For over four decades I have been fascinated by the stories people tell about their lives, their families and communities, their passions and professions, their traumatic struggles and survivals. I’m often overwhelmed and challenged by the myriad and complex ways they inscribe subjectivity and enact identity – the tropes, self-figurations, rhetoric, voices, and forms of emplotment that characterize their texts and autobiographically-inflected practices. I’m continually gaining greater appreciation for the heterogeneous genres of the autobiographical available to people historically and culturally – confession and bildungsroman, autoethnography and graphic memoir, performance art and online modes, to suggest only a few of them. I’m drawn to consider the social and political uses to which lifewriting is put and out of which it is produced, circulated, and received. Always, I’m interested in autobiographical acts and practices of people enduring or negotiating or resisting marginalization, and the slow or violent effects of systematic oppression, dehumanization, and dismissal. Increasingly, I’m thinking through the proliferation of life writing in online platforms, in graphic modes such as comics, in performance and plastic media.
My first book, entitled Where I’m Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography (1974), explored the emergence and history of African American life writing from the early nineteenth century to the 1960s, most particularly the racialized struggle to claim a legible, political subject position, to inscribe the accumulated trauma of violent dehumanization, and to pursue the tenuous terms of one’s “freedom.” It was written at a time when Black Studies programs were being founded in the academy and when student activists called for attention to the writings and cultural productions of Black America. In that book, a final chapter on Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings anticipated my later focus on the intersection of gendered and racialized dynamics constitutive of genres of the autobiographical. That large project began in the mid 1970s, when I began rethinking my training in the field of literary studies. It was a heady time, a time of intense discussions of feminist scholarship and theory with friends and colleagues across diverse disciplines at the University of Arizona. Together we read and disputed the new feminist scholarship, developed and launched courses on women, gender, race and class, lobbied for support for a Women’s Studies Program, and worked to “mainstream” feminist scholarship and theory into a broader range of courses in the social sciences and humanities.
The Long Project on Women’s Autobiographical Writing
In the early 1980s, living with my partner and young son in Washington, D.C. and enjoying a year-and-a-half-long internship as a program officer in the Education Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I launched a multi-year study of autobiographical works written by British and American women to which I applied feminist theory and analytic practice. I surveyed critical studies of the genre of autobiography over a hundred-year period to understand the past of the field and to expose its androcentric foundations and reading practices. I explored normative generic definitions that effectively marginalized women’s texts; uncritical assumptions about gendered content, structure, style, and narrative perspective; and hegemonic paradigms of psychosexual development that consigned women to prescriptive femininity and cultural erasure. Then I developed my own theoretical approach to the genres of autobiographical writing. That approach attended to the densities of patriarchal ideologies of gender, the intersectional dynamics of minoritized peoples’ autobiographical subject positions, the competing fictions of self-representation through which heterogeneous women negotiate their gendered positions as they inscribe their stories, and the strategic interventions women writers stage in their autobiographical texts, such as the fracturing of the autobiographical “I” or the play with hybrid genres of the autobiographical. This long-term project eventuated in the publication of three books: A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation in 1987; Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century in 1993; and Moving Lives: Women’s Twentieth Century Travel Narratives (2001), a book that considers how Western women’s travel and travel writing in the twentieth century were energized and shaped by particular modes of mobility and how that mode of travel affected the subject who narrates and narrative form itself.
Collaboration and Edited Volumes
In 1988, I began what became a decades-long practice of collaborative authorship, first with Julia Watson of The Ohio State University, then with Gisela Brinker-Gabler at Binghamton University, and in the early 2000s with Kay Schaffer at Adelaide University in Australia. Julia and I have co-edited four collections of critical essays on life writing and one anthology of primary works. We conceptualized volumes and sought contributions that would move the field of autobiography studies in radically new directions by extending the geographical, political, generic, and aesthetic aspects of autobiographical texts and practices: colonial and postcolonial autobiography of the embodied subject in De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Women’s Autobiography (1992); everyday occasions during which people produce and consume personal narratives in Getting a Life: The Everyday Uses of Autobiography (1996); and artistic fusions of the visual and autobiographical in Inter/Faces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance (2002). In Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader (1998), Julia and I drew into one volume thirty-nine of the most significant theoretical discussions of women’s autobiographical writing of the previous two decades. We introduced the collection with a survey of feminist interest in women’s life writing from the women’s movement of the late 1960s to the millennium and a comprehensive overview of theoretical positions in postmodern, poststructuralist, postcolonial, and feminist analyses of women’s lifewriting. In 2006, Julia and I produced an anthology entitled Before They Could Vote: American Women’s Autobiographical Writing, 1819-1919 which brought together life narratives by ethnically diverse women of energy and ambition, some well-known, some forgotten over generations, who confronted barriers of gender, class, race, and sexual difference as they pursued or adapted to adventurous new lives in a rapidly changing America. In 2017, Julia and I published Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith and Watson Autobiography Studies Reader as the occasion to draw together our short-form scholarship, along with the introductory essays to our five co-edited volumes. This volume is available in print-on-demand, ebook, and open access versions through Maize Publishing at the University of Michigan.
With Gisela Brinker-Gabler, I continued the exploration of the politics of lifewriting by co-editing Writing New Identities: Gender, Nation, and Immigration in Contemporary Europe (1997). This collection of essays explores the complex interrelationships of nationalisms, genders, and representational practices of the peoples of the “New Europe” at the end of the 20th century. In a diversion from the main focus of our scholarly work, Kay Schaffer and I co-edited a collection of essays on the cultural politics of the Olympic Games, The Olympics at the Millennium: Power, Politics, and the Games (2000) and with Jennifer Sabioni, we co-edited an anthology, Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader (1998), a collection of the poetry, artwork, and prose of thirty-six then-contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and artists.
