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Severed Parts: American Memory and Memoir

ENGL 286.302
instructor(s):
TR 10:30-12

The success of memoirs on recent best-seller lists ironically belies the failures, discords, misgivings, diseases, and breakdowns that such personal histories frequently record. A manuscript may betoken a consistency that its author achieves only in the process of its production. As Virginia Woolf--an influence on many contemporaries, American or not-- has observed of her own autobiographical practice, "I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together."

This fall we will read pairs of memoirs, building cross-generational and cross-cultural lenses to examine both the writing of autobiography and key features of American cultural experience. Themes likely to be treated include becoming a writer (Richard Wright/Annie Dillard); "illness as metaphor" (Edward Said/Audre Lorde); the (un)professional memoir (Henry Adams/Virginia Woolf); dwelling between worlds (Alfred Kazin/ Richard Rodriguez); "secrets and lies" (Mary McCarthy/Maxine Hong Kingston). Requirements include intense class participation; critical papers on each pair of texts; theoretical essays; several screenings; a final project with creative options (writing a section of one's own memoir).