Autobiography: theory and practice

Smith, Joe (2010) Autobiography: theory and practice. MPhil(R) thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The thesis consists of two related parts. The first section, Theory, is a consideration of autobiographical reliability. It investigates the nature and usages of memory in the context of memoir, with particular reference to definitions and expectations of ‘authenticity’ in narrative self-portrayal. It addresses conflicting notions of autonomy and reliability in present, past, perceived and actual subject identities, followed by considerations of narrative continuity, inclusions and omissions, and the insidious nature of the nostalgic impulse. A range of post-sixties autobiographical texts are considered, in the light of a variety of twentieth century critical theory, as well as in that of personal experience during the compilation of part two, entitled Practice, an extract from a memoir in progress, The Artilleryman.

I argue throughout the first section that there are limitations to first person autonomy that set autobiography apart from other entirely fictional genres, even in work that is not a record of public life and service. Perceptions of personal identity and experience, within an extended time frame, are highly subjective, and yet remain contingent and provisional within a shared existence. Reader assent for memoir is gained by an unspoken will towards what is defined as both a ‘narrative’, and a consciously subjective sense of truth: the imaginative therefore becomes more appropriate than the imaginary. Scope for the memoirist lies in the linguistic and traditional flexibility of the narrative process, together with a necessarily internalised, but professedly uncategorical impression of experience, rather than in any re-shaping of character, or history. I have expressed this sense of keeping faith, as compared with examples of spurious memoir, or a proposed unconditional liberty of the first person, as autobiographical reliability, and an expressed and imaginative awareness of the strengths and failings of the remembering process as acceptable unreliability. The two together, within the context of my argument, form a sense of ‘reliable unreliability’, or autobiographical authenticity.

The second section, Practice, consists of nine selected chapters that will come to form a longer memoir. It is descriptive of the influence exerted by my father on the formation of my own and sibling’s identities. The Artilleryman is a series of recollections on the time we spent together. I have written principally from memory but with my recall assisted by talks with my younger sisters, Mary, Kate and Jane and by having access to a few terse computerised notes compiled by my brother Peter. I have also had recourse to a couple of year’s worth of extremely intermittent, cryptic and mould damaged diaries, written in a near illegible hand by my father. He was intelligent and articulate; he was an artist, a philosopher, a guide, a naturalist and a generous host. Also a drunkard, a bully and, occasionally a brute, he gave us a childhood that was wondrous in its proximity to nature, that was rich in its variety, and that was often terrifying in its daily reality. ‘You may not like me when you are older,’ he once told us, ‘but you will not forget me’.

Item Type: Thesis (MPhil(R))
Qualification Level: Masters
Keywords: Theory:impossibility of complete autonomy in autobiographical writing, Practice: an illustrative first part of a childhood memoir.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Pow, Mr Tom
Date of Award: 2010
Depositing User: mr joe smith
Unique ID: glathesis:2010-1651
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 16 Mar 2010
Last Modified: 01 Jul 2013 13:41

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