Autobiographical Poetry

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autobiography definition poetry

  • Mihye Bang 2  

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Victorian women poets wrote in diverse autobiographical modes. Victorian women’s autobiographical poetry was not confined to the “autobiography in verse” as defined by the male canon with explicitly autobiographical intentions, and an extended definition of it is necessary to illuminate their self-writing in verse. While prejudices about women self-exposure to public prevailed during the nineteenth century, women poets were not able to recount their private lives freely. Instead, they showed differing uses of self-reflexivity in their poems, including recollection of the poet’s past, appropriation of the poet’s biographical womanhood to create a lyric persona, and fictionalized self-reflection as the artist. Bourgeois women poets generally preferred to imply their biographical facts in their lyric poetry or mediate them through dramatization or fictionalization. Working-class women poets, in contrast, often explicitly revealed their nonnormative life experiences in an effort...

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Anderson, Linda. 2001. Autobiography . London: Routledge.

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Correspondence to Mihye Bang .

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St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada

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Bang, M. (2021). Autobiographical Poetry. In: The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Victorian Women's Writing. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-02721-6_340-1

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Autobiography

Definition of autobiography.

Autobiography is one type of biography , which tells the life story of its author, meaning it is a written record of the author’s life. Rather than being written by somebody else, an autobiography comes through the person’s own pen, in his own words. Some autobiographies are written in the form of a fictional tale; as novels or stories that closely mirror events from the author’s real life. Such stories include Charles Dickens ’ David Copperfield  and J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye . In writing about personal experience, one discovers himself. Therefore, it is not merely a collection of anecdotes – it is a revelation to the readers about the author’s self-discovery.

Difference between Autobiography and Memoir

In an autobiography, the author attempts to capture important elements of his life. He not only deals with his career, and growth as a person, he also uses emotions and facts related to family life, relationships, education, travels, sexuality, and any types of inner struggles. A memoir is a record of memories and particular events that have taken place in the author’s life. In fact, it is the telling of a story or an event from his life; an account that does not tell the full record of a life.

Six Types of Autobiography

There are six types of autobiographies:

  • Autobiography: A personal account that a person writes himself/herself.
  • Memoir : An account of one’s memory.
  • Reflective Essay : One’s thoughts about something.
  • Confession: An account of one’s wrong or right doings.
  • Monologue : An address of one’s thoughts to some audience or interlocuters.
  • Biography : An account of the life of other persons written by someone else.

Importance of Autobiography

Autobiography is a significant genre in literature. Its significance or importance lies in authenticity, veracity, and personal testimonies. The reason is that people write about challenges they encounter in their life and the ways to tackle them. This shows the veracity and authenticity that is required of a piece of writing to make it eloquent, persuasive, and convincing.

Examples of Autobiography in Literature

Example #1:  the box: tales from the darkroom by gunter grass.

A noble laureate and novelist, Gunter Grass , has shown a new perspective of self-examination by mixing up his quilt of fictionalized approach in his autobiographical book, “The Box: Tales from the Darkroom.” Adopting the individual point of view of each of his children, Grass narrates what his children think about him as their father and a writer. Though it is really an experimental approach, due to Grass’ linguistic creativity and dexterity, it gains an enthralling momentum.

Example #2:  The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life , Helen Keller recounts her first twenty years, beginning with the events of the childhood illness that left her deaf and blind. In her childhood, a writer sent her a letter and prophesied, “Someday you will write a great story out of your own head that will be a comfort and help to many.”

In this book, Keller mentions prominent historical personalities, such as Alexander Graham Bell, whom she met at the age of six, and with whom she remained friends for several years. Keller paid a visit to John Greenleaf Whittier , a famous American poet, and shared correspondence with other eminent figures, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. Generally, Keller’s autobiography is about overcoming great obstacles through hard work and pain.

Example #3:  Self Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten

In his autobiography, “Self Portraits: Fictions ,” Frederic Tuten has combined the fringes of romantic life with reality. Like postmodern writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, the stories of Tuten skip between truth and imagination, time and place, without warning. He has done the same with his autobiography, where readers are eager to move through fanciful stories about train rides, circus bears, and secrets to a happy marriage; all of which give readers glimpses of the real man.

Example #4:  My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard

Reliving the success of his literary career through the lens of the many prizes he has received, Thomas Bernhard presents a sarcastic commentary in his autobiography, “My Prizes.” Bernhard, in fact, has taken a few things too seriously. Rather, he has viewed his life as a farcical theatrical drama unfolding around him. Although Bernhard is happy with the lifestyle and prestige of being an author, his blasé attitude and scathing wit make this recollection more charmingly dissident and hilarious.

Example #5:  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin ” is written by one of the founding fathers of the United States. This book reveals Franklin’s youth, his ideas, and his days of adversity and prosperity. He is one of the best examples of living the American dream – sharing the idea that one can gain financial independence, and reach a prosperous life through hard work.

Through autobiography, authors can speak directly to their readers, and to their descendants. The function of the autobiography is to leave a legacy for its readers. By writing an autobiography, the individual shares his triumphs and defeats, and lessons learned, allowing readers to relate and feel motivated by inspirational stories. Life stories bridge the gap between peoples of differing ages and backgrounds, forging connections between old and new generations.

Synonyms of Autobiography

The following words are close synonyms of autobiography such as life story, personal account, personal history, diary, journal, biography, or memoir.

