Autobiography as a literary form

Autobiography: In an Autobiography the author writes the story of his own life and achievements. Its aim, like that of the Biography, is a successful presentation of personality and, in the best examples, of the period to which the author belonged. It obviously must suffer from a congenital defect: it can never be complete, for it must always come to an end before the death of the writer. Dr. Johnson, nevertheless, preferred Autobiography to Biography. Every man’s life, he said, is best written by himself: “The writer of his own life has at least the first qualification of an historian, the knowledge of the truth; and though it may be plausibly objected that his temptations to disguise it are equal to his opportunities of knowing it, yet I cannot but think that impartiality may be expected with equal confidence from him that relates the passages of his own life, as from him that delivers the transactions of another”. Again, from the psychological point of view, no one can know so well as the Autobiographer himself what motives prompted him at decisive moments, what his secret hopes and ambitions were, and how far his career fulfilled his real aspirations. As Longfellow said, Autobiography is a product of first-hand experience, Biography of second-hand knowledge. Stevenson, himself so subjective a writer, though he did not live to tell his own story. Said, “There is no truer sort of writing than what is to be found in autobiographies, and certainly none more entertaining”.

Objective and Subjective Autobiography: The Autobiography, like the Biography, began as a narrative of events, but very early in its history it discovered that, to achieve its full purpose, it should be entirely candid about the author’s inner life as well as his public career. Its progress, in other words, was from the outward to the inward, from the objective to the subjective.

St. Augustine’s Confessions (5th Century A.D.) is the earliest example in Europe of full and frank self-analysis, but it stood almost alone for over ten centuries until Rousseau’s outspoken Confessions, published in the latter half of the 18th century, came to exert a strong influence on the whole current of European thought. Before the century ended, three notable autobiographies had appeared in English-those of David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Benjamin Franklin. They were not pieces of candid, sometimes repellent, self-revelation or even exhibitionism like Rousseau’s, but each gave, in an entirely characteristic style, a clear, well-planned, convincing account of the man and his varied experiences and the life-work that had brought him fame. These narratives inspired many similar documents by people with varying claims to distinction, until in course of time it became almost the rule for anyone who had been in the public eye as statesman, soldier, sailor, cleric, journalist, doctor, author, painter, actor, traveller, merchant, whatever it might be, to leave some record of his (or her) own career.

The most recent production in this field to be greeted as a permanent contribution to English literature is Sir Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography entitled Left Hand, Right Hand! Their numbers would make a useful list impossible even if it were appropriate here, but the autobiographical section of any good library would be certain to contain the works of De Quincey. Benjamin Robert Haydon (painter), Leigh Hunt, Shelley’s friend Trelawny, J. S. Mill, Ruskin, Morlkey, H. G. Wells, Lloyd George, Rudyard Kipling, George Moore, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru.

Despite their difference in form, any note on English autobiography would be incomplete, without a reference to the famous diaries and memories by Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn in the 17th century, Fanny Burney in the late 18th and Thomas Creevey and Charles Greville, whose records covered the next period till the middle of the 19th century. Journals like these are not only of deep human interest but also of very great historical importance. Such letters as those of the Paston family (15th century), Dorothy Osborne (17th), Thomas Gray, William Cowper, Horace Walpole, Charles Lamb, and John Keats, to name no others, are priceless possessions for the same reasons. Many such works dealing with recent times have already been published, but we are rather too close to the events they describe to judge their permanent value.

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Difficulties of the Autobiographer: Anyone who sits down to write the story of his own life has to confront special problems. In the first place, as Abraham Cowley says, “It is a hard and nice subject for a man to write of himself, it grates his own heart to say anything of disparagement, and the reader’s ears to hear anything of praise from him”. He may be anxious to tell the undoctored truth, but it is usually difficult to recapture with any accurate impressions and emotions of the distant past, and there are always episodes about which it may be embarrassing, not only to the author but to others, to write with entire freedom. It is almost impossible for anyone to be entirely objective and detached in giving an account of matters that may have profoundly affected his personal happiness or prosperity, and it is doubtful if entire success in this has ever been achieved. Great care has also to be taken in making any comments on people who may be alive when the book appears, for the author may have to pay heavy damages if an incorrect or offensive statement leads to a libel action. An artistic difficulty was raised by Herbert Spencer, the philosopher, whose autobiography appeared after his death. He pointed out that a biographer or autobiographer was bound to omit the details of daily life that are common to everyone, and must concentrate on what was striking or exceptional. This must inevitably lead to some falsification, for it gave the impression that the subject’s life differed more widely from other lives than it actually did. This objection, however, need not be taken very seriously, for the reader of any such work is always making the necessary allowances and adjustments in his own mind. Whatever the difficulties of the art of autobiography, they have been triumphantly overcome by authors of every type and degree, from prime minister to ploughman. It would, indeed, be difficult to think of a career or calling that is not represented somewhere in the wide field of English autobiography.



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