Narratives of the Self

by Pawel Schreiber (Volume editor) Joanna Malicka (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 187 Pages


This book explores the many interdependencies and crossovers between living and writing, or, in more specific terms, between writers’ lives on the one hand and their literary output on the other. Thematically divided into four major parts, the book focuses on different literary concerns and discusses literary works from the 17th century to the present day. The first part approaches the issue of autobiography and biography, the second part takes a close look at travel writing, while the third discusses various lives in fiction and the fourth deals with confessional writing.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Part I: (Auto)Biographies
  • Didactic Posturing: Strategies of Authorial Self-Fashioning in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography
  • Peter Ackroyd’s Biographies: The Parallel Lives of Thomas More, T.S. Eliot and the Biographer Himself?
  • Two Accounts of One Life: Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted and Madness in Close-up
  • Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road – a Real-life Story Behind Kerouac’s On the Road
  • Wheels within Wheels + To thine own self be true = Writing and Motoring
  • Tom Stoppard’s alternative autobiography in Rock ‘n’ Roll
  • Part II: Travel Writing
  • Visions of Poland, Russia and Europe. “Rizpah” Charles Algernon Swinburne
  • The Beginnings and Endings in Selected Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth and Mary Shelley
  • The Corsican as the Noble Savage in the Eyes of James Boswell
  • Part III: Lives in Fiction
  • Making alter egos up: Flann O’Brien’s narrative voices as deliberate impossibilities
  • “I Was Just Somebody Else, Some Stranger”. Hysterical Avatars of Jack Kerouac: a Lacanian Perspective
  • Fictionalised Memoir: Living and Writing in J. M. Coetzee’s Boyhood, Youth and Summertime
  • Part IV: Confessions
  • ‘A cheerful paper about a depressive writer’s life and work’
  • “To suspend disbelief.” Confessional Narrative in Nineteenth-Century and Postmodern Novel
  • “I am and not: I freeze and yet am burned” – Emotional Expression and Identity in the Poetry of Elizabeth I
  • Drug of Choice: Self-medication and Self-preservation in De Quincey and Andrews


The 20th century proved to be a difficult time for the writer behind the literary text. While a number of modernist authors attained the status of celebrities, the prevalent tendencies of literary criticism spoke against the fetishization of the writer and turned towards the text itself, and not its originator, as the primary source of meaning.

New Criticism’s ban on associating the work with the figure and life of the author is no longer in effect. While it worked, it was efficient in rooting out the practice of showing an interpretation of the writer’s life as an explanation of their work, but was also instrumental in severing all the ties between the person and the work. The next blow, perhaps a much more serious one, came in the form of Roland Barthes’ famous essay on the death of the author, depriving the act of writing of the glamour of individual creation and giving initiative to the reader instead. In the poststructural proliferation of fictions and voices, the voice of the writer is perhaps not unheard, but almost completely irrelevant.

While the postmodernist orthodoxy proclaimed its views on the relationship of the written world and the one who writes it, the readers chose their own way. The second half of the twentieth century became a great time for nonfiction literature – biographies, autobiographies, journalism, travel writing and forms situated between the traditionally accepted poles of fact and fiction. All of them were an answer to a great hunger for the real, which postmodernist literature could not satiate.

A similar turn finally took place in theory – the rapidly developing discipline of memory studies, methodologies based on phenomenology of the body and psychoanalysis, as well as politically engaged forms of literary criticism all moved towards an engagement with the real circumstances of creating and experiencing texts. The link between the writer and the text was regaining its importance. One could again legitimately ask the questions concerning the life hidden among the letters.