Related posts:

  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X

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autobiography definition poetry

autobiography

What is autobiography definition, usage, and literary examples, autobiography definition.

An  autobiography  (awe-tow-bye-AWE-gruh-fee) is a self-written  biography . The author writes about all or a portion of their own life to share their experience, frame it in a larger cultural or historical context, and/or inform and entertain the reader.

Autobiographies have been a popular literary genre for centuries. The first Western autobiography is attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo for his 13-book work titled  Confessions , written between 397 and 400 CE. Some autobiographies are a straightforward narrative that recollects a linear chain of events as they unfolded. The genre has expanded and evolved to include different approaches to the form.

The word  autobiography  comes from the Ancient Greek  auto  (“self”) +  bios  (“life”) +  graphein  (“to write”) = “a self-written life.” It is also known as autography .

The History of Autobiography

Scholars regard Augustine’s  Confessions  as the first Western autobiography. Other autobiographical works from antiquity include Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’s  Vita  (circa 99 CE) and Greek scholar Libanius’s  Oration I  (374 CE). Works of this kind were called apologias, which essentially means “in my defense.” Writers approached these works not as acts of self-documentation but as self-defense. They represented a way to explain and provide rationale for their life, work, and escapades. There was also less focus on their emotional lives.

The Book of Margery Kempe , written in 1438 by an English Christian mystic, is the earliest known autobiography in English. (Though it didn’t see full publication until the 20th century.) Other early English-language biographies of note include:

  • Lord Herbert of Cherbury’s 1764 memoirs
  • John Bunyan’s  Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners  in 1666
  • Jarena Lee’s  The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee  (the first autobiography of an African American woman)

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s  Confessions was published in 1782. It paved the way for the more thoughtful, emotionally centered autobiographies seen today. Autobiography as a literary genre emerged a few years later, when British scholar William Taylor first used the term to describe a self-written biography. He did so disparagingly, suggesting the form was  pedantic . In 1809, English Romantic poet Robert Southey used the term more seriously to describe self-written biographies.

Starting in the 20th century, more young people started writing autobiographies. Perhaps the most famous example is Anne Frank’s  The Diary of a Young Girl , about her time hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic. The 21st century saw an increase in autobiographical essay collections and memoirs by younger celebrities, including:

  • Anna Kendrick
  • Mindy Kaling
  • Gabourey Sidibe
  • Mike Birbiglia
  • Lena Dunham
  • Chelsea Handler

Autobiographies are not immune to controversy. One notable scandal involved author James Frey’s  A Million Little Pieces . Originally billed as a memoir, evidence later emerged that Frey invented key parts of the story. This example underscores how easily authors can cross over into autofiction—fictional autobiography—and how seriously readers take authors’ responsibility to accurately and honestly market their books.

Types of Autobiographies

There are a few different types of self-written works that qualify as autobiography.

Standard Autobiographies

In the most traditional form, authors recount their life or specific formative events from their life. This approach often utilizes a chronological format of events, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. An author’s approach might include a framing device such as flashbacks, in which they move from the present to the past as they remember their lives. For example, Broadway star Patti LuPone’s self-titled autobiography begins on the opening night of  Gypsy  in 2004 before moving back in time to LuPone’s childhood. An author could take a more stream-of-consciousness style, in which one memory links to another by a common theme. Irish writer Seán O’Casey narrates his six-volume  Autobiographies  in this manner

This is a type of autobiography that is narrower in scope and focus. It places greater emphasis on particular memories, thoughts, and feelings. A standard autobiography can certainly cover some of this same ground—most do—but the memoir is more interested in individual events or defined portions of the author’s life and the emotions and lessons behind them.

Henry David Thoreau is a notable memoirist. In Walden , he reflects on his time spent living in solitude in the woods of Massachusetts and what he learned about life and nature throughout this experience. Another example is  The Year of Magical Thinking  by Joan Didion, which relates the death of her husband and its impact on her life and work. Another is  Wild  by Cheryl Strayed, wherein Strayed remembers her time hiking the Pacific Crest Trail during a period of great change in her life.

Autofiction

The fictionalized autobiography, or autofiction, is another type of autobiography. The author presents their story not as fact but as fiction. This method gives them considerable space to take creative license with events and characters, thereby blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The overall goal is less about the author wanting to obscure facts and make things up and more a matter of taking another tactic to delve into their experiences in service of self-discovery.  Taipei  by Tao Lin is a work of autofiction. The central character, Paul, mirrors Lin’s own life and experiences, from the literary world of New York City to his ancestral roots in Taiwan.

Spiritual Autobiographies

These autobiographies center on the author’s religious or spiritual awakening and the subsequent journey their faith has taken them on. Common elements include struggles and doubt, a life-altering conversion, periods of regression, and sharing the “message.” These all act as endorsements of the author’s faith. Augustine’s  Confessions , Paramahansa Yogananda’s  Autobiography of a Yogi , and Augusten Burroughs’s  Toil & Trouble: A Memoir  are all spiritual autobiographies.

Autobiography vs. Biography

Both autobiographies and  biographies  are records of real lives, but there is one major distinction. A person other than the book’s subject writes a biography, while the subject themselves writes an autobiography. In this way, an autobiography is essentially a biography of the self. The biographer’s job is typically more involved, entailing detailed research into the life of the subject. The autobiographer, however, is usually not burdened by this because they lived through the events they write about. They may need only to confirm dates and stories to accurately relate the pertinent details.

