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prospectus

We missed you at our meeting, Becky (and btw, my comments on your wonderful paper are forthcoming). As I mentioned to the DaWGs present, I'm hoping to get some feedback on my prospectus. The version I'll post here is in process--I don't yet think it does a good enough job positioning my project in a big-picture sense, and I'm still struggling to make the chapter descriptions coherent while keeping them brief (I have a longer version, but I want to try to nail a short version). Anyway, any general feedback is welcome. Also, I'm planning on starting with the "mock autobiographies" chapter. I've been thinking lately about Samuel Ornitz' *Haunch, Paunch, and Jowl*, Johnson's *Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man*, and Edith Eaton's *Me* (which I wrote about in my exam). But I'm trying to collect as many titles as I can that fit into this category--books published in the early 20thc AS autobiographies that in fact aren't, and that use the genre to think about/trouble/undermine ideas about race/ethnicity/class. Oddly, there seem to be a lot of them. If you know of any, please let me know! Also, I still want to tweak my title, as it doesn't really reflect the whole project (i.e. the connections I make to contemp. pedagogy). Suggestions welcome. Okay, sorry for the long post:

Circulating Selves: Identity, Autobiography, and Popular Reading in the Early Twentieth Century
This dissertation examines a wide range of autobiographical texts from early twentieth-century America to consider the ways in which autobiographical writing—intimately tied to socially-defined concepts of personhood such as race, ethnicity, and class—impacted a burgeoning middle-class readership in a period when ideas about identity were in great flux. Popular writers who narrated their lives from cultural locations outside of their middle-class readership faced a unique set of circumstances linked to changing concepts of cultural difference and developments in the technology of mass culture; their narrated lives resonated with readers in new ways that had significant implications for how those readers conceived of themselves in relation to others. Furthermore, this history of autobiography illuminates the unrecognized significance of the autobiographical in contemporary debates surrounding multiculturalism and literary studies. This study thus contributes to ongoing conversations that have attempted to enlarge our understanding of the full range of literary production and consumption of the modernist era through an examination of popular or “middlebrow? texts, while also drawing new connections between the history of publication and contemporary literary pedagogy.
The subfield of autobiography studies has exploded in recent decades. However, it has been saturated by a methodological focus on narrative analysis—that is, an examination of the structure and interaction of various elements within a narrative work as a means to consider how a person or life is textually constructed through autobiography. My project draws on theoretical developments linking autobiography to psychic subjectivity and political citizenship, but it goes further to broaden the study of autobiography from an exclusive focus on primary texts to include the material history surrounding those texts (publication history, author interviews, reviews, correspondence, etc.), thereby situating authors and works in the context of their contemporary readerships. This historical context is particularly significant because it allows for a consideration of how the function of genre, as an unstable system of classification, changes over time and across different cultural milieus: I ask, how has autobiography, as produced and circulated through a wide range of cultural mediums, facilitated the production of the middle-class citizen-subject at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? By bringing into conversation autobiography theory and a historical analysis of popular writing, I highlight the often-ignored significance of authorship as a public role embedded in institutions and reading as a social practice linked to the circulation and reception of texts; thus, this study also contributes to the emerging field of the history of the book.
Chapters one, two, and three examine autobiographical texts as they appeared in a wide range of venues in the early twentieth century. Chapter one focuses on autobiographical sketches and serialized autobiographies from mass magazines such as Munsey’s, The Independent, and Harper’s Monthly, which engaged (and in fact, helped shape) readers from an emerging middle class who were attempting to fix their bearings in the fluid social space of the fin de siécle. I argue that the ideological work performed by the magazines’ frequent inclusion of memoirs, reminiscences—not only by well-known politicians or literary figures, but also by immigrants, workers, and others whose lives were foreign to the magazines’ middle-class readership—informed and was informed by larger concepts of citizenship, selfhood, and an emerging ideology of consumerism. Chapter two examines popular novels that simultaneously destabilized conceptions of both genre and identity through variations of what I call “autobiographical passing?—the use of the generic conventions of traditional autobiography to explore newly malleable concepts of identity. I examine the reception and circulation of work by writers like Samuel Ornitz, James Weldon Johnson, and Edith Eaton, whose mock autobiographies reveal and challenge expectations for how both genre and identity function. Chapter three examines texts published for audiences more specialized than that of mass magazines and popular books. Autobiographical narratives were often collected and circulated by unions, ethnic newspapers, and other organizations operating outside of mainstream publishing apparatus. These texts provide an interesting counterpoint to those published for mass consumption, and the narrative comparisons they invite illuminate the imbrication of autobiographical practices and questions of audience and circulation.
Having examined a range of autobiographical texts and their circulation in the early twentieth century, chapter four links these findings to the contemporary debates surrounding multiculturalism and literary pedagogy. If, as many argue, over the course of the twentieth century the University came to claim the cultural authority that once belonged to publishers and literary critics, then we might see the contemporary literature classroom and its curriculum as a locus for the creation of middle-class reading practices. In that sense, literary education plays a primary role in setting up expectations of how texts should function within a social field. I argue that in the age of multiculturalism, the autobiographical has taken on a significance both more central and more unrecognized than ever before, as authors increasingly (and problematically) come to stand in as representatives of marginalized social groups.

