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Critical Essay by Ross Miller
SOURCE: "Autobiography as Fact and Fiction: Franklin, Adams, Malcolm X," in Centennial Review, Vol. XVI, No. 3, Summer, 1972, pp. 221-32.
In the following essay, Miller uses the autobiographies of Malcolm X, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Adams to illustrate the patterns in and the course of American autobiographies, which, he asserts, represent "a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction."
The autobiographies which fill the bookstores today mark a departure from what I see as a classic line of autobiographical literature from Benjamin Franklin to Malcolm X. A serious metaphysical or self-reflective quality is simply missing in recent works. Using three examples of serious autobiographical art, I have chosen to reconstruct a coherent American literary tradition which in addition to saying something about the country, has always challenged conservative and confining notions of what is taken to be the separate realms of fact and fiction. But as it took Tocqueville to tell Americans about their own political institutions it is not altogether surprising that a Frenchman has brought attention to a declining American literary tradition.
André Malraux was sensitive to the failure of a profound art of autobiography in France, and his book Anti-Memoirs was conceived, in part, as a corrective to the dull public confessions of statesmen of his generation. He felt that there was a special vanity to those books which sought only to repeat, in an attractive context, the accomplishments of the author. Writing about oneself, Malraux thought, had to be more critical. The ongoing analogy of the autobiography to the documentary film was too mechanistic. The successful autobiography had to be reflexive, able to reflect upon its own process and organization. Writing about oneself was the archetypal activity of man, not unlike the problem he faced in trying to contemplate the implications of his own death.
To reflect upon life—life in relation to death—is perhaps no more than to intensify one's questioning. I do not mean death in the sense of being killed, which poses few problems to anyone who has the commonplace luck to be brave; but death as it manifests itself in everything that is beyond man's control, in the aging and even the metamorphosis of the earth (the earth suggests death by its age-old torpor as well as its metamorphosis, even if this metamorphosis is the work of man) and above all the irremediable, the sense that "you'll never know what it all meant." Faced with that question, what do I care what matters only to me?
Malraux is challenging the notion that autobiographies need be personal at all and suggests that autobiographical writing involves a man in no less serious problems than are posed by living life itself. A man, as autobiographer, has the power to face his own mortality with an exorbitant power. Life to him can hold no terror, because in a sense he is already dead—facts no longer have the power to define him. He has relieved life of its temporality. And while a man always feels tangential to history, the autobiographer seems always to be at history's center. To see why this is so demands a revaluation of what we accept to be the proper relation of fact to fiction in the autobiography. I have chosen to explore the structural and methodological factors which define autobiographical literature in the works of Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, and Malcolm X: three writers who it would seem have nothing else in common aside from their desire to talk about themselves.
In their writing, as in all autobiographies, there is that power which comes with being one's own historian. Or the feeling that one is a superior historian who need not be content to painfully search out the truth from numerous sources of evidence, but rather because he is his own direct link with history the autobiographer can immediately "rethink" the past. The life of the autobiographer is the stage upon which history, that is all the history he remembers, is played out. Franklin's life spanned the period of America's movement for independence; Adams watched the country grow from an agrarian to an industrial nation; and Malcolm witnessed the resurrection of the Afro-American. Their books are records of their lives and accounts of American history they affected as well as experienced. Franklin, through his formative work in government; Adams, as a member of a great political family and as a writer; and Malcolm X as a major black leader moved the country in which they moved. In choosing to write directly from their own experience each of them encountered the central problem of autobiographical literature: how to reconcile the vanities and obsessions of the personal life with the realities of the historical past.
The problem is settled ingeniously by conflating the private and public histories with an artful narrative. Time is marked through the use of images and metaphor to insure that the reader continues to see the world centered around the writer. It is not our Philadelphia. It is young Ben Franklin's. Yes, it belongs to that boy who first walked the streets with two rolls under his arm, and a third in his mouth. It is the same way with Henry Adams's New England:
The order of impressions retained by memory might naturally be that of color and taste, although one would rather suppose that the sense of pain would be the first to be educated. In fact, the third recollection of the child was that of discomfort. The moment he could be removed, he was bundled up in blankets and carried from the little house in Hancock Avenue to a larger one which his parents were to occupy for the rest of their lives in the neighboring Mount Vernon Street.
