I do not know what “autobiography” is: the genre changes with each new example. What I myself have tried to write in my three “autobiographical” books, A Walker in The City, Starting Out in the Thirties, and New York Jew, is personal history, a form of my own influenced by the personal writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. Its passion and beat come from my life in history, recorded since I was a boy in notebooks that I value not for their facts but for the surprise I attain by writing to myself and for myself. “I write for myself and strangers,” said Gertrude Stein. The strangers, dear reader, are an afterthought.
In my experience, Americans sooner or later bring any discussion around to themselves. American writers tend to project the world as a picture of themselves even when they are not writing directly about their own experience. No doubt this has much to do with the emphasis on the self in America’s ancestral Protestantism. Theology in America tends to be Protestant. The self remains the focal point of American literary thinking. From Jonathan Edwards to Hemingway, we are confronted by the primitive and unmediated self arriving alone on the American strand, then battling against opposing selves who share with him only the experience of being an American.
The deepest side of being an American is the sense of being like nothing before us in history—often enough, like no one else around us who is not immediately recognized as one of our tradition, faith, culture, profession. “What do you do, bud?” is the poignant beginning of American conversation. The question—“Who are you? What am I to expect from you?”—put into the language of history, means that I am alone in a world that was new to begin with and that still feels new to me because the experience of being so much a “self”—constantly explaining oneself and telling one’s own story—is as traditional in the greatest American writing as it is in a barroom.
What is being talked about is inevitably oneself as a creature of time and place, the common era that is the subject of history. Every American story revolving around the self, even Henry Miller as a derelict in Paris, is a story of making it against a background symbolically American. Miller made it to Paris after years of being an indistinguishable, big-city nobody. In Paris, this American nobody wrote himself up as somebody, a symbol of the free life. The point of the story—as it was for Ben Franklin arriving in Philadelphia; Emerson crossing “a bare common” in ecstasies at his newly recognized spiritual powers; Whitman nursing the helpless wounded soldiers in the Civil War hospitals; Henry Adams in awe of the dynamo at the 1900 Paris exposition; E. E. Cummings observing his fellow prisoners in The Enormous Room; Hemingway in Paris cafés recording his boyhood in Upper Michigan—is that he was making a book out of it, a great book, an exemplary tale of some initiating and original accomplishment that could have been imagined only in an American book. The background seems to say that although the creative spirit is peculiarly alone in America, it is alone with America. Here the self, the active, partisan, acquisitive self, born of society, is forever remaking itself—but not in the direction that Keats spoke of the world, as “a vale of soul-making.”
We tend to emphasize the self as a creature of history and history as a human creation. Even Emerson, the last truly religious, God-oriented writer we have had, the last to believe that the world exists entirely for the individual and that “Nature is meant to serve”—even Emerson wobbles on the independent existence of the individual soul, feels easier with a universal cloud-cover he calls the “Oversoul” than he does with the traditional religious soul in God’s keeping, that is, the soul as human index and analogue of a spiritual world. What Emerson is talking about in “Nature,” “The American Scholar,” “The Divinity School Address,” is the “active soul” of the writer as a teacher to humanity. Still, Emerson, whose doctrine gave full faith and comfort to rugged individualism, is a great modern writer not yet fully secularized. He despises fiction, makes poet and prophet interchangeable terms, preaches the necessity to leave the church behind and find God in one’s “immeasurable mind.” Yet he was so double-sided that he also wrote the first great American book on the “old country”—English Traits. How strange that the same man, in his journals as well as in his famous lectures on everything at large, usually plays the preacher. What he habitually says is that he has taken himself out of the church, out of formal Christianity, in order to prove that one man, by himself, can be a bridge to divine truth.
And that man is you, my fellow American. You can become as great an artist in words as Ralph Waldo Emerson: all you have to do is to become a church to yourself and preach from your own immortal genius. July 15, 1838, a Sunday evening before the senior class in Divinity College, Harvard:
And now, my brothers, you will ask, What in these desponding days can be done by us?
Wherever a man comes, there comes revolution. The old is for slaves. When a man comes, all books are legible, all things transparent, all religions are forms. . . . Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint man at first hand with Deity. . . . Live with the pleasure of the immeasurable mind. . . .
America itself seemed immeasurable in opportunity. “Nature,” which meant everything outside of man, existed to serve man on this continent. An American armed with the primacy of the self can do anything, especially in words. Like Emerson, he can invent a religion just for free spirits and call it literature. Like Thoreau, he can turn a totally lonely life, the death of his beloved brother John, his penny-pinching, lung-destroying, graphite-owning family, into the most beautiful prose fable we have of man perfectly at home with Nature. Like Whitman, who took self-revelation as his basic strategy, he can propose a whole new self—which for millions he has become. Whitman wrote a great book in the form of a personal epic, compelled and still compels many readers to believe him as not only the desperado poet he was but as one of the supreme teachers of a troubled humanity. And then in prose, this worldly failure used the Civil War as an abundant backdrop to his picture of himself tending the wounded soldiers, an American St. Francis, who reincarnated himself as a poet thanks to war and the assassination on Good Friday of his beloved Lincoln.
