The Trouble With Autobiography

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux examines other authors’ autobiographies to prove why this piece will suffice for his

Autobiographies invariably distort, insists author Paul Theroux, at his home in Hawaii. (Susan Seubert)
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Dickens began his autobiography in 1847, when he was only 35, but abandoned it and, overcome with memories of his deprivations, a few years later was inspired to write the autobiographical David Copperfield, fictionalizing his early miseries and, among other transformations, modeling Mr. Micawber on his father. His contemporary, Anthony Trollope, wrote an account of his life when he was about 60; published a year after his death in 1882, it sank his reputation.

Straightforward in talking about his method in fiction, Trollope wrote, “There are those who...think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait till—inspiration moves him. When I have heard such doctrine preached, I have hardly been able to repress my scorn. To me it would not be more absurd if the shoemaker were to wait for inspiration, or the tallow-chandler for the divine moment of melting. If the man whose business it is to write has eaten too many good things, or has drunk too much, or smoked too many cigars—as men who write sometimes will do—then his condition may be unfavourable for work; but so will be the condition of a shoemaker who has been similarly imprudent....I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.”

This bluff paragraph anticipated the modern painter Chuck Close’s saying, “Inspiration is for amateurs. I just get to work.” But this bum-on-seat assertion was held against Trollope and seemed to cast his work in so pedestrian a way that he went into eclipse for many years. If writing his novels was like cobbling—the reasoning went—his books could be no better than shoes. But Trollope was being his crusty self, and his defiant book represents a particular sort of no-nonsense English memoir.

All such self-portraiture dates from ancient times, of course. One of the greatest examples of autobiography is Benvenuto Cellini’s Life, a Renaissance masterpiece, full of quarrels, passions, disasters, friendships and self-praise of the artist. (Cellini also says that a person should be over 40 before writing such a book. He was 58.) Montaigne’s Essays are discreetly autobiographical, revealing an immense amount about the man and his time: his food, his clothes, his habits, his travel; and Rousseau’s Confessions is a model of headlong candor. But English writers shaped and perfected the self-told life, by contriving to make it an art form, an extension of the life’s work, and even coined the word—the scholar William Taylor first used “autobiography” in 1797.

Given that the tradition of autobiography is rich and varied in English literature, how to account for the scarcity or insufficiency of autobiographies among the important American writers? Even Mark Twain’s two-volume expurgated excursion is long, strange, rambling and in places explosive and improvisational. Most of it was dictated, determined (as he tells us) by his mood on any particular day. Henry James’ A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother tell us very little of the man and, couched in his late and most elliptical style, are among his least readable works. Thoreau’s journals are obsessive, but so studied and polished (he constantly rewrote them), they are offered by Thoreau in his unappealing role of Village Explainer, written for publication.

E. B. White idealized Thoreau and left New York City aspiring to live a Thoreauvian life in Maine. As a letter writer, White, too, seems to have had his eye on a wider public than the recipient, even when he was doing something as ingenuous as replying to a grade school class about Charlotte’s Web.

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which is glittering miniaturism but largely self-serving portraiture, was posthumous, as were Edmund Wilson’s voluminous diaries. James Thurber’s My Life and Hard Times is simply jokey. S. J. Perelman came up with a superb title for his autobiography, The Hindsight Saga, but only got around to writing four chapters. No autobiographies from William Faulkner, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer or James Jones, to name some obvious American masters. You get the impression that such a venture might be regarded as beneath them or perhaps would have diminished the aura of shamanism. Some of these men encouraged tame biographers and found any number of Boswells-on-Guggenheims to do the job. Faulkner’s principal biographer neglected to mention an important love affair that Faulkner conducted, yet found space to name members of a Little League team the writer knew.

The examples of American effort at exhaustive autobiography—as opposed to the selective memoir—tend to be rare and unrevealing, though Kay Boyle, Eudora Welty and Mary McCarthy all wrote exceptional memoirs. Gore Vidal has written an account of his own life in Palimpsest, and John Updike had an early stab at his in Self-Consciousness; both men were distinguished essayists, which the non-autobiographers Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck and some of the others never were—perhaps a crucial distinction. Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller, both playwrights, wrote lengthy autobiographies, but Hellman in her self-pitying Pentimento, neglects to say that her longtime lover, Dashiell Hammett, was married to someone else, and in Timebends Miller reduces his first wife, Mary Slattery, to a wraithlike figure who flickers through the early pages of his life.

“Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other,” Rebecca West once wrote. “But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.”

English autobiography generally follows a tradition of dignified reticence that perhaps reflects the restrained manner in which the English distance themselves in their fiction. The American tendency, especially in the 20th century, was to intrude on the life, at times blurring the line between autobiography and fiction. (Saul Bellow anatomized his five marriages in his novels.) A notable English exception, D. H. Lawrence, poured his life into his novels—a way of writing that recommended him to an American audience. The work of Henry Miller, himself a great champion of Lawrence, is a long shelf of boisterous reminiscences, which stimulated and liberated me when I was young—oh, for that rollicking sexual freedom in bohemian Paris, I thought, innocent of the fact that by then Miller was living as a henpecked husband in Los Angeles.


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