Or Malcolm recounting his first days in Boston:
He peeled the potatoes and thin-sliced them into a quart-sized Mason fruit jar, then started stirring them with a wooden spoon as he gradually poured in a little over half the can of lye … The congolene just felt warm when Shorty started combing it in. But then my head caught fire.
I gritted my teeth and tried to pull the sides of the kitchen table together. The comb felt as if it was raking my skin off.
My eyes watered, my nose was running. I couldn't stand it any longer; I bolted to the washbasin. I was cursing Shorty with every name I could think of when he got the spray going and started soap-lathering my head.
In each case the intent is the same: not only to recall the past but to possess it. All three, as they view history, catalogue the senses, attempting to link themselves inextricably to the places and times they describe. Autobiographers, because they are able to see, touch, and smell their subject, write sensuous histories. They deal with the past as it is re-experienced through memory (a kind of sense itself) and conceive of history as it was lived through an individual's senses. When Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm write about themselves they use the details of their senses, not merely facts or events, to locate critical moments of the past. A silent proposition is established: the autobiographer implies that to know the world one must first know him.
All three writers use fictions to illustrate personal histories. Fictions that never lose their identity with an essentially true body of information. Personal language, metaphor, and a controlling narrative create the unique sense that the facts of the author's life are particular and yet at the same time are valid indicators of a wider history just outside or parallel to the life of the writer. Franklin's description of his entrance into Philadelphia and his subsequent success is representative of America's passage from a colony to a nation. Adams's sense of discomfort over the move to Mount Vernon Street is a sensuous mnemonic for the psychic and spiritual dislocation he felt as a victim of industrialization. His childhood change of residence is a microcosm of the larger historical displacement of towns like Quincy, Massachusetts, and other parts of pastoral America. In turn, Malcolm uses a rush of details as an emblem for a larger meaning, writing the history of his people through the landscape of his senses. His life becomes identical with the passage of the country black, "homeboy," into the world of the city Negro. It is all there in Malcolm's description of hair processing. The "conk" is the sign of the black man's humiliation, the brand of his selfhatred.
The sensuous aspect of the autobiography is really the link between the peculiarities of the autobiographer's life and broader historical currents. It affords the writer a chance to talk about the world as he talks about himself. But nowhere are the fictional devices of the autobiographer clearer than in his use of personae to respond to the complex demands of autobiographical literature.
Benjamin Franklin, the first major American autobiographer, understood and responded to these demands in such a way that he exemplifies the autobiographical art. Franklin employs a constant barrage of exaggeration—the hyperbole and soothsaying that D. H. Lawrence objected to. But Lawrence, among others, was deceived by Franklin's style. The man sets a trap with the didactic rhetoric of the book. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin parades as a finished document, a memoir of an aging public figure; however, the book cannot be fully understood as a fait accompli, but must be read in process, taken a little like we accept a man posturing in a conversation. As Franklin's autobiography is not merely a memoir, but a subtle investigation into the very act of autobiographical writing. Here is a hint of the plan.
By my rambling digressions I perceive myself to be grown old. I us'd to write more methodically. But one does not dress for private company as for a publick ball: 'Tis perhaps only negligence.
Franklin's posture, his denial of complexity, is similar to Adams's insistence of failure, or Malcolm's pose as a bad nigger. Franklin creates a persona in his book who is human, yet always bigger than life. The Autobiography is as much a fable as it is a personal history. In fact the book, finally, is not personal at all. There are two Franklins: one a real historical figure; the other is a character in an elaborate fiction.
In the Autobiography, Franklin includes two letters. One is from Mr. Abel James and is undated; the other is from Mr. Benjamin Vaughan, dated January, 31, 1783, around the time Franklin signed the final treaty with England. Vaughan's letter is placed in the middle of the book, between Franklin's personal and public accounts of his life. It is unmistakably placed in such a strategic location to comment upon the author's method and purpose. In fact, we are tempted to question if Mr. Vaughan is really Benjamin Franklin himself, because Franklin could not have asked for a better spokesman.
Your history is so remarkable, that if you do not give it, somebody else will certainly give it; and perhaps so as nearly to do as much harm, as your management of the same thing might do good. It will moreover present a table of the internal circumstances of your country, which will very much tend to invite to it settlers of virtuous and manly minds. And considering the eagerness with which such information is sought by them, and the extent of your reputation, I do not know of a more efficacious advertisement than your biography would give. All that has happened to you is also connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people; and in this respect I do not think that the writings of Caesar and Tacitus can be more interesting to a true judge of human nature and society.