The Function of Autobiography

An autobiography allows the author to tell the true story of their own life. This is the reason why autobiographies have always been written by famous people. History tends to remember notable individuals for just one significant contribution or event and, even then, the public’s perception of it may be inaccurate. Writing an autobiography allows the author to share the real story and put it into the larger context of their life and times.

Most readers pick up an autobiography expecting some degree of subjectivity from the author. After all, the events chronicled happened to the author, so the writing will of course have a biased  perspective . There are advantages to this subjectivity, though. The reader gets the real story directly from the person who lived it, unvarnished by others’ opinions or erroneous historical data.

One way this subjectivity is problematic is that the author may not possess the ability to see the story they’re telling from other perspectives. For example, they may not acknowledge any hurt they caused others, dangerous behaviors they engaged in, or the “other side” of a controversial event in which there are equally valid opposing viewpoints and experiences. Any of these deficiencies can result in a somewhat skewed narrative.

Writers Known for Autobiography & Autobiography Books

  • Maya Angelou,  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ,  Gather Together in My Name
  • Jung Chang,  Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China
  • Isak Dinesen,  Out of Africa ,  Shadows on the Grass
  • Carrie Fisher,  Wishful Drinking ,  Shockaholic
  • Anne Frank,  The Diary of a Young Girl
  • Ernest Hemingway,  A Moveable Feast
  • Karl Ove Knausgård,  My Struggle
  • Frank McCourt,  Angela’s Ashes
  • Anaïs Nin,  The Diaries of Anaïs Nin
  • Marcel Proust,  Remembrance of Things Past
  • Patti Smith,  Just Kids ,  M Train
  • Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain
  • Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  • Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
  • Agatha Christie, Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
  • Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
  • Mahatma Gandhi, Gandhi: An Autobiography 

Examples of Autobiographies

1. Maya Angelou,  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Angelou’s autobiography is the first installment in a seven-volume series chronicling the life of the legendary poet, teacher, actress, director, dancer, and civil rights activist. Given all those roles, it’s easy to see why Angelou’s life story makes for interesting reading.

This volume centers primarily on her early life in Stamps, Arkansas, and the devastating effects of a childhood rape. It also explores racism in the American South. It discuses the important role reading plays in helping young Maya deal with the sexual assault and pervasive prejudice in her environment.

2. Helen Keller,  The Story of My Life

Keller’s autobiography details her first 20 years, starting with the childhood illness that caused her blindness and deafness. She discusses the obstacles she had to overcome and the life-changing relationship she shared with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who helped her learn to read and write. Keller also documents her friendships with several famous figures of her day, including Alexander Graham Bell, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and First Lady Frances Cleveland.

3. Vinh Chung,  Where the Wind Leads

Chung’s autobiography recalls the harrowing story of a Vietnamese refugee and his journey to make the American Dream his own. Born in South Vietnam, Chung comes of age in a changing political climate that eventually compels his family to flee the country. Their voyage takes them through the South China Sea, run-ins with pirates, resettlement in Arkansas, and Chung’s graduation from Harvard Medical School.

How to Write an Autobiography

Autobiography is a truly universal art form and is accessible to anyone, whether you're in high school or 100 years old. Exploring the process of writing an autobiography deserves an article in itself, but the process should include these steps:

  • Determine your "why." What lessons do you want to impart via your story, and why are they worth sharing with a broader audience?
  • Draft an autobiographical outline. It should include information about your upbringing, impactful moments throughout your life, stories of failure and success, and meaningful mentors.
  • Begin with the easiest sections. Getting started is often the greatest hurdle, so begin by writing the chapters that feel most accessible or enjoyable.
  • Write your first draft. Once you write the first chapters, it will feel easier to write the rest. Capitalize on your momentum and write a full draft.
  • Step away. As with anything, stepping away from your work will help foster fresh perspectives when you return.
  • Edit and re-write your draft. Your first draft will probably benefit from thorough revisions, as will your second draft, and maybe your third. Continue to edit and revise until it feels right.
  • Ask for help. Bring in a trusted family member or friend or professional editor to help with final edits.

Further Resources on Autobiography

ThoughtCo. shares some  important points to consider before writing an autobiography .

The Living Handbook of Narratology delves into the  history of the autobiography .

MasterClass breaks autobiography writing down into  eight basic steps .

Pen & the Pad looks at the  advantages and disadvantages of the autobiography .

Lifehack has a list of  15 autobiographies everyone should read at least once .

Related Terms

  • Frame Story
  • Point of View

autobiography definition poetry

  • Literary Terms
  • Autobiography
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to Write Autobiography

I. What is Autobiography?

An autobiography is a self-written life story.

autobiography

It is different from a  biography , which is the life story of a person written by someone else. Some people may have their life story written by another person because they don’t believe they can write well, but they are still considered an author because they are providing the information. Reading autobiographies may be more interesting than biographies because you are reading the thoughts of the person instead of someone else’s interpretation.

