By James Olney
Professor Olney gathers jointly during this booklet the superior and most crucial writings on autobiography produced long ago decades.
Originally released in 1980.
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I suggest that a reading of Elizabeth Bruss or Michael Sprinker, of Germaine Bree or James Cox, of Barrett Mandel or Louis Renza—with due attention to style as Jean Starobinski describes it—will reveal a half-obscured, half-emergent autobiography that has been profoundly implicated in determining the particular critical or theoretical attitude being expressed. As I pointed out earlier, criticism has always found its place within the creative act of autobiography, and now writers on auto biography have reversed that proposition to bring the creative act of autobiography, clandestinely perhaps, into their criticism.
Yet the question and its obvious answer re main: Which of us does not know that he or she is offering judgment of Malcolm X's moral character in offering a presumably literary judgment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley? The writer of an autobiography is doing something other, something both less and more than creating an artifact accessible to objective, critical analysis and evaluation when he chooses to write directly about himself and his life. Autobiography, like the life it mirrors, Autobiography and the Cultural Moment 25 refuses to stay still long enough for the genre critic to fit it out with the necessary rules, laws, contracts, and pacts; it refuses, simply, to be a literary genre like any other.
Has criticism of autobiography thus come full circle? Did it will itself and its subject into existence twentyodd years ago through a belief in the reality of the self, and has it now willed itself and its subject out of existence again upon discern ing that there is no more there than, as Michael Sprinker puts it, "fictions of the self"? In her intriguing "Eye for I," Elizabeth W. Bruss adopts rather a different tactic from Sprinker's: she assumes that which he argues— that is, she takes it for granted that autobiography as we know it is at an end, and with this presumed agreement in hand she turns her attention to autobiography as we do not know it.