Vaughan's "encouragement" makes explicit the link between Franklin's personal and public lives. Like a Caesar, his life is inexorably "connected with the detail of the manners and situation of a rising people." Vaughan goes on to say, "The nearest thing to having experience of one's own, is to have other people's affairs brought before us in a shape that is interesting." Franklin chooses a particular persona to describe experience in an interesting shape, a mythic embodiment of America's struggle for independence. And this need to embody and shape experience is not unique to Franklin, but is characteristic of autobiographical art. Henry Adams employs a remarkably similar metaphor to describe the plan of the Education.
The object of study is the garment, not the figure. The tailor adapts the manikin as well as the clothes to his patron's wants….
The manikin, therefore, has the same value as any other geometrical figure of three or more dimensions, which is used for the study of relations. For that purpose it cannot be spared; it is the only measure of motion, of proportion, of human condition; it must have the air of reality; must be taken for real; must be treated as though it had life. Who knows? Possibly it had!
Franklin's personal history, like Adams's, is a manikin with which he can study relations. The life of one man becomes the key to mapping the mysteries of the race; and the wonders that are related to the one life are as important as the record of the life itself. Autobiography, at this level, is as much an exercise of will as it is a record of the past.
This posturing, the use of fictions, to get outside of oneself—to be equal to, yet, to be more than one is entitled to by birth—is the archetypal pose of the autobiographer. In Malraux's language, it is to identify yourself with no less than the eternal metamorphosis of the earth. In a word, it is that terrible reaching for immortality. Watch Malcolm struggle as he moves to identify himself with the entire black American population. Like the Sultan who dies trying to propagate the earth with his sons and daughters.
I have given to this book so much of whatever time I have because I feel, and I hope, that if I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of some social value….
I think that an objective reader may see how when I heard "The white man is the devil," when I played what had been my own experiences, it was inevitable that I would respond positively; the next twelve years of my life were devoted and dedicated to propagating that phrase among the black people.
I think, I hope, that the objective reader, in following my life—the life of only one ghetto-created Negro—may gain a better picture and understanding than he has previously had of the black ghettoes which are shaping the lives and the thinking of almost all of the 22 million Negroes who lives in America.
Malcolm's mythical presence, the pose of an exemplary life, just as Franklin's, is a daring simplification. They are using the autobiography, in part, as a fiction to express personal relationships to history that are true in essence, but are nevertheless suspicious in the exaggerated form they take. The personae of Malcolm and Franklin, in their autobiographies, are bigger than life because they are intended to represent many individuals. The paradox of writing in this mode is that this mythic relationship, although accepted by the writer and his audience, is illusory; it is a literary relation and not a metaphysical one. The fictive aspect of the autobiography is that result of this conflation between a first-person narrator and a naturally third-person persona who share a mutual identity. Malcolm X narrates the history of "Malcolm X," who is simultaneously himself and all black men in America, as Ben Franklin records the story of "Benjamin Franklin," who seems to be all of colonial America. This double identity is not accidental, but is intrinsic to the structure of the autobiography. It is the acting out of the quality William James called the phenomenon of the "twice born." In Franklin's words:
I should have no objection to a repetition of the same life from its beginning, only asking the advantages authors have in a second edition to correct some faults of the first. So I might, besides correcting the faults, change some sinister accidents and events of it for others more favorable. But though this were denied, I should still accepted the offer. Since such a repetition is not to be expected, the next thing most like living one's life over again seems to be a recollection as durable as possible by putting it down in writing.
Franklin could not be clearer. There is that quality to the autobiography that makes writing down the story of a life not so much reliving the past as simply living again.
What an opportunity for a man like Henry Adams. To live again. First he could arrange his marriage differently, do something about his father-in-law, and get early help for his wife. Second to that, he could write his autobiography and edit out all the painful "accidents." There did not have to be any marriage, any father-in-law, any suicide. He could leave it all out. As a result the Education is often more interesting for what it leaves out, at one point a full twenty years, than for what it contains. Late in the book the narrative breaks off with the year 1871 and resumes in 1892. The chapter "Twenty Years After" begins as if Adams is not conscious of his ingenious sublimation of the major emotional events of his life. Adams's style is reminiscent of those patients who awake in Swiss clinics after a month of sleep therapy (where a man is kept asleep, by the use of drugs for a protracted length of time) and who are cured by literally forgetting what was bothering them.
No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams: but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the enemy, and should train minds to react, not a haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world.