II. Examples of Autobiography

One of the United States’ forefathers wrote prolifically (that means a lot!) about news, life, and common sense. His readings, quotes, and advice are still used today, and his face is on the $100 bill. Benjamin Franklin’s good advice is still used through his sayings, such as “We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.” He’s also the one who penned the saying that’s seen all over many schools: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” His autobiography is full of his adventures , philosophy about life, and his wisdom. His autobiography shows us how much he valued education through his anecdotes (stories) of his constant attempts to learn and improve himself. He also covers his many ideas on his inventions and his thoughts as he worked with others in helping the United States become free from England.

III. Types of Autobiography

There are many types of autobiographies. Authors must decide what purpose they have for writing about their lives, and then they can choose the format that would best tell their story. Most of these types all share common goals: helping themselves face an issue by writing it down, helping others overcome similar events, or simply telling their story.

a. Full autobiography (traditional):

This would be the complete life story, starting from birth through childhood, young adulthood, and up to the present time at which the book is being written. Authors might choose this if their whole lives were very different from others and could be considered interesting.

There are many types of memoirs – place, time, philosophic (their theory on life), occupational, etc. A memoir is a snapshot of a person’s life. It focuses on one specific part that stands out as a learning experience or worth sharing.

c. Psychological illness

People who have suffered mental illness of any kind find it therapeutic to write down their thoughts. Therapists are specialists who listen to people’s problems and help them feel better, but many people find writing down their story is also helpful.

d. Confession

Just as people share a psychological illness, people who have done something very wrong may find it helps to write down and share their story. Sharing the story may make one feel he or she is making amends (making things right), or perhaps hopes that others will learn and avoid the same mistake.

e. Spiritual

Spiritual and religious experiences are very personal . However, many people feel that it’s their duty and honor to share these stories. They may hope to pull others into their beliefs or simply improve others’ lives.

f. Overcoming adversity

Unfortunately, many people do not have happy, shining lives. Terrible events such as robberies, assaults, kidnappings, murders, horrific accidents, and life-threatening illnesses are common in some lives. Sharing the story can inspire others while also helping the person express deep emotions to heal.

IV. The Importance of Autobiography

Autobiographies are an important part of history. Being able to read the person’s own ideas and life stories is getting the first-person story versus the third-person (he-said/she-said) version. In journalism, reporters go to the source to get an accurate account of an event. The same is true when it comes to life stories. Reading the story from a second or third source will not be as reliable. The writer may be incorrectly explaining and describing the person’s life events.

Autobiographies are also important because they allow other people in similar circumstances realize that they are not alone. They can be inspiring for those who are facing problems in their lives. For the author, writing the autobiography allows them to heal as they express their feelings and opinions. Autobiographies are also an important part of history.

V. Examples of Autobiography in Literature

A popular autobiography that has lasted almost 100 years is that of Helen Keller. Her life story has been made into numerous movies and plays. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan, has also had her life story written and televised multiple times. Students today still read and learn about this young girl who went blind and deaf at 19 months of age, causing her to also lose her ability to learn to speak. Sullivan’s entrance into Helen’s life when the girl was seven was the turning point. She learned braille and soon became an activist for helping blind and deaf people across the nation. She died in 1968, but her autobiography is still helping others.

Even in the days before my teacher came, I used to feel along the square stiff boxwood hedges, and, guided by the sense of smell, would find the first violets and lilies. There, too, after a fit of temper, I went to find comfort and to hide my hot face in the cool leaves and grass. What joy it was to lose myself in that garden of flowers, to wander happily from spot to spot, until, coming suddenly upon a beautiful vine, I recognized it by its leaves and blossoms, and knew it was the vine which covered the tumble-down summer-house at the farther end of the garden! (Keller).

An autobiography that many middle and high school students read every year is “Night” by Elie Wiesel. His story is also a memoir, covering his teen years as he and his family went from the comfort of their own home to being forced into a Jewish ghetto with other families, before ending up in a Nazi prison camp. His book is not that long, but the details and description he uses brings to life the horrors of Hitler’s reign of terror in Germany during World War II. Students also read “The Diary of Anne Frank,” another type of autobiography that shows a young Jewish girl’s daily life while hiding from the Nazis to her eventual capture and death in a German camp. Both books are meant to remind us to not be indifferent to the world’s suffering and to not allow hate to take over.

“The people were saying, “The Red Army is advancing with giant strides…Hitler will not be able to harm us, even if he wants to…” Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us. Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of things—strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism—but not with their own fate. Even Moishe the Beadle had fallen silent. He was weary of talking. He would drift through synagogue or through the streets, hunched over, eyes cast down, avoiding people’s gaze. In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates to Palestine. I had asked my father to sell everything, to liquidate everything, and to leave” (Wiesel 8).  

VI. Examples of Autobiography in Pop Culture

One example of an autobiography that was a hit in the movie theaters is “American Sniper,” the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. According to an article in the Dallas, Texas, magazine D, Kyle donated all the proceeds from the film to veterans and their families. He had a story to tell, and he used it to help others. His story is a memoir, focusing on a specific time period of his life when he was overseas in the military.

An autobiography by a young Olympian is “Grace, Gold and Glory: My Leap of Faith” by Gabrielle (Gabby) Douglas. She had a writer, Michelle Burford, help her in writing her autobiography. This is common for those who have a story to tell but may not have the words to express it well. Gabby was the darling of the 2012 Olympics, winning gold medals for the U.S. in gymnastics along with being the All-Around Gold Medal winner, the first African-American to do so. Many young athletes see her as an inspiration. Her story also became a television movie, “The Gabby Douglas Story.”

