From the journals of Christopher Columbus to the latest best-seller list, first-person narratives have been at the center of literature written in the Americas. This seminar asks why the form of autobiography has been so important to the literary history of the U.S. Why do so many authors--from escaped slaves to chroniclers of the most privileged members of society--choose to represent themselves or a fictive self in the first person? What is it about the imagined "I" that so attracts readers? In broader terms, what does the prevalence of autobiography say about the culture--and the racial and ethnic politics--of the U.S. at different moments in history?
Perhaps because autobiography presents a form apparently available to everyone--it crosses many divisions of race, gender, and class. Our readings will provide a way into both these difficult issues and into a number of important aspects of American literature. Our readings will include tales of captivity, slave narratives, and the autobiographies of two major African American writers (Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright). We will also study works that challenge conventional conceptions of the genre, including a first-person novel, THE GREAT GATSBY, an "autobiography" written by another person (Stein's ALICE B. TOKLAS), and several works from the 1980s that cross boundaries of genre, language, and gender (BORDERLANDS, DICTEE, and THE NEW WORLD BORDER). We will conclude by looking at one of the most successful forms of postmodern autobiography: graphic memoirs that combine word and image to represent the self in entirely new forms.