Comments

You should title this chapter "Grand Theft Auto." Just a suggestion. Stolen selves.

Wow! Thanks, Chris.

I'll respond to the ideas that "XCM was 'too subversive to be presented as fiction'" and "the position from which someone can create fictions - lies - is a position of power":

I wonder if dealing in 'lies' is powerful in a capitalist culture because it is a form of speculation. Is critiquing racism more subversive in fiction than in autobiography because the former suggests imagining an alternative reality, a different future, while the latter is read (erroneously) as only exposing, by reporting, the way things are? One definition of "speculation" is: "The conjectural anticipation of something" (OED). If XCM were received as fiction, would it, then, anticipate further/farther transgressions of "the color line"? Perhaps readers assume that fiction requires more analytical power than autobiography; it amounts to seeing into things, forming "a conclusion, opinion, view, or series of these, reached by abstract or hypothetical reasoning" (OED)-- i.e., to thinking in the highest order of rationality. But, returning to capitalism (or, perhaps I've never left it), is abstract thinking only powerful because it is analogous to money/the market-- because it is speculation as "the action or practice of buying and selling goods, land, stocks and shares, etc., in order to profit by the rise or fall in the market value, as distinct from regular trading or investment; engagement in any business enterprise or transaction of a venturesome or risky nature, but offering the chance of great or unusual gain" (OED)? Perhaps this illuminates the full significance of Linda Brent's exercising "the faculty of sight; the action, or an act, of seeing, viewing, or looking on or at" (OED) others through a peephole while trapped inside her grandmother's attic, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Through this act of "speculation," Jacobs asserts her power. Perhaps when readers question the veracity of this part of Brent's testimony, they unwittingly grant Jacobs the power of fiction. Perhaps Jacobs used this tactic quite deliberately. Perhaps readers in fact recognize that Jacobs is, here, writing with real (i.e., fictive) authority, and this is why some readers (e.g., some of my students) respond so negatively to this aspect of the text; it radically disturbs the social order at its foundation.

I'm going to go ahead and agree with Becky and be psyched about your emphasis on fake autobiographies. I was considering, for a brief while, doing my dissertation on literary HOAXES - (a fellow named MacPherson wrote a bunch of poems in the 18th century and pretended they were the discovered works of Ossian, a 3rd century bard ...Alan Sokal's "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" appeared in the "Social Text" journal - it was intended as a joke to expose the nonsense of poststructuralist theory ... I was lead down this road thanks to Nabokov's Pale Fire, a meditation on literary influence and STEALING, the title's an allusion to Shakespeare re: the moon's 'pale fire' ganked from the sun]. In terms of autobiography, think of how your fin de siecle examples resonate with recent controversies over Oprah-disgraced James Frye or even the veracity of Dave Eggers pomo-memoir. And the contempo marketplace ... is there genealogical work to be done on the fascination with REALITY fictions?

But it was around this time and for these reasons that I was drawn to JW Johnson's "Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man." And I thought about it on a very similar frequency as the one your project seems to be on, especially regarding textual 'passing' and the history of production / publication / marketing / reception. When Johnson published his "REAL" autobiography (John Wright likes to break it down etym. - "Self / Life / Writing" ... built-in connections to subjectivity / introSPECTION, ever since Augustine's "Confessions") titled ALONG THIS WAY in 1933, some people thought it was a 'sequel' to XCM. Though JWJ had written it in part to come clean and say 'no this is my REAL life, he seemed more than happy to leave some of the borders between the novel and the memoir porous, as certain passages appear almost VERBATIM in ATW as they had appeared in XCM.

One thing that really compelled my thinking was the suggestion of one critic that XCM was "too subversive to be presented as fiction" (versions, "sub"-versions, subversions). Why would it be that these things, if they were true, would be MORE palatable to a white reading audience? I think that the position from which someone can create fictions - lies - is a position of power. And positioning is key to JWJ's project here ... to pass is to be able to go in the front or the back door (and in fact he benefitted from the book's release as autobiography in 1912 and then revised his position and benefitted from its release AS A NOVEL during the Harlem Renaissance, when it was safe for a black man to be outed as an avant-garde MODERNIST). Historically, black autobiographies had sold (in the form of slave narrative or even, closer to JWJ, DuBois' sociological autobiography, SOULS of BLACK FOLK) and novels not so much. And the slave narrative in particular, with it's prefatory apparatus designed to establish it's truth as verified / authenticated by whites, made black writing mere testimony ... any invention / creativity would be toxic. So anyway, part of Johnson's project, I think, was to critique the readerly assumption that a black man would not be capable of INVENTING such a tale, only of recounting it. Though this is extremely complicated by Johnson's own interests with regard to reputation and sales, as well as his personal sympathy toward (and sometimes similarity to) the XCM. But I'm a-ramblin. More to say. Swung a bit wild here perhaps.