VII. Related Terms

The life story of one person written by another. The purpose may to be highlight an event or person in a way to help the public learn a lesson, feel inspired, or to realize that they are not alone in their circumstance. Biographies are also a way to share history. Historic and famous people may have their biographies written by many authors who research their lives years after they have died.

VIII. Conclusion

Autobiographies are a way for people to share stories that may educate, inform, persuade, or inspire others. Many people find writing their stories to be therapeutic, healing them beyond what any counseling might do or as a part of the counseling. Autobiographies are also a way to keep history alive by allowing people in the present learn about those who lived in the past. In the future, people can learn a lot about our present culture by reading autobiographies by people of today.

List of Terms

  • Alliteration
  • Amplification
  • Anachronism
  • Anthropomorphism
  • Antonomasia
  • APA Citation
  • Aposiopesis
  • Bildungsroman
  • Characterization
  • Circumlocution
  • Cliffhanger
  • Comic Relief
  • Connotation
  • Deus ex machina
  • Deuteragonist
  • Doppelganger
  • Double Entendre
  • Dramatic irony
  • Equivocation
  • Extended Metaphor
  • Figures of Speech
  • Flash-forward
  • Foreshadowing
  • Intertextuality
  • Juxtaposition
  • Literary Device
  • Malapropism
  • Onomatopoeia
  • Parallelism
  • Pathetic Fallacy
  • Personification
  • Point of View
  • Polysyndeton
  • Protagonist
  • Red Herring
  • Rhetorical Device
  • Rhetorical Question
  • Science Fiction
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
  • Synesthesia
  • Turning Point
  • Understatement
  • Urban Legend
  • Verisimilitude
  • Essay Guide
  • Cite This Website
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autobiography

Definition of autobiography

Examples of autobiography in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'autobiography.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

auto- + biography , perhaps after German Autobiographie

1797, in the meaning defined above

Phrases Containing autobiography

  • semi - autobiography

Dictionary Entries Near autobiography

autobiographist

Cite this Entry

“Autobiography.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/autobiography. Accessed 30 Apr. 2024.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of autobiography, more from merriam-webster on autobiography.

Thesaurus: All synonyms and antonyms for autobiography

Nglish: Translation of autobiography for Spanish Speakers

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Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about autobiography

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Revue électronique d’études sur le monde anglophone

Accueil Numéros 5.1 From Poetry & Autobiography to Po...

From Poetry & Autobiography to Poetry & “Autothanatography”

Texte intégral.

1 The project for this issue started in a questioning about the possible bridges between poetry today and Romantic poetry. How to think beyond the now consensual but also constructed oppositions that helped the Modernists define themselves against their anxiety-inducing immediate predecessors? In the line of Marjorie Perloff’s 21 st -Century Modernism , one is urged to this re-reading of the 19 th and of the 20 th and 21 st  centuries. Thus comes to be examined one of the major post-Romantic assessments of Romanticism which foregrounds the centrality of self and the imperialistic posture of the individual. Constructing personal experience into collective wisdom and conferring general relevance to the self’s idiosyncrasies are some of the projects and processes underpinning the Romantic autobiographical poem from William Wordsworth’s Prelude to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass . Even if such an approach can be (and has been) argued and questioned, this supremacy of the individual, and more specifically of the poetic self, finds itself brought to important consequences with Thoreau and Emerson’s ideals of ‘self-reliance’ and solitary meditation. In Transcendentalism, but not just there, assessing the self in seclusion (or even in confinement with Emily Dickinson) is paradoxically meant to lead to a better, more accurate and more lucid, understanding of the world and man’s condition. The self’s poetic autobiography would thus coincide with collective destiny and its narrative stand as an allegory for communal fate.

2 It is precisely this presupposed osmosis between individual experience and general existential issues which lies at the origins of the Modernist ostentatious rejection of Romanticism. The dangers of sentimentality lurking behind the projection of the personal over the collective trigger the claim for impersonality and the attempt to erase the self’s marks from the poetic text. The “I,” turned into a controlling and dogmatic subject, is literally barred and “barré” by Ezra Pound from T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land . And indeed, its obliteration presides over Poundian Imagism as well as Zukofsky’s insistence on “sincerity,” as the absence of judgment or subjectivization: the Objectivists’ poem as “object” would be one of the concrete contingencies that make up the world, not its representation, nor a means to change it. What has generated a re-reading of these poetic manifestoes in terms of neo-Romanticism is however justified by the resulting poems and the aporias of language as the poetic medium.

3 For instance, Williams’s intention in The Wanderer is to provide “a mirror to this modernity” (that it to say representation), and Pound’s project in the Cantos remains “to write paradise” (as a manner of re-creating the world): the Modernist poem systematically raises issues of the interaction between self and world. The “I” emerges from the kaleidoscope of images and references and its history gets inscribed albeit surreptitiously. The subliminal marks of individual choice and personal decision indeed transform the “poem including history” into a poem including “his story.” Irredeemably, it seems, the freely-composed poem aspires to autobiography, however coded it might be. The prisms of culture or psychoanalysis can thus be seen as more screens or tools to streamline the self’s aggrandizing narrative of itself. Culminating with the confessional mode, the autobiographical poem, both transparent and opaque, to quote the title of Jean Starobinski’s study of Rousseau’s Confessions , appears as post-Romantic poetry’s horizon.

