
Where vision and memory remain the
essential controls, time and space the
expansion the desired goals!
Maya Angelou’s Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
It is fitting that Angelou, should compare her
"poetic adventure" to the act of painting: ". . .
everything is part of a large canvas I am
creating, I am living beneath.“
 Like an unfinished painting, the autobiographical
series is an ongoing creation, in a form that
rejects the finality of a restricting frame. As
the world of experience widens, so does the
canvas. What distinguishes, then, Angelou's
conventional autobiographical forms is her very
denial of closure”
offers its close readers a complex set of interpretive problems.
 The "true" autobiography tells us not merely of
remembered deeds and thoughts, but is for both
author and reader "a spiritual experiment, a
voyage of discovery.”
 Pascal follows the conventional route of typing
by profession, or calling: science (Darwin, Freud),
politics (Hitler, Trotsky, Gandhi), while
admitting that each story differs according to its
author's "specific achievement."
Of paramount importance to most critics is the
autobiographer's ideology or profession, which
supposedly influenced the events and values of
his book. So the critics customarily divide
authors into separate categories and-working like
so many vocational counselors-grade them
according to religious denomination or social
class. As a result, we learn that a "simple" faith
produces a simple narrative, that a soldier writes
as a soldier, a poet always as a poet.
Coleridge tells us most writing begins with a prime
decision, an "initiative" that affects the author's
entire process of composition, telling him what to
write, when to edit, and how to unify the remainder.
The decision to write one's autobiography is at least
a strategic beginning, whether part of a master plan
or born of frustration and personal anxiety.
Northrop Frye, working back from Coleridge to
Aristotle, identifies three elements that
subsequently guide a writer's progress: mythos,
ethos, and dianoia, or action, character, and theme.
character and theme replace ethos and dianoia,
while technique represents mythos, the author's
action. In the case of autobiography, how he acts
upon the narrative often overshadows how he acts
in it.
Character, the image or
Self-Portrait. Various factors
determine that character: sense of self, of place, of
history, of motives for writing. We must carefully
distinguish this character from the author himself,
since it performs as a double persona: telling the
story as a narrator, enacting it as a protagonist.
Although these two figures are the same person,
artist and model, we may still distinguish their
essential points of separation.
They share the same name, but not the same time
and space. A narrator always knows more than his
protagonist, yet he remains faithful to the latter's
ignorance for the sake of credible suspense.
Eventually the reverse images have to merge; as past
approaches present, the protagonist's deeds should
begin to match his narrator's thoughts.
which embraces those plastic devices-style,
imagery, structure-that build a self-portrait
from its inside out." Style, then, is not
subservient to content, but is a formal
device significant in its own right. Even the
simplest stylistic choices, of tense or
person, are directly meaningful, since they
lead to larger effects, like those of metaphor
and tone.
Theme may arise from the author's general philosophy,
religious faith, or political and cultural attitudes.
His theme is personal but also representative of an era,
just as other literary works may illustrate the history
of ideas.
In fact, autobiography has an especially inclusive
thematic base, since its writers constantly grapple with
issues-love, memory, death-that appeal to a broad
reading public.
In its broadest sense, the theme of autobiography is
thematic conclusions are the clearest indication of
differences in autobiographical strategy.
These three elements-character, technique, themeoperate as continuous complements in autobiography.
Each of them relates to an isolated aspect of
composition : the writer (character), the work
(technique), and the reader (theme);
Autobiography as Oratory:
positive sense of character arises from a common
motive: to carve public monuments out of their
private lives. He is a master rhetorician, thoroughly
versed in the arts of persuasion or argument .
St. Augustine is the primary exemplar of this type of
autobiography. And Augustine has many followers
through the centuries: John Bunyan, Edward
Gibbon, Henry Adams, and Malcolm X-all men who
share a common devotion to doctrine, whether in
religion, history, or politics
Autobiography as Oratory:
 Since its purpose is didactic, his story is allegorical,
seeking to represent in a single life an idealized
pattern of human behavior where theologian and
historian dominate the narrative voice. Such a
Each man writes for his own sake, to confirm the
validity of his thesis, and also for the conversion of
others. Gibbon excludes his childhood, Bunyan and
Adams omit their marriages .The details are not
literal history but figural narration.
They give us selected aspects of a larger allegory . and
capable of any logical maneuver that serves his
Autobiography as Drama
As an author he is unpretentious and impertinent, viewing
life as a staged performance that he may attend, applaud,
or attack, just as he pleases.
Benvenuto Cellini exemplifies this strategy, in the
company of James Boswell, Benjamin Franklin, Sean
O'Casey, and William Carlos Williams, Montaigne, Pepys,
Casanova, and Mark Twain would also qualify.
histrionics over dialectics, for acting instead of exhorting.
As in drama, the function of this narrative mode is to stress
spectacle, the visible and pictorial aspects of life. Action,
not exposition, becomes the author's principal tool, so his
persona usually blurs its narrator and protagonist roles
into one.
Autobiography as Poetry
 They are a moody, unpredictable lot, strongly critical of
themselves and others, committed only to the right to
change their ideas.
 Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the premier example of this
strategy; his later followers include Henry Thoreau, Walt
Whitman, William Butler Yeats, James Agee, Wordsworth,
and Henry James could also be added.
