How does the autobiographer want us to perceive him? How do we penetrate the memoirist’s strategies and subterfuges—sometimes conscious, usually—brilliant—and discover the real person screened behind them?
In this fresh and provocative approach to the reading of autobiography, Herbert Leibowitz explores the self-portraits of eight Americans whose lives span almost two centuries and encompass a stunning range of personality and circumstances: Benjamin Franklin, Louis Sullivan, Jane Addams, Emma Goldman, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Richard Wright, and Edward Dahlberg. In pursuit of clues to both the human essence and the literary artifice of each, he examines their styles (Franklin’s plain talk and “possum’s wit,” Sullivan’s “gilded abstractions,” Stein’s “gossipy ventriloquism,” Williams’s “grumpy clowning” and foxy innocence), their metaphors, and their choices of incident, looking beyond their visions of themselves to their true identities.
In American autobiography particularly Leibowitz finds an extraordinary medley of voices—from the balanced objectivity of Addams and the heated oratory of Goldman, as each encounters the promises and failures of the democratic ideal, to the uneasy self-consciousness of Wright, reflecting the tensions of growing up in a world he did not trust, and the baroque contrivances of Dahlberg, who painted himself in mythic proportions on the American canvas.
As he guides us through the labyrinths and mazes of these self-histories, Leibowitz relates the material to a wide cross section of the American experience and helps to interpret our history. His engrossing and highly original book is both a contribution to biographical criticism and a vivid recapturing of some remarkable American lives.