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Autobiography, Confessional Writing, and Feminist Literature: A Critique and an Historic-Philosophical Survey: 1848-2015
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-06-30 11:15:00
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“Journalism is not Narcissism”

                                                  --Essay by Hamilton Nolan in Gawker Magazine

“What Nolan is critiquing is the culture of confession, which has without question run amok. Blogs, Twitter, reality television — everywhere we look, people expose themselves. And yet, the paradox is that the more mindless the narcissism with which we are confronted, the more we need relentless confessional work. It’s the difference between art and artifice, between self-expression and self-importance, and it gets at the key conundrum of this sort of writing: You have to be willing to reveal everything to get outside yourself.”

                                   --David Ulin (In his essay “Everyone’s Life is Interesting:
         Defending Confessional Nonfiction”

“We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us. Re-vision-the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction-is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”

                                  --Adrienne Rich (In “Writing as Revision”)


Adrienne Rich at 22 in 1952

There is little doubt that there exists an abundance of vapid confessional writings all over the internet, on Facebook and on Twitters, not to mention the banal realities shows on TV. In that sense Hamilton Nolan who wrote the essay “Journalism is not Narcissism” may have had a valid critical point. But his point is not objective and unbiased enough in as much as it raises this crucial question: should any kind of writing be judged by genre alone? We have explored in some depth the issue of modern feminism in Symposium meeting 33 (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/11469) as well as the recent essay titled “Twitter and Confessional Writing: Mixing Garbage and Perfume” (see http://www.ovimagazine.com/art/12323)

We are presently revisiting the theme once again in an attempt to answer the above question. In doing so we will briefly survey the history of modern feminism beginning in the 19th century, but we’ll also follow Adrienne Rich’s wise advise and let the feminists themselves render their point of view on confessional writing as revision, understood as the breaking of paternalistic traditions to be examined with “fresh eyes and with a new critical direction.” We will also explore the pantheon (approximately a dozen women) of those who are generally considered the most influential feminists in the Anglo-Saxon world, spanning two centuries, beginning with Elizabeth Cady in the 19th century and ending with Judith Ortiz Cafer in the 20th century.

The first thing we notice in Rich’s viewpoint, as expressed in the above quote, is that the crucial element towards moving forward for women, towards understanding the shape of their own written experience now in the 21st century, can only be accomplished when this re-vision occurs. Women should not only learn and break past traditions out of the necessity of survival, but out of their desire to understand and link themselves to a past which continues to shape today's writing as well. Also important to keep in mind that history is not transgender: it affects both sexes.


Christopher Lash (1932-1994): a fierce Critic of Confessional Literature

These are notions that Christopher Lasch did not seem to grasp when he called the feminist confession "the banality of pseudo self-awareness"; however, a man critiquing women in this way is just as well a "pseudo self-awareness" of himself, if he cannot see his role in knocking down what these women writers are working so hard to build up. He cannot begin to understand the relevance of such works to women as a whole because he has not experienced the role of the woman; moreover, he is not a woman reader in need of gender connection. So the words and ideas are instantly rendered differently and tranformed in his mind. Indeed, it is easy to brand feminist writing as full of self absorption, but as we shall see, these writer's lives cannot be completely self absorbed because what each of them is writing about is commenting on and making a connection with those social and political ideas that she is constantly encompassed and surrounded by. This is not to discredit male readers and their sympathies. Many women are fortunate to have men's understanding too in their written lives. But the men who do see their significance and contribution to women's literature realize that they will never be fully aware of the struggles and experiences women have endured in this society. In this regard, Jung seemed to have had it on target when he postulated a feminine principle in every man, which he called “anima” and a masculine principle in every woman which he called “animus.” Without the sensitivity of the anima the man becomes a brutal unfeeling human being; and without the drive of the animus the woman becomes a clinging violet, a satellite of man, unable to chart her own destiny.

The world's first organized movement in behalf of women was inaugurated in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. There, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered her first public speech, saying that she was "nerved" only by her conviction that the time had come for "the question of woman's wrongs to be laid before the public" and that "woman herself must do this work; for woman alone can understand the depth, the length and the breadth of those wrongs. Although the majority of, what is considered feminist writings was written after the 1960s, early feminist as a crucial a starting point cannot be ignored; the origins usually reveal the very essence of a cultural phenomenon.


Elizabeth Cady (1815-1902), Originator of the Feminist Movement

It was the first wave of feminism  which was mostly carried on by Virginia Woolf  after Cady and whose basic argument is that gender identity is socially constructed and that inequality begins early in the male dominated family. Her highly influential book, A Room of One's Own, continues to show today's women the social and physical dominance which men possess. In one part of that book Woolf writes of what it may have been like if Shakespeare had had a sister: “She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as eager to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother's perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers.”


Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)


Simone de Bouvoir (1908-1986)


Maya Angelou (1928-2014)


Kate Millett (1934-      )


Anne Moody (1940-2015)

An autobiography is an act of confession, a liberation, which reveals many political aspects through personal experience and confronting social gender roles. The confession is actually considered a subgenre of the autobiography: making private knowledge a public truth for women readers. Texts such as Kate Millett's Flying (1974) and Ann Oakley's Taking it Like a Woman (1984) share a "foregrounding of the relationship between a female author and a female reader". This link of the author and the reader is significant as well as crucial as it addresses a "we," a union and merging together. The significance of confessions relies on placing them in a socio-historical context. Rita Felski writes that "feminist confession is less concerned with unique individuality or notions of essential humanity than with delineating the specific problems and experiences which bind women together". Late in the sixties, during what was called second-wave feminism, the civil rights movement and Vietnam politicized literature. Women's writing of memoirs and autobiographies "took on a new edge as people began to realize that the publication of life stories by those outside the mainstream constituted political statement". At the on-set of second-wave feminism was Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Although not an autobiography, this epic dealt with the issue of female oppression in a way that targeted society and various social constructs. De Beauvoir was adamant in her belief that womanhood as we know it is a social construct, just as Virginia Woolf insisted.


Ann Oakley (1944-    ), author of Taking it like a Woman

Some of the most influential works of this "new" literature of second-wave feminists were written by African-American women, which undoubtedly aided in an understanding that the black woman's struggle was one of a different degree of difficulty. Anne Moody's Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968) touched the lives of other women as she describes putting herself through a small black college in the South and taking part in civil rights protests. Maya Angelou was another powerful influence, recounting her experience with segregation in the American South as well. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970), Angelou shows the confusion of her childhood, sometimes the rage at what she saw, and often the lack of comfort or confidence she had in herself. In one of many brilliant scenes, Angelou, as a young girl, watches from inside as her grandmother is humiliated by the "powerwhitetrash" girls. Her grandmother, though, remained composed and dignified, offering no harsh response at all to their cruelty. Angelou explains that "some­ thing happened out there, which I couldn't completely understand, but I could see that she was happy". "Momma" then carries on singing, "Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down", a truly inspiring moment amidst the constant degradation.

Since black women have suffered cruelly more so in this society from living the phenomenon of being black and female in a country that is both racist and sexist their plight exemplified an undying power and strength. Among them is also Alice Walker, whose writing exemplifies the main features and varieties of black feminism, but in no way excludes coalitions with white feminists. Instead, she suggests "that all feminists are writing one huge story with different perspectives". However strong a unified women's voice may seem, though, there is still a difference between the "stories" of women of color and those of Euro-American women. One of Walker's features as a writer is her historical account of both black and white men specifically violating black women. In her writing she draws on a spiritual transformation that combines with social circumstances and shows her readers that a black feminist writer has a different history-a different experience-that should not be lost or blurred among the rest of feminist literature.


Alice Walker (1944-    )


Elen Moers

In 1976, Ellen Moers's Literary Women reinstated in the second-wave the idea that feminist interest in literature is an aspect of the culture as a whole. Her book is a significant contribution to this short literary history in that it addresses the exclusion of women from so many parts of social and political life. This is what in effect prompted women to write of themselves, where they felt their place was, and how it may be changed with the giving and receiving of other women's contributions. This could easily be labeled an expansion of literary history. Therefore, for the feminist reader there is no neutral approach to reading literature since all interpretation evolves politically. The reader must think of how that text represents women both individually and together as a gender, what it says about male/female relations, and how sexual difference is defined. Writers are setting out a hope that others will also reaffirm or challenge cultural norms based on sex. Second-wave feminism opened new doors for women's writing which found inspiration and guidance from those writing earlier in the century. Judith Ortiz Cofer acknowledges Virginia Woolf's memoir, Sketch of the Past, which she says helped guide her through her literary exploration of her own Puerto Rican childhood. Her epigraph, too, is from Woolf: "A woman writing thinks back through her mother". Also described is Cofer's "savoring" of a community of women and their separateness which second-wave feminist thought also praised.


Rita Felsky (1956-    )

Tied in intricate ways to the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the desire for voices previously unheard to come through loudly, the feminist confession and autobiography dominate much of women's literature in the twentieth century. Her epigraph, too, is writing thinks back through her mother"


Judit Ortiz Cofer (1952-    )

Feminist biography dominates much of women's literature and writing it produces reference points forward to political social activity. It also reflects backward toward the inner life "into myth, spirituality, and the transformation of subjective consciousness". Feminist writing of the late '60s and early '70s crossed national boundaries which have continued through today and will continue in the future. Feminism and its literature became an international movement whose list of members and contributors is truly endless. If this particular exploration and research has taught us nothing else it is that there is plenty of perfume to go around without having to mixing it with the uninspiring garbage found on banal reality shows or on Facebook or on Twitter.

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