 All are post-Romantic writers, tacitly sharing in that era's
symbolist definition of "poetry" (the expression of fleeting,
ineffable sensations),
 given to intellectual brooding and sharp critical dissent,
searching always for private discoveries, uncertain of the
proper course to follow. Yet for each man, "truth" is a major
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged
Bird Sings is not just the story of a life but
is the recreation and revelation of the
discovery of life.
 What is it that makes Maya Angelou
America's most visible black woman
autobiographer ?
Most readers feel that the poetic strategy is
autobiography's finest effort, the "voyage of
discovery" that Pascal values so highly. For no
matter how closely we peer into their self-portraits,
we can never see beyond the autobiographers'
mirrored reflections. The process is alternately
reductive and expansive; it imparts to a single
picture the force of universal implications.
Autobiography is a literary version of this curious
Is it that in constructing the
autobiographical self
Maya’s approach of collective
memory, entangles lives and
psyche with a mandalic
representation ?
Symbolizes Life,, as an interaction of cooperating opposites, the continuous process of
creation, everyday polar play of a dynamism in the eternal procreative marriage’ represented
in an abstract diagram—a key to the secret of the phenomenal mirage of the
Angelou made a deliberate attempt while writing Caged
Bird to challenge the usual structure of the autobiography
by “critiquing, changing, and expanding the genre”
Angelou recognizes that there are fictional aspects in her
life narrative when she tends to "diverge” from the
conventional notion of autobiography as truth. and
focuses on figurative and symbolic language, voice, points
of view, flashbacks and other time sequences.
 Verily , her extensive use of fiction-writing
techniques such as dialogue, and characterization,
makes one forget that it is non fiction, often
leading one to categorize the book as
autobiographical fiction.
Angelou has created a unique interpretation of the
autobiographical form as a public gesture that speaks for
an entire group of people. In doing so, she has found relief
in following the pioneers of self-exposure in "telling the
truth .” Angelou biographer Joanne M. Braxton has
insisted that Caged Bird was "perhaps the most
aesthetically pleasing" autobiography written by an
African-American woman in its era (Braxton 4) .
Fiction isn't delivering the news. Memoir is. At its best, in the
hands of a writer able to command the tools of the novelist -character, scene, plot -- the memoir can achieve unmatchable
depth and resonance.
Fiction demands that the writer invent; memoir exploits as
material the gift of lived experience. Georges Gusdorf, the
great purist, summarized his vision of autobiography in this
sentence : “No one can know better than I what I have
thought, what I have wished; I alone have the privilege of
discovering myself from the other side of the mirror”
(Gusdorf 1980, 35)
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
 the "first person singular" has become "one of the
distinguishing marks of current academic writing." The
unstable authorial "I" that came under assault in English
departments across the land during the 70's and 80's now
occupies center stage.
 Why this pull toward the anatomy of self? it reflects a
phenomenon pervasive in our culture -- people confessing
in public to an audience of voyeurs.
 Christopher Lasch famously labeled "the culture of
narcissism" has been replaced by the culture of confession.
It's a phenomenon that transcends high and low.
 Joyce Carol Oates memorably called "pathography" -biographies that dwell on the sordid excesses of their
subjects -- has yielded to "autopathography," dwelling on
the excesses of oneself.
somebody else
“If I was not myself, I would be somebody else.
But actually I am somebody else.
I have been somebody else all my life.
It’s no laughing matter going about the place
all the time being somebody else:
people mistake you; you mistake yourself.”
Jackie Kay
 APJ. Abdul Kalam Wings of Fire: An Autobiography of APJ. Abdul Kalam,
Orient Longman, 1999.
M.K.Gandhi. An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth,
Beacon Press, (Reprint) 1993.
N. Mandela. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
Tag, Back Bay Books, 1995.
C. L., Hobbs The Elements of Autobiography and Life Narratives, University
of Oklahoma, Longman, 2004.
M.L., King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., Warner Books,
.A., Hitler, Mein Kampf, Mariner Books, Reissue edition, 1998.
M. Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, New York, Bantam, 1971.
M. M., Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, M., Holquist, ( ed.) ,
Austin, U of Texas Press, 1981.
B. Franklin's Autobiography ,W. W. Norton & Company, 1985. J. J.,
Rousseau. Confessions, W. C., Mallory (Trans), 1782 (1st published),
[email protected], 2004.
A. Frank. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, 1947,(1st published),
Bantam, 1998.D.,Lama. Freedom in Exile,San Francisco, Harper, 1991.
Vincent Van Gogh .Dear Theo. 1937
Albert Schweitzer Out of My Life and Thought. 1933
Louis Sheaffer. O'Neill: Son and Playwright.1968
Maynard Solomon. Beethoven. 1977
Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Tokas. 1933
Simone de Beauvoir. All Said and Done. 1974 (Beauvoir)
Thomas De Quincey. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. 1822
Leon Edel. Henry James. 5 vols. 1953-72
Anne Frank .Diary of a Young Girl. 1952
Henry David Thoreau. Walden. 1854
John Henry Newman. Apologia pro Vita Sua. 1864
Malcolm X.The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 1964
John Stewart Mill. Autobiography. 1873
Henry Adams. The Education of Henry Adams. 1905
Thanks for Listening!

Some Principles of Autobiography