English R1A

Reading and Composition: �Self as Art, Self as History: The Western Tradition of Autobiography�

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
8 Fall 2006 Eleanor Johnson
TTh 9:30-11 204 Wheeler

Other Readings and Media

"Diana Hacker. Rules for Writers. Available online: http://www.dianahacker.com/rules/

Strunk and White. Elements of Style. Available online: http://www.bartleby.com/141/

Primary Texts: (chronological by date of composition and order of in-class lection)

Augustine, Confessions (5th century) Available online: www.ccel.org/a/augustine/confessions/confessions.html Excerpts.

Peter Abelard, Story of my Misfortunes (11th century) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/abelard-histcal.html

Abelard and Heloise, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. (11th century) Trans. Betty Radice. Penguin Books, 2003. Excerpts.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, long version and short version (14 th century). Trans. Elizabeth Spearing. Intro A. C. Spearing. Penguin Classics, 1998.

Margery Kempe The Book of Margery Kempe. (14th century) Trans. Barry Windeatt. Penguin Classics, 1994.

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists (16th century) Trans. George Bull. Penguin, 1971. Excerpts.

Benvenuto Cellini, Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (16th century) Trans. George Bull. Penguin, 1998. Excerpts.

Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Pepys (17th century) Available online: pepysdiary.com. Excerpts.

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (19th century) Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1973. Excerpts.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (early 20th) Penguin, 2003, 1992.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (20th) Harper Collins, 1996.

Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate (late 20th) New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul (21st) New York: Knopf, 2005."


"In the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo wrote his Confessions, arguably the most significant and foundational autobiography in the Western tradition. In this work, he represents the act of making an autobiography as a quest for self and a quest for God: �Search for your true self; he who seeks shall find himself in God.� Confession, Augustine suggests, is all about the self and its relationship to God. To search oneself and make a narrative of one�s own life is a revelatory process: seek thy story, and ye shall find truth and God.

But written confession, such as Augustine�s own Confessions, evidently goes beyond this private, revelatory, sacred act of self-examination. Augustine�s text, after all, was written in part as an exemplary text, meant to inspire and instruct others in how they should make their own confessional narratives. The notion of the private, confessional, or revelatory autobiography is exposed as, in part, a rhetorical device.

So, what is autobiography�fact, fiction, truth, rhetoric, or somewhere in between? Put otherwise, are autobiographies art or history? What does it mean �to write the self?� When we read autobiographies, do we achieve the kind of intimacy with a text and its creator that the idea of �the intentional fallacy� warns us we must not hope for? Are autobiographies simply �life stories,� or are they, at the very least, recreations and reimaginations of a past era? To answer these questions, we will scrutinize the forms and themes of autobiographies, assessing not only what past they choose to represent (and what they might be omitting) but also how they choose to represent that past. Do they integrate history and politics, or exclude them?

In addition, we will assess how the genre of autobiography has changed across a dozen or so centuries and several continents. We will assess whether it is useful to think of autobiography in discrete sub-genres�confession, polemic, exemplary text, history of a place, archival record, artistic manifesto, or story�whether there is some common impulse in all autobiographies, or whether there are general trends in the genre, shifts over time.

We will gain traction in this diachronic and pan-Western wash of self-writings in part by examining autobiographies in self-forming groups. For example, to situate philosopher Peter Abelard�s autobiography, we will read not only Story of my Misfortunes, but also the letters exchanged between him and the woman he identifies as the source of his �misfortunes,� and some of the more heated correspondences he had with contemporary philosophers.

Later we will read Julian of Norwich�s earlier, shorter retelling of her mystical Visions, and then compare that with her massive revision and elaboration of them, undertaken 30 years later. We will then turn to read Margery of Kempe�s story of her own mystical experiences, including an homage to an earlier female mystic autobiographer, none other than Julian herself.

Turning toward the visual arts, we will then read two quasi-archival, quasi-autobiographical accounts of the great flourishing of art in Renaissance Italy, to examine how each author chooses to situate himself in his narrative practice, as well as in the �real-time history� that he narrates. From the Renaissance, we will move into more �modern� feeling texts, and analyze how they embody and/or problematize autobiographical conventions we have encountered in our earlier texts.

Since writing is always in part a conscious self-representation, I wanted to orient this class around texts that bring that reality to the foreground. As we practice our literary critical thinking on these texts, and transform those critical thoughts into writing, I want to keep a partial focus on how any textual production�including a critical paper written for an English class�includes an element of self-representation, conscious authorial self-positioning, or claims for personal authority. I want to use our observations about autobiographies� awareness of their audiences, historical circumstances, narrative goals, and rhetorical objectives to inform and complicate our own understanding of our writerly identities, as well as our sense of exactly what �self-writing� is about in literary history.

Writing assignments for the course will consist of weekly short papers from 2-4 pages in length, based upon close readings of the primary text we�re examining for the week. Each student must select three of those papers to revise, and must come to see me in office hours before undertaking each revision. The papers need not always (though most should) be literary critical papers; it is also acceptable to write creative responses to the pieces we read for class (we will talk more about this at the beginning of the semester.) From these writing exercises, we will learn how to respond critically to literary texts, how to formulate theses, how to develop arguments, and how to begin the process of developing writerly style. "

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