Major Co-authored Projects
In 2001, Julia and I published Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, the first comprehensive theoretical engagement with autobiographical acts and practices and their historical and critical traditions. In 2010, a much-expanded edition of Reading Autobiography appeared, updated to include discussions of specific works and emergent genres since 2000, such as autographics, disability narratives, narratives of witness, and nascent online modes. Reading Autobiography is at once a theoretical discussion of the dynamic features of life writing and its particular characteristics; a history of studies of life writing; a set of micro-readings of diverse autobiographical texts; a how-to guide for asking questions of autobiographical texts and practices; and a compendium of the genres of lifewriting. We have been gratified that it is widely adopted for undergraduate and graduate-level courses, and thus has become a useful guide for students and scholars reading and interpreting autobiographical texts and methods across the humanities, social sciences, and visual and performing arts.
In the early 2000s as well, Kay and I turned to the intersection of law and literature and in particular the intersection of human rights and personal narration. By then, personal narratives had become one of the most potent vehicles for advancing human rights claims across the world. In Human Rights and Narrated Lives: The Ethics of Recognition (2004), Kay and I examine the how these intersecting realms unfold and are enfolded in one another in ways both productive of and problematic for the achievement of social justice. Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores what happens when autobiographical narratives are produced, received, and circulated in the field of human rights activism. It asks how personal narratives emerge in local settings; how international rights discourse enables and constrains individual and collective subjectivities in narration; how personal narratives circulate and take on new meanings in new contexts; and how and under what conditions they feed into, affect, and are affected by the reorganizations of politics in post-cold war, postcolonial, globalizing human rights contexts.
The Future of Doctoral Education in the Humanities
My scholarly life changed focus again when I served as President of the Modern Language Association in 2010. I decided to engage the membership in serious conversation about the future of doctoral studies in the fields of languages and literatures, and more broadly in the humanities disciplines. In my newsletter columns, I aimed to provoke the membership by challenging the way humanists in the academy think about the capstone project of a doctorate, the dissertation, and calling for its radical transformation. Over the next five years I learned from graduate students in my courses how they understood the opportunities for change in their education; and I talked with graduate students and faculty in humanities departments at many universities, honing my recommendations and my arguments in response to their challenges. In 2016 Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times appeared, in print, ebook, and open access versions. Grounding this manifesto in contextual factors contributing to the current state of the academic humanities, I advocate for a twenty-first century doctoral education responsive to the changing ecology of humanistic scholarship and teaching. Interested in proposing profound changes in doctoral education in the humanities, I argue for a more expansive conceptualization of coursework and dissertation, a more robust, engaged public humanities, and a more diverse, collaborative, and networked sociality.
I continue to lecture on the future of doctoral education in the humanities and the new ecology of scholarly communication for humanists, particularly the opportunities now available to enable one’s work to live in open access venues and platforms. For me, getting back rights to earlier books and pursuing Creative Commons licenses for new work whenever possible is a transformation of professional practice to embrace.
Throughout the last twenty-five years, I have authored and co-authored essays on a host of theoretical topics as they relate to life writing, essays that remain stand-alone pieces. For instance, I attempted to figure out how to think of the relationship of autobiography to posthumanist theory in “Reading the Posthuman Backward: Mary Rowlandson’s Doubled Witnessing” (2012). An ensemble of essays extended my attention to the production and reception of genres of witnessing to radical harm and injury. I probed projects of rescue in human rights contexts in “Cultures of Rescue and the Global Transit in Human Rights Narratives” (2011). Kay and I continued to think about personal witnessing in human rights activism in the context of the proliferation of social media sites with an essay on “E-Witnessing in the Digital Age” (2014). Julia and I probed the relationship of witnessing to the status of claims of authenticity in life writing through “Witness or False Witness?: Metrics of Authenticity, Collective I-Formations and the Ethic of Verification in First-Person Testimony” (2012). I explored the conjunction of rights witnessing and the comics form in “Human Rights and Comics: Autobiographical Avatars, Crisis Witnessing, and Transnational Rescue Networks” (2011). As an expansion of our interest in the field of life writing capaciously defined and of the inadequate attention to online life writing in the expanded version of Reading Autobiography, Julia and I pondered, in “Virtually Me: A Toolkit about Online Self-Presentation” (2014), how the plethora of personal storytelling and self-presentation in online platforms call for a reconsideration of the theoretical and topical themes that have been so much a part of the critical discussion of life writing over the past several decades.
At the Moment
Now, at the beginning of 2018, I find myself at work on two different topics. In “Autobiographical Inscription and the Identity Assemblage,” I am rethinking the concept of “identity” often deployed in work on life writing but so rarely systematically interrogated. In “Metaleptic Moments in Autobiographical Narration,” Julia and I return to the vexing figure of metalepsis, of critical interest to narratologists, to see how metaleptic ruptures might work differently in autobiographical texts.
In addition to the friends with whom I have written collaboratively, many others have supported and challenged me throughout these decades. Roger Salomon, my dedicated mentor and dissertation director at Case Western Reserve University, continues in our visits to make me the beneficiary of his unstinting confidence in a former student. With their brilliance, imagination, and theoretical sophistication, the graduate students with whom I have had the pleasure to work over the years, have guided my way toward new approaches, new methods, more expansive topics and questions. And my partner Gregory Grieco has unfailingly supported my professional career, moving with me along the way. His has been a deep and loving generosity of spirit, even when he challenged my ideas and parsed my drafts as a fierce critic.