FABRICATING LIVES: Explorations in American Autobiography by Herbert Leibowitz

FABRICATING LIVES: Explorations in American Autobiography

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In a charming if slightly old-fashioned study of the art of autobiography, Leibowitz (English/CUNY Graduate Center) emphasizes traditional criticism--and closely examines style--in order to get fresh insights into the lives of eight famous American autobiographers. Except for Benjamin Franklin, all are moderns: Louis Sullivan, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, Edward Dahlberg, and three women: Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, and Gertrude Stein. Autobiography, the author reminds us, is notoriously unreliable because the practitioner ""often dresses up in fictions and disguises himself in slanted fact."" But the peculiar style of an autobiographer, Leibowitz demonstrates, lets us uncover what is beneath the surface to see the whole person. For instance, Leibowitz feels that ""Dahlberg's baroque style, subjectivity on a linguistic binge, dares the reader (and himself) to drive the proud artificer out of hiding into the glaring light of unpleasant troths."" Character is writ large in literary style: ""Emma Goldman's overheated style"" provides the true mirror of her excessive personality. And in individualistic America, styles are as varied as autobiographers--here, they range from modernist Stein's ""gossipy ventriloquism"" in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to Franklin's ""plain style"" in his Autobiography. In the meantime, some styles are more factual, objective, surface (both Franklin and Stein), while some are deeply subjective (Goldman). In the end, an individual's style is a partial reflection of his times (so autobiography is the child both of literature and history) and, in his selections of autobiographies, Leibowitz spans much of lived America. Leibowitz adds qualitatively to the greatly revived interest in autobiography in America over the last 20 years, as he makes a solid case for unlocking another's remembered self fabricated in words.

Pub Date: Sept. 12th, 1989
Publisher: Knopf