The strong reaction against treating the life of the author as the key to understanding the text has left an important remnant – the awareness that the relationship between the two is by no means trivial. Because of this lack of obviousness, it is the more exciting to see the different ways in which they could reinforce ← 7 | 8 → each other or, on the contrary, create subtle tensions between the fiction and the underlying, but directly inaccessible fact. The purpose of this volume is to explore the territory between the writer’s life and the text growing out of it in a possibly broad way, showing a wide range of literary phenomena (in both fiction and nonfiction) and theoretical approaches. ← 8 | 9 →

Part I: (Auto)Biographies

← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

Kurt Müller

Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena / University of Zielona Góra

Didactic Posturing: Strategies of Authorial Self-Fashioning in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography

1. Introductory Remarks

Benjamin Franklin holds a unique place in the history of American literature and culture. Born in 1706 as the tenth child of a Calvinist family in Boston and spending his childhood and youth in rather modest circumstances, he had risen to national and international fame when he died in 1790 at the age of 84. Having received only rudimentary school education, yet driven on by an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge, he self-schooled himself into an all-round expert in various fields of knowledge (history, philosophy, literature, journalism, mathematics, natural science etc.), which qualified him for the most diverse occupations (printer, journalist, writer, editor, politician, diplomat and inventor). He played a major role in the American Revolutionary War as co-author of the Declaration of Independence and later as United States Minister to France (1776–1885) and clever diplomat in the negotiations for the Treaty of Paris (1783) by which the United States became a sovereign nation.1

While already the bare facts of this life story had all the ingredients to turn Franklin into a national icon, his carefully developed strategies of controlling and manipulating his public image deserve particular attention in this connection. As numerous critics have observed, Franklin was a man of “many masks” (Buxbaum 1987: 4). On the one hand, he had a predilection for hiding behind different pseudonyms and personae. On the other, he knew how to use his own biography as raw material to set himself up as an exemplary national – and ultimately international – model character. These efforts reach their culmination point in his famous Autobiography (1791) at which he worked at irregular periods from 1771 until his death. ← 11 | 12 →

With its heavy emphasis on useful instruction, the Autobiography can be regarded as the very prototype of didactic self-writing (Müller 2010: 27–29). With the notorious “Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (Franklin 1986: 66) in its thematic centre, it had a most controversial reception. Highly appreciated and used as a national guidebook to self-help and self-education, it was at the same time from the very beginning the target of the most severe attacks and polemics.2 In particular, the author’s strategies to control and manipulate his public image – a trait which characterizes not only the Autobiography but his writings and self-performances in general – brought him the charge of being an insincere poseur. What is, however, often overlooked both by his admirers and his critics, is the humorously self-ironic stance by which the seemingly rigidly didactic posture is undermined and qualified. Before coming back to that point, let me begin with a few general remarks.

2. Literary Contexts and Influences

In order to approach Franklin’s work from the right angle, we have to be aware of the tradition in which he wrote.3 As he mentions in his Autobiography, he had been an avid reader from early on. His particular interest was focused on the kind of literature which he regarded as useful and instructive in terms of the theory and practice of human behaviour. Among works which impressed him the most, Autobiography lists, among others, the Parallel Lives of the Greek historian ← 12 | 13 → Plutarch—a collection of biographies written to illustrate the virtues and vices of famous Greek and Latin men, the religious tracts of John Bunyan, in particular his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress (1667), Cotton Mather’s Bonifacius: An Essay Upon the Good (1710), Daniel Defoe’s Essay Upon Projects (1697)—a collection of ideas for social and cultural improvement, as well as popular self-help literature in health care such as The Way to Health, Wealth and Happiness (1682–1692) by a certain Thomas Tyron. These few examples may suffice to indicate that Franklin’s philosophy of the art of living encompasses a broad range of moral and ethical behaviour as well as the fundamental practicalities of physical well-being. With its emphasis on the practical side of people’s everyday lives, the Autobiography sets a strong counterpoint against an abstractly idealistic view of human nature. This also concerns Franklin’s frank propagation of the ethic of materialistic self-interest, which provoked the hateful scorn of many of his critics.