Henry Adams, in the Education, reverses his loneliness as a widower, his isolation as a historical imagination, into the exquisite historical myth of a Hamlet kept from his rightful kingship—a Hamlet too good for Denmark, a Hamlet who nevertheless knew everybody in the world worth knowing, a Hamlet who finally turned the tables on science, the only knowledge worth having. Adams’s last superlative myth is a world that in the 12th century stood still to worship the Virgin but in the 20th is racing madly, whirling into outer space in its lust to satisfy Emerson’s “immeasurable mind”—intellectual power.
Henry James, in the autobiographical prefaces to his collected works, and in that staggering personal reverie over what the New World had become, The American Scene, showed what mastership over the visible world the literary American self could attain. William James, in the personal testimony that is among the most valuable sections of that Emersonian manual in spiritual self-help, The Varieties of Religious Experience, showed—in the classic pattern of Protestant autobiography from Pilgrim’s Progress to John Woolman’s Journal—that a basic function of such writing is to cure oneself of guilt and self-division.
William James was not a formal psychiatrist in America, though he was the student and colleague of those at Harvard who helped to inaugurate this still nebulous therapy. But Dr. James was a genius—it was his best gift—at putting himself together again, in words. To heal thyself is a classic reason for a worried man’s becoming a physician, especially a psychiatrist. But no psychologist to my knowledge has openly confessed his divided self so eloquently as did William James; no other has so clearly erected a whole system of belief to deal with it. William James is Emerson’s true successor at the end of the century. Emerson never confessed to doubts and was, as Henry James, Sr. said bitterly, a man impossible to get hold of “without a handle.” William James, more than anyone in his time, understood the American idea that religion is to help us shed our sickness, especially in books.
Hemingway was to say that the only psychiatrist he needed was a Smith-Corona. But Hemingway, like Saul Bellow in our day, used his own experience obsessively in the form of fiction. True, fiction is never simply autobiography—not when it is written by genuine novelists. The autobiographical impulse in fiction takes the form of satire, burlesque, grandiose mythology, as in Moby-Dick. It often mocks the hero and the novel form itself; it generally becomes something altogether different from autobiography by introducing so many other leading characters. Saul Bellow has written one novel, The Victim, in which he has not sat for a leading character. Sammler and Charles Citrine, Herzog, and even Henderson represent Bellow in various stages of his life, different moods, different wives. But there are so many other people and points of interest in his novels, like the frolicsome portrait of the poet Delmore Schwartz in Humboldt’s Gift, that it is clear that the creative process for this self-renewing novelist is what makes the human comedy balance out right—not Bellow’s own history.
For the non-fiction writer (as I can testify), personal history is directly an effort to find salvation, to make one’s own experience come out right. This is as true of Edmund Wilson in his many autobiographical essays and notebooks as it is of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Claude Brown. It is even true of straight autobiography by fiction writers. Hemingway’s account of his apprenticeship to letters in Paris, A Moveable Feast, is an effort to save himself by recovering an idyllic past. Even the most lasting autobiographies—St. Augustine, Rousseau, Henry Adams—tend to be case histories limited to the self as its own history to begin with, then the self as the history of a particular moment and crisis in human history.
Wholly personal documents like Whitman’s Specimen Days, Adams’s Education, Conrad Aiken’s Ushant, Malcolm X’s Autobiography, can be more lasting than many a novel. What preserves such books is the news they bring us of history in a new form. In every notable case of this form, from Franklin’s Autobiography to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, we have the epic of personal struggle, a “situation” rather than a plot. The writer turns himself into a representative sinner or Christian or black or Jew—in Exley’s case, a comically incurable drunk.
This person, we say to ourselves as we encounter Franklin arriving in Philadelphia, has lived history. These are people recounting their fame. Here is Gibbon: “It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.” But Gibbon’s autobiography is all about how important he was; he is incapable of making fun of himself. It is not from his innocently pompous memoirs that we learn that the great historian as a member of Parliament from a rotten borough fell asleep during the debates on the American revolution. One can live history in a quite different way, as witness Franklin’s comic account of himself walking up Market Street, carrying two rolls, eating a third, and seeing his future wife “when she standing at the door saw me, and thought I made, as I certainly did, a most awkward appearance.”
To “live” history is not of course to command it, or even one’s fate in life. To live history is to express most memorably a relationship to the past, to a particular setting, to a moment, sometimes even to a particular set of buildings, as Henry James does so vibrantly in The American Scene, where buildings talk to one another because James’s mind is so busily interrogating them.