4 As a case for study, Lyn Hejinian’s poetic autobiography can be read in the light of Jean Starobinski’s interpretation of Rousseau’s autobiographical project: in My Life , the use of the “new sentence,” of procedure, and of complex patterns of repetition sends the reader back to Gertrude Stein’s refusals to write narratives of the self, to the assertion of the poetic self’s existence only in language and ultimately to what could be a crucial positioning of the poem in the world as an occasional and provisional actualization of thinking processes. As non-prescriptive and non-descriptive, this poem enacts the “writing of one’s life” as art(ificial) construct. Crucially, today’s poetry defines itself officially as in contrast with the past canon of both Romanticism and Modernism, whereas it actually pursues similar aims albeit with different, often innovative and experimental, means. To assess this, one can then gain a lot by returning to Jean Starobinski’s analysis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions : this pre-Romantic text is the reference that visual artist Eleanor Antin mentions in her reflection on autobiographical work for the catalogue of her 1979 exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Contemporary Art. Analyzing autobiography’s claim for truth, she underlines the vanity of this claim, when made by the artist: the contradiction between the documentary enterprise and the artistic project creates gaps that historiographers have now come to see as part of any discourse, thus bringing about the realization of any account’s aporias.

This is an art work because it makes no claim to truth. It is also not autobiographical, although it may count as an autobiographical art work. Real autobiography makes a powerful claim to truth. Autobiographical art works do not. They only make a claim to the idea of autobiography. The substance is a speech made in the first person. (Antin 81)

5 Speeches made in the first person abound in Rousseau’s work, as Starobinski underlines it, turning the autobiographical work into one of obsessive repetition, from the Confessions on to the Dialogues and the Rêveries  (216). Tentatively and unwittingly, Rousseau demonstrates the impossibilities of the autobiography as anything else than yet another screen between the self and its fantasized truth. Or rather, in his attempt to create the total transparency of an unmediated account of himself, he unveils the traps that are inherent to language: transparency remains a horizon, something to be strived for and worked upon, from within the condition of opacity and mediation. In Starobinski’s words:

Rousseau has discovered these problems and truly invented the new position which will be the position of modern literature, beyond the sentimental Romanticism for which he has been made responsible. One can say that he was the first to enact the dangerous pact between self and language: the « new alliance » by which man becomes verb. (239, my translation)

6 This is what is to be found brought to explicitness in many contemporary works, including, though this may seem provocative, the works of procedural poetry. The experimental nature of these works turns them into spaces for the exhibition and problematization of issues that in other more conventional or less programmatic works would have remained unspoken. For the sake of this introduction, I will consider Lyn Hejinian’s My Life here, but the essays in this collection emphasize the relevance of many other works of poetry ranging back and forth along the chronological line from Lorine Niedecker’s texts (Marie-Christine Lemardeley) to John Ashbery’s (Antoine Cazé), Old English poetry (Graham Holderness), and the poetries of John Keats (Caroline Bertonèche), Derek Walcott (Dominique Delmaire), e.e. cummings (Kristen Leatherwood), Sylvia Plath (Laure de Nervaux), Janet Frame (Nicolas Boileau), Anne Carson (Sébastien Ducasse), Ray DiPalma, Ed Dorn or Eleni Sikelianos (Vincent Dussol).

7 Hejnian’s My Life is a long prose poem which has unfolded parallel to other non-procedural work. All of those works question the functioning and malfunctioning of memory, as well as the production of artificial coherence through syntax and rhetoric. This question combines with those raised by the definition of the new sentence as this short, perfectly grammatical unit, which however fails to cohere on a larger level. It induces a reflection on the construction of discourse and the powers at work in logical exposition. With Hejinian, what is at stake is not, as was the case with Rousseau, self-justification and the artificial construction of a fully coherent self to serve the autobiographer’s intentions. On the contrary, the aim is to show memory as working from within language and to show writing as the method to sort out these memories and order them into perhaps coherent, but irreparably fictitious wholes. In Writing Is an Aid to Memory , “memory is the girth,” (n.p.) which gathers, compacts and informs the rubble of one’s disordered reminiscences. In an unpublished lecture on My Life , Hejinian recognizes this train of thought as part of an overall obsession with the a posteriori constructions of a self, whose rewrites of its story are a minor mode of rewriting history. The several versions of the poem, spanning over the years 1980 to 1992, function not so much as a narrative of Hejinian’s life than as a chronicle of the processes of autobiography, underlining the mutability of the text of one’s life and the gaps that cannot be filled between the fragments of remembrance. Literalizing the very etymology of the term “to remember,” Hejinian suggests the changing and aging structures of memories obsessively recomposed, re-membered into a series of texts.

8 Hejinian’s autobiography has everything to do with enacting the wider problems of memory, of witnessing and historiography: “What were Caesar’s battles but Caesar’s prose” ( My Life  64), she asks without a question mark, thus turning the question into an assertion of the deceptive nature of narrative. Acts only outlive their moment in and as text. Hejinian’s life cannot be retrieved by memory but in the present tense of a poem in progress. The added sentences, from one version of the text to the next, distort the first text almost imperceptibly, enacting the evolution of the rememberer’s mind and the ways it affects the autobiographical project. Where Rousseau writes the Dialogues or the Rêveries , moving slowly through his titles toward a further and further removal from the core of truth but still believing in the possibility of reaching the total account of the fantasized self, Hejinian composes an incremental poem that evidences the layers of discourse deposited over facts in time. Later “my lives” (at 37, at 45, “in the Nineties”) are other lives, so many lives which produce so many selves. This self’s evolution from one moment of writing to another is what the autobiographical poem models, not just in its increments but in the very procedure that generates them. Each year is de-membered and re-membered by the poet, underlining the artificiality and fictitiousness of the notion of a monolithic immutable self to be accounted for in autobiography. As aging goes on, the poem grows and transforms itself, postponing its end to the time of death.

