The first four essays review the major historical periods of American autobiography, placing the classic texts of American autobiographical literature from Captain John Smith to Malcolm X in the illuminating context of lesser-known contemporary narratives. Daniel B. Shea writes on colonial America, Lawrence Buell on the American Renaissance, Susanna Egan on the years after the Civil War, and Albert E. Stone on the twentieth century.
The second part of American Autobiography shows the diversity of voices, forms, audiences, and modes of identity in the literature of American autobiography. Provocative essays by William Boelhower and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong on immigrant autobiography discuss the changes in the sense of self that occur when strangers come to a strange land. Arnold Krupat writes about how American Indians conceptualize the self and about the relationship between oral and written discourse. William L. Andrews evaluates the strong body of critical theory that has grown up around African-American autobiography, showing how both the genre and its criticism have responded to contemporary historical pressures. Carol Holly explores the model of personal identity that underlies nineteenth-century women’s autobiographies, and Blanche Gelfant examines the narrative and political strategies of Emma Goldman’s autobiography, especially her use of popular romance and melodrama.
The last essay offers a more personal perspective on contemporary autobiography: a “dialogue” between Robert and Jane Coles about how they developed their method of eliciting first-person oral narratives for their famous Children of Crisis and Women of Crisis series.
These essays raise theoretical issues that are examined in Paul John Eakin’s incisive introduction: How do we define a literary genre of protean shape and perplexing cultural multiplicity? How do we approach the special problems created by documents that are both historical and literary texts, ones that pose difficult questions about truth and representation? Most important, how is the canon of American autobiography to be constructed, and how is its history to be written? Tracing that critical history, Eakin explains how changing ideas about “the mainstream” and “the marginal” have revitalized our retrospective view of American autobiography and opened up new and exciting prospects for today’s reader.