Walt Whitman is a particular example of the self living history—first as a mere spectator, then as our common fate, history as the ultimate explanation of our individual fortunes in life. In Song of Myself, Whitman wrote of the historical visions he painted of America at mid-century—I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there. In his great diary of the Civil War, Specimen Days, Whitman describes himself going down to Washington to look for his brother George, wounded in the second battle of Bull Run. What Whitman does not say is that he was at lowest ebb as poet and man. Leaves of Grass had failed, he really had nothing to occupy himself with at the moment, and he must have had an instinct that the war would be one of those historical tragedies in which the rejected of history find their souls again, in which the epics of the race are reborn.
Early in Specimen Days, Whitman describes the beaten Federal soldiers in retreat lying along the streets of Washington. Only Whitman would have caught the peculiar poignance in the contrast between the marble Capitol and the helpless, often neglected suffering in what was now a very confused capital. The most splendid instance of Whitman’s eye picking out such historical ironies is the description of the wounded soldiers lying in the Patent Office:
A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded, and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. . . . Two of the immense apartments are filled with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine, or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. . . . It was indeed a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the galley above, and the marble pavement underfoot. . . .
Whitman does not neglect to tell us at the end of this description of the Patent Office that the wounded soldiers have now been all removed. There was a historical moment; he was there, and just in time to record fully the contrast between American technical genius and what war does. Whitman was not a soldier, not even a real nurse. History may well wonder if he gave as much to the soldiers as they gave him. They made possible his great poems and prose of the war. But there is present in Specimen Days and in the cycle of war poems, Drum Taps, a kind of historical light or atmosphere that is extraordinary. It is a quality one finds only in the greatest books—from the Iliad to War and Peace—that show history itself as a character. A certain light plays on all the characters, the light of what we call history. And what is history in this ancient sense but the commemoration of our common experience, the unconscious solidarity of a people celebrated in the moments of greatest stress, as the Bible celebrates over and again history as the common experience of the race, from Creation to Redemption?
My favorite example of personal history as commemoration is Henry Adams’s account of being taken as a boy to Washington. He has already told us in many indirect and delightful ways that he is the grandson and great-grandson of Presidents. He is staying with his grandmother, the widow of John Quincy Adams:
Coming down in the early morning from his bedroom in his grandmother’s house—still called the Adams building—in F Street and venturing outside into air reeking with the thick odor of the catalpa trees, he found himself on the earth-road, or village street, with wheel tracks meandering from the colonnade of the Treasury hard by, to the white marble columns and fronts of the Post Office and Patent Office which faced each other in the distance, like white Greek temples in the abandoned gravel-pits of a deserted Syrian city.
This is a passage of historical music. The key words are sacred names, as Proust said of Combray, as Gibbon rang the litany of historical names in the great passage enumerating Rome—the ruins of the Capitol, barefooted friars singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter. Adams is also rendering the art of history by locating himself as a boy of twelve wandering from the house of “Madame President” through the ancient, sleepy, undistinguished, unfinished Washington of 1850. Unlike Gibbon’s Rome, all in ruins, Adams’s Washington is seen by us as the powerful America of the future, but strangely ignorant of its future as we see the earth-road, the village streets, wheel tracks. But note that the treasury has a Greek colonnade, and—most rewarding detail—the white marble columns and fronts of the Post Office and Patent Office in the distance face each other like white Greek temples in the abandoned gravel-pits of a deserted Syrian city. The innocently pompous all-marble Washington of the future, where Adams wrote this passage in 1905 sitting in his great house just across Lafayette Square from the White House, must contend in our mind with the beautifully supple imagination of Adams the great historian picturing Syria forgotten in the ruins of the Roman empire.
When Adams wrote this passage, America had just taken the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Cuba. Adams’s sometime friend, Theodore Roosevelt, whom he amusedly tolerated as a gentleman from his own set, though he thought the President insane, was enjoying the Presidency with unholy zest. The moment had already come at the great Paris exposition of 1900 when Adams discovered that his “historical back” was broken by the sight of the dynamo:
The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual, or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. . . .
This is the self living history as its own fate. The barely murmuring dynamo will turn soon into the rocket, Adams into Norman Mailer at Cape Kennedy awed by the towering hangar built to house the moon rocket. The mountebank in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt, will become the succession of Presidents after Vietnam trapped in their own powerlessness. History as our own fate is what the grandiose theoretical last chapters of the Education have to teach us. And that is the deepest meaning of “autobiography,” historically considered. Adams in Washington, 1850, yields to Adams in Washington, 1900, to ourselves in Washington and New York in 2000.