In his Autobiography Franklin also mentions other models for his writing practice. Thus, he informs the reader early in the book that one day he came upon a volume of the Spectator, a magazine founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, which, during the time of its publication (1711–1714), was one of the leading voices of English enlightenment ideas. Following the classical poetological formula of Horace’s De arte poetica (“aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae”) that literature should both instruct and entertain, the magazine cultivated a casual conversational style which appealed to the literary tastes of the rising middle classes. Franklin regarded the style of the Spectator as an ideal model for his own writing, and, as he tells us in his Autobiography, he immediately started a systematic training program in order to learn how to imitate it.4 We can trace the effects of that model, for example, in the first part of the Autobiography, written in 1771, presented in the (fictitious) form of a private letter of the author to his own son. Ruminating about his early life, he pretends to censure himself for losing himself again and again in what he calls “little Anecdotes” (Franklin 1986: 1) and “rambling Digressions” (Franklin 1986: 8), yet then he justifies himself by letting his addressee know that this is after all a private conversation, expressing himself in the characteristic form of a witty aphorism: “[…] one does not dress for a private Company as for a public Ball” (Franklin 1986: 8). ← 13 | 14 →

In a preliminary summary, we can say that in both naming and displaying the influence of his literary models, the author of the Autobiography locates himself in a pointed gesture of literary posturing within the large field of the Western literary and philosophical tradition, demonstrating knowledge ranging from the works of the ancients up to the moral tracts of his own Puritan heritage and the prominent voices of the European Enlightenment.5

Although there is a gap of fifteen years between the composition of the first and of the second part of the Autobiography, the casual, conversational narrative style of the first part is continued throughout. The narrative is full of little anecdotes which serve to illustrate a moral and ethical point. These anecdotes are often accompanied by small character sketches which illustrate in a didactic manner typical forms of human behaviour. The narrative is, moreover, interspersed with reflexions, aphorisms and maxims taken from all kinds of literary and philosophical sources. A good example of this practice is the “Project at arriving at moral Perfection” (Franklin 1986: 66), in which Franklin presents his maxims for leading a perfect life in the form of a catalogue of thirteen virtues. That catalogue is framed by numerous quotations of the most diverse origins, consisting of a popular proverb, a line from the Old and from the New Testament, as well as mottos and maxims from both classic and contemporary authors.

This method of writing is already anticipated in Franklin’s earlier writings. He had established his literary reputation with Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1759 under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, a series of fictional letters, each followed by a series of proverbs and maxims which were later assembled under the title “The Way to Wealth”. In his Autobiography Franklin characterizes “The Way to Wealth” retrospectively as a collection of “Proverbs, which contained the Wisdom of many Ages and Nations” (Franklin 1986: 79), a description which is also an apt characterization of the approach taken in the Autobiography itself. ← 14 | 15 →

3. Authorial Strategies of Indirect Self-Advertisement

The aspirations of the Autobiography, however, go far beyond those of the earlier work. As already mentioned, Franklin started with the manuscript somewhere in 1771, at a time, that is, when America was still a British colony. When he continued with the second part in 1784, with the United States as a sovereign nation, Franklin saw the moment to change the direction of his autobiographical project by assuming the role of a national as well as universal model character. The way in which he articulates these aspirations is a good example of Franklin’s clever strategy of authorial self-fashioning. Assuming a posture of what we could call arrogant humility, he lets others speak for himself. Two letters inserted between the first and the second part document that he had continued with the work at his autobiography because of the encouragement of two good friends. In the first letter Abel James, characterizing the project as “a Work which would be useful and entertaining not only to a few, but to millions” (Franklin 1986: 58), shows himself convinced that Franklin’s full life story would set a powerful example fit to be imitated by young Americans:


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Depression Travel writing Confessional narrative Addiction
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 187 pp.

Biographical notes

Pawel Schreiber (Volume editor) Joanna Malicka (Volume editor)

Pawel Schreiber is assistant professor at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz (Poland). His main research interests include modern British historical drama in connection with contemporary methodology of history and the image of the Second World War in Polish and American graphic novels. Joanna Malicka is lecturer at Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz. She is currently working on the œuvre of Christine Brooke-Rose.


Title: Narratives of the Self
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190 pages