Adams is not really talking about education at all. His obsession with the idea of attraction and his sense that the world always lags behind the active mind is metaphysical static generated to avoid discussing similar questions in emotional terms. He asks the impossible of education—that it should conjoin thought and action. And at the same time it reveals one of the prime motives for writing about one's life. His autobiography might, at least on paper, make life subservient to mind and, in a sense, tame it. So in the end, as it was for Franklin and Malcolm, Adams's education was in the writing of his own life.
Fictional methods have applied so consistently to the writing of autobiography, and historical models are now once again so fashionable in the novel, that it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish the two. Alfred Kazin has considered a variation of this problem in an essay that concerns the shifting boundary between fiction and fact in what has come to be called the "non-fiction" novel. He speaks of Truman Capote's desire, in his book In Cold Blood, to relieve life of its "mere factuality." Kazin's insight is correct and if expanded it could be brought to describe the activity of writing itself. But Kazin stops short of the point and is content to acknowledge yet another genre. Like the term "new journalism," the creation of the "non-fiction" novel as a separate literary entity is less helpful than it is a clever circumvention of philosophical questions that are central to writing about any subject. What is now called "new journalism" is merely the manipulation of the details of experience in the present not unlike the way Sir Walter Scott manipulates historical facts of the past to invest a situation with character and plot. Oddly enough we are inclined to believe the journalist and not the novelist because no matter how subjective the journalist's interpretation seems, it is still an interpretation of the facts. Critics have chosen to distinguish so minutely between what they feel to be works of fact and works of fiction that they find themselves continually adding new categories, like philosophers creating new links for the "Great Chain of Being," instead of challenging the need for categories at all.
This discussion of Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm attempts to show that autobiographical writing has always been an attempt to make history into a novel, and that writers like Norman Mailer have really done nothing new but have more significantly grounded themselves in an American literary tradition that moves directly from Ben Franklin.
It is appropriate that autobiography should be more than personal and factual, in the same way we expect a still-life painting to be more than a facsimile of the objects themselves; or a film to be more than the chronological development from points A to Z. Painting shows us objects from many angles at the same time; a film breaks down time and explores connections that we ordinarily do not notice. As a form, autobiography is multi-angular and able to alter perspective, to make a man bigger or smaller, like those enormous figures on a movie screen; and like the novel, its reference is explicitly self-centered. Its subject and object are identical.
The intent and method of the best autobiographies have always been literary in the broadest sense, just as conversely the novel (most obviously those in the first person closely following the writer's own experience) has reflected the intimate particulars and reflections of the writer. For example, Jack London's Martin Eden and Frank Conroy's Stop-Time disguise real situations and people through the traditional devices of the novel. London and Conroy share a central concern, to see themselves as they were. To see their lives sublimated in an elaborate fiction. The masters of this method were Proust and Colette. In both cases the fictional distance they had from their own experiences permitted self-illumination comparable to the studied self-interpretation of the autobiographer writing from hindsight. (The pose of the autobiographer as an experienced man is particularly effective because we expect to hear from someone who has a completed sense of his own life and is therefore in a position to tell what he has discovered.) The obsession with sensuous detail in Proust and Colette's writing came from their fixation upon the sensual side of their own lives. In a way, writing about themselves, through elaborate disguises, allowed them the liberation of confession and created an art which made the final significance of life (because there was no heaven or hell) solely dependent upon its telling.
Autobiography at its best has the pretensions and effects of art. Merleau-Ponty hinted at this in a different context in his essay on Cézanne, where he hoped to suggest that what makes great art move us is that it alters our basic perceptions.
Cézanne's difficulties are those of the first word. He considered himself powerless because he was not omnipotent, because he was not God and wanted nevertheless to portray the world, to change it completely into a spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us … It is not enough for a painter like Cézanne, an artist, or a philosopher, to create and express an idea; they must also awaken the experiences which will make their idea take root in the consciousness of others. A successful work has the strange power to teach its own lesson.
In the same way, to write about oneself is to create a durable work of art in an attempt to freeze the process of life, for a moment, to make it visible. And it is with Franklin, Adams, and Malcolm that we feel this need to stop time, not to justify their actions in the past, but to see their lives as they might have appeared to God day by day. They use the facts of their lives, not as the historian would, but as a way of probing the limits of their own self-knowledge. Art is used in the writing of autobiography to express what cannot be understood by facts alone.
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