But something new has entered into 20th-century experience. We no longer identify ourselves with history. Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus said that “history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” History since 1914 has become for the “educated classes” of the West not so much a memory as a threat. This may be one reason for the marked failure of “history” to awaken enthusiasm or even much intellectual curiosity among the young. To have a sense of history one must consider oneself a piece of history. Although our age will be remembered most of all for its endlesss multiplication of technological innovation and scientific information, the “feel” of the present is that history is out of control, beyond all the prophecies and calculations made for it in the 19th century, when the organization of industrial society was plainly the pattern of the future. Hence the unconscious despair of people whose first legend is the city of peace built on a hill, a new world to be born, a new man to be made.
But to the others, who are just arising in history and for whom history is their effort to rise, the self knows history only as nemesis and liberation from oppression. Hence in our immediate culture we get more and more a view of literature as political rhetoric. Imaginative literature even in our privileged society is now so much under the pressure of journalism, documentary, the media, the daily outrage and atrocity, above all, unconscious fright, that autobiography of one kind or another, often the meanest travel report through contemporary life, has become all too fashionable, omnipresent. On every hand we seem to see people saying I am the man, I got the story first, I was there. The man on the spot may be only a ventriloquist’s dummy, like most news commentators, reading what he has been given to read. But literature does essentially nothing different when it appeals, as our most gifted writers do, only to the public experience of politics, the moon voyage, the political assassination, the seeming irreconcilability of the sexes.
The real problem for “personal history” now is how to render this excess of outer experience as personal but not private, and how to turn incessant reportage back into personal literature. Here the retreat from history has led to so clamorous a cry of personal weakness, so much confessional poetry and fiction, that we may well ask what the spell is on all of us—not least our readers. For Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Adrienne Rich, Charles Olsen, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Diane Wakoski would not be the stars of the classroom nowadays if there were not so many readers who seem to read no poetry and prose that is not confessional, who demand that literature be about the confessional self—and be an invitation to become confessional themselves.
Erik Erikson says that all confession is an effort to throw off a curse. “Guilt” seems more endemic than it ever did. It is certainly more popular. Why? No doubt because it makes possible a confessional literature that is self-dramatization in the absence of moral authority. At the same time, the dramatization of the self in American literature goes back to a very old theme. How well have I made out? What am I to think of my life, all things considered? Could it have been any different? Let us not deceive ourselves: each person, especially in this historically still most hopeful of countries, is constantly making up the progress report of his life, and knows that in this respect everyone we know, love, and hate, everyone to whom we have ever been tied, shares our interests exactly: this life, my life, this time. So the anxious but somehow thrivingly preoccupied self, in a culture where personal fortune and happiness are more real than God has become even to many believers, cannot help being freely articulate about itself, and confessing. And if the confession is an attempt to ward off a curse, writing it out is also a boast: to be able to write one’s life, to make one’s way successfully through so many ghosts, between so many tombs, is indeed a boast.
Yet I believe that history does exist, that it is still meaningful, and that we will all find our fate in the book of history. That gives me the courage to write, for to write is still in some way to put the seeming insignificance of human existence into perspective. It is the need, the wish, and please God the ability, to reorder our physical fate by mental means, a leap of the imagination, an act of faith. Wallace Stevens once wondered in an essay whether it is not “the violence within that protects us from the violence without.” The “violence within” is the effort to make a mental construct that shall hang together—that shall be within the inner landscape a seamless and uninterruptible web—that can prove, as Henry James said, that “the whole truth about anything is never told; we can only take what groups together.”
Violence is distinguished by gaps, discontinuities, inconsistency, confusion condensed into power—but no less blind and chaotic for that. The life of mere experience, and especially of history as the supposedly total experience we ridiculously claim to know, can seem an inexplicable series of unrelated moments. But language, even when it is most a mimicry of disorder, is distinguished from violence, atrocity, deceit, by relating word to word, sentence to sentence, thought to thought, man to this final construct on a page that is always something different from mere living.
So that is why I write, to reorder an existence that man in the mass will never reorder for me. Even autobiography is a necessary stratagem to gain something more important than itself. By the time experience is distilled enough through our minds to set some particular thing down on paper, so much unconscious reordering has gone on that even the naive wish to be wholly “truthful” fades before the intoxication of line, pattern, form.
As Stephen Crane said, art is a child of pain. Existence is itself an increasingly anxious matter for many Americans. Precisely because the material power is greatest in this country, we have had the most frantic illusion of control. So the disappointment and anger are greater. The self becomes the accuser, as it so often seems only the target—the self adrift in a self-contained universe. This, to Americans caught off base, can seem as frightening as the silence of the infinite spaces seemed to Pascal:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me?
One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in the teeth of Milton’s blind Fury with the abhòrred shears, who slits the thin-spun life. In our time history, too, can be the “blind Fury.” But to write is to live it again, and in this personal myth and resurrection of our experience, to give honor to our lives.