Hi Jessie,

Thanks so much for posting your prospectus, this is truly a fascinating project. I *love* that you’re examining these ‘false’ autobiographies, you’ve really discovered something interesting. I’m especially intrigued by your examination of ‘how those readers conceived of themselves in relation to others’ as well as the ‘passing’ issue—perhaps because of my obsession with clothing, and the role clothes play in passing. The whole question of what is ‘false’ and what is ‘true’ is so interesting and relevant, I wonder if you’ve read anything on drag culture that might relate to your concerns here, maybe Judith Halberstam? I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know who Samuel Ornitz is, but I’m going to go read his book immediately, thanks for introducing it to me! I think this prospectus is really good as it stands—the chapter outlines are clear, and you do a great job of explaining the contexts and approaches you’ll be taking in your diss.

My comments here are mainly issues that I’m curious to learn more about. I agree with Lauren that it would useful to hear more about the consumerism issue. I’m also wondering about the specific types of mass-culture technology that you will be considering in your project. As someone who is not an expert on reading practices and the history of the book, I am somewhat uncertain about the exact connections you are making in these areas (I don’t think you need to adjust your language here, but it might be something to think about if you need to present your project to those not in your area of expertise).

The main question I had was about how exactly you are relating the first three chapters to the fourth chapter. I find this link between today’s classroom and the publishing practices of a hundred years ago quite compelling—how, as you say, the ‘history of autobiography illuminates the unrecognized significance of the autobiographical in contemporary debates surrounding multiculturalism and literary studies.’ I’m not exactly sure, though, what this connection between multiculturalism and early-20th c. autobiography looks like. Will you focus your study of this dynamic on authors-as-representatives, as you suggest in the last sentence? Or the University-as-publisher? Or will you examine identity politics and life-writing? I wonder if it might be useful to sketch out your definition of ‘the autobiographical,’ as your linking of these autobiographies with contemporary multiculturalism seems to disrupt and rethink this term.

I look forward to reading more of what you’re working on!

Becky

Jessie,

This is great! (I mean it when I say it!) It's clear, it's complicated, and the level of detail seems right on. The differences between the chapters make the research sound ground breaking in the field of autobiographical studies, interesting and relevant to scholars of lit and culture generally, and, esp with chapter four, important to readers outside the field. As a whole, the project sounds theoretically sophisticated and fun! I think you do very well giving a sense of the big picture. Though this picture focuses on academia, I get the sense that it presents both an inside and outside perspective on the University. Perhaps one question to address: will you discuss other than post-secondary pedagogy in Chapter 4? Do community and liberal arts colleges fit into the picture?
It seems to me that, in addition to moving beyond the reigning "focus on narrative analysis," you argue that autobiography is bound to "an emerging ideology of consumerism," which extends the field theoretically, as well as methodologically. Question: how does consumerism make selves more malleable, exactly? Are any other ideologies working to produce such selves and the genre of autobiography, as well, or is your take on these developments through the lens of consumerism? I think that consumerism is your emphasis, in which case your title seems right on. But perhaps more explicitly arguing that autobiographical selves and texts happen because of consumerism would bring another big picture into focus. Going back to your methodology: does your argument about consumerism explain your turn to material history?
However, there seem to be more concerns in your project than just consumerism: in particular, "the production of the middle-class citizen-subject" and "significance of authorship as a public role embedded in institutions and reading as a social practice linked to the circulation and reception of texts." Question: how do lit theory on citizenship and the public sphere and scholarship on the history of the book discuss consumerism?
Editing suggestion: perhaps omit stating that in various ways the project covers a "wide range." You clearly show this, so perhaps telling it is unnecessary.
Research suggestion: The Century Magazine may be a good resource for more primary, turn of the 20th-c texts. The first article in the issue that features Thomas Dimmock's letter on Poe's daguerreotype is called "The Real Edwin Booth," written by his daughter-- one of those popular "reminiscences" on literary figures that you mention, above.
Finally, reading your prospectus reminded me that I know someone from grad school at IU who is working in autobiographical studies. Here's a link about her:

http://www.tulane.edu/~english/Faculty/EnglishFacultyVictoriaElmwood.htm

Her research looks different from yours in many ways, including her period. She turns to film/Hollywood, not pedagogy/University, but her work might interest you and vice versa. Plus, she's a fun person!