9 Autobiography or “autothanatography” then? The alternative defined by Ghyslain Lévy in his study of the autobiographical dimension of Maurice Blanchot’s comments on Franz Kafka is at the heart of this issue of E-rea . Is the autobiographical project a project to write out one’s life or to write a memory for the future, a future in which the writing “I” is dead and his or her past life irretrievably lost, and being reshaped by memory and history? Would the autobiographer then be attempting a pre-emptive shaping of his own? Linking poetry and autobiography is a challenge but also a logical development: the poem is indeed often understood as a place where the linearity, intended clarity or at least clarification, and claim to truth, of autobiography need not be maintained, but these demands on autobiographical writing have proved to be expository decoys, defining the forms which we assume to be the forms of truth, but in no way guaranteeing a stable and final truth. What remains might be that the autobiographical text is simply the trace of an absent truth, one that is out of reach, hypothetical, uncertain or unnameable. The poem would then become not just a place in which the presupposed objectivity and sincerity of autobiography hold little currency, but also the very place where the drama of impossible objectivity and radical insincerity can be staged, played out, and systematized. What is at stakes then is not the veracity of open or veiled autobiographical notations, but the ways in which the poem foregrounds the traps and delusions of autobiography, thus formalizing and problematizing the issues of self-expression and self-construction.

10 As an attempt to inscribe the processes of remembrance and their shortcomings in the text, the autobiographical poem shows itself for what it is: a construct in language, an “art work,” to come back to Eleanor Antin’s words, whose only claim to truth is a claim to the truth of its fabrication, and in which one’s writing about life is but a writing of one’s death. This reflection emerged from the reading of Hejinian’s My Life and from Barrett Watten’s Bad History , a prose poem about and around the First Gulf War. To Lyn and Barrett, I am especially thankful: their works are incitations to think, and in this respect expand the field of poetics to include ethics. The authors in this issue have accepted to make their own contributions to the expansion of the field to include different times, from the Middle Ages to nowadays, and places, from Britain to Canada, the Caribbeans, and the United States. They turn the Poetry and Autobiography project into a truly collective work, our own “grand piano” to echo the Grand Piano of these San Francisco poets’ “collective autobiography.”

Bibliographie

Antin, Eleanor. Dialogue/Discourse/Research (David Antin, Eleanor Antin, Helen Mayer Harrison/Newton Harrison, Fred Lonidier, Barbara Strasen). Catalogue. Santa Barbara Museum of Art (Sept. 1-Oct. 28, 1979).

Armantrout, Rae, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Lyn Hejinian, Tom Mandel, Ted Pearson, Bob Perelman, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman & Barrett Watten. The Grand Piano, An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, San Francisco 1975-1980 . Part 1 and Part 2 (2 vols). Detroit: Mode A, 2006-2007.

Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems 1909-1962 . London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Emerson, R.W. Selected Writings of Emerson . Donald McQuade, ed. New York: The Modern Library, 1981.

Hejinian, Lyn. My Life in the Nineties . New York: Shark Books, 2003.

——. My Life . Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2002.

——. Writing Is an Aid to Memory . Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1996.

Lévy, Ghyslain. “Entre Blanchot et Blanchot: Kafka et le palimpseste autobiographique.” 69-81. Chiantaretto, Jean-François, Anne Clancier, Anne Roche, éds. Autobiographie, journal intime et psychanalyse . Paris : Economica Anthropos, 2005.

Perloff, Marjorie. 21 st -Century Modernism: The “New” Poetics . Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Pound, Ezra. The Cantos . London: Faber & Faber, 1986.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Dialogues de Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques . Paris : Flammarion, 1999.

——. Les Confessions . Paris : Presses Pocket, 2006.

——. Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire . Paris : Flammarion, 2006.

Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau : La transparence et l’obstacle . Paris : Tel Gallimard, 1971.

Thoreau, H.D. Walden and Civil Disobedience . New York: Penguin, 1986.

Watten, Barrett. Bad History . Berkeley: Atelos, 1998.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass . New York: Norton, 1973.

Williams, William Carlos. Collected Poems . 2 vols. A. Walton Litz and Christopher Mac Gowan, eds. New York: New Directions, 1951.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude . Oxford: Blackwell: 1997.

Zukofsky, Louis. Prepositions + (The Collected Critical Essays) . Mark Scroggins, ed. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000.

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique.

Hélène AJI , « From Poetry & Autobiography to Poetry & “Autothanatography” » ,  e-Rea [En ligne], 5.1 | 2007, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2007 , consulté le 30 avril 2024 . URL  : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/172 ; DOI  : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.172

Université du Maine - Le Mans Hélène Aji is Full Professor of American and Modernist Literature at the Université du Maine (France). In addition to a number of articles on Modernist and contemporary American poetry, she is the author of Ezra Pound et William Carlos Williams : pour une poétique américaine (L'Harmattan, 2001), William Carlos Williams : un plan d’action (Belin, 2004), and a book-length essay on Ford  Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (Armand Colin, 2005). She is the editor of Ezra Pound and Referentiality (Presses de l'Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 2003), and Revue Française d’Études Américaines 103 (February 2005) on “Poètes américains, architectes du langage.” She is currently working on an Ezra Pound biography in French.

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Autobiography

Definition of autobiography.

Autobiography is one type of biography , which tells a life story of its author, meaning it is a written record of the author’s life. Rather than being written by somebody else, an autobiography comes through the person’s own pen, in his own words. Some autobiographies are written in the form of a fictional tale; as novels or stories that closely mirror events from the author’s real life. Such stories include Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield , and J.D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye . In writing about personal experience, one discovers himself. Therefore, it is not merely a collection of anecdotes – it is a revelation to the readers about author’s self-discovery.

Difference between Autobiography and Memoir

In an autobiography, the author attempts to capture important elements of his life. He not only deals with his career, and growth as a person, he also uses emotions and facts related to family life, relationships, education, travels, sexuality, and any types of inner struggles. A memoir is a record of memories, and particular events that have taken place in the author’s life. In fact, it is the telling of a story or an event from his life; an account that does not tell the full record of a life.

Examples of Autobiography in Literature

Example #1:  the box: tales from the darkroom (by gunter grass).

A noble laureate and novelist, Gunter Grass, has shown a new perspective of self-examination by mixing up his quilt of fictionalized approach in his autobiographical book, “The Box: Tales from the Darkroom.” Adopting the individual point of view of each of his children, Grass narrates what his children think about him as their father and a writer. Though it is really an experimental approach, due to Grass’ linguistic creativity and dexterity, it gains an enthralling momentum.

Example #2:  The Story of My Life (by Helen Keller)

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life , Helen Keller recounts her first twenty years, beginning with the events of the childhood illness that left her deaf and blind. In her childhood, a writer sent her a letter and prophesied, “Someday you will write a great story out of your own head that will be a comfort and help to many.”

In this book, Keller mentions prominent historical personalities, such as Alexander Graham Bell, whom she met at the age of six, and with whom she remained friends for several years. Keller paid a visit to John Greenleaf Whittier , a famous American poet, and shared correspondence with other eminent figures, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. Generally, Keller’s autobiography is about overcoming great obstacles through hard work and pain.

Example #3:  Self Portraits: Fictions (by Frederic Tuten)

In his autobiography, “Self Portraits: Fictions,” Frederic Tuten has combined fringes of romantic life with reality. Like postmodern writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, the stories of Tuten skip between truth and imagination, time and place, without warning. He has done the same with his autobiography, where readers are eager to move through fanciful stories about train rides, circus bears, and secrets to a happy marriage; all of which give readers glimpses of the real man.

Example #4:  My Prizes (by Thomas Bernhard)

Reliving his success of his literary career through the lens of the many prizes he has received, Thomas Bernhard presents a sarcastic commentary in his autobiography, “My Prizes.” Bernhard, in fact, has taken few things too seriously. Rather, he has viewed his life as a farcical theatrical drama unfolding around him. Although Bernhard is happy with the lifestyle and prestige of being an author, his blasé attitude and scathing wit make this recollection more charmingly dissident and hilarious.

Example #5:  The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (by Benjamin Franklin)

“The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” is written by one of the founding fathers of the United States. This book reveals Franklin’s youth, his ideas, and his days of adversity and prosperity. He is one of the best examples living the American dream – sharing the idea that one can gain financial independence, and reach a prosperous life through hard work.

Through autobiography, authors can speak directly to their readers, and to their descendants. The function of the autobiography is to leave a legacy for its readers. By writing an autobiography, the individual shares his triumphs and defeats, and lessons learned, allowing readers to relate and feel motivated by inspirational stories. Life stories bridge the gap between peoples of differing ages and backgrounds, forging connections between old and new generations.

Poetry Center

autobiography definition poetry

Autobiographical and Archeological: A Poetry Lesson

Sequence of activities:, welcome and introduction (10-15 minutes):.

The teaching artist can use this time to introduce themselves, what inspires them to write poetry, and perhaps even share some writing of their own. Students can also introduce themselves. In addition to sharing their names, students can answer/share their response to the following (or another fun question the teaching artist invents):

Imagine yourself as an animal, object, or color. What do you have in common with that animal, object, or color?

Following introductions, facilitate a relaxed, informal, low stakes discussion on the following question, reminding students there is no such thing as a “right/wrong” answer. We’re sharing our opinions, in so far as we are comfortable to do so. These questions set students up to think about their own personal histories:

What are the ingredients of you? How would you describe your character or personality?

What personal stories influence who you are? These could be family stories, family history, stories from your childhood, etc.

Literary Model and Discussion (10 minutes):

The teaching artist can share the following before inviting a student to read the below poem aloud:

Poetry (and any writing) can be autobiographical, meaning it tells your story. Your unique and specific background and journey, whether talking about your childhood, adulthood, or even your ancestry and family history as major ingredients of yourself.

“A Modified Villanelle for My Childhood” by Suzi F. Garcia does just that. As we read the poem, pay special attention to the way she strings words together. Words that sound alike or rhyme (or almost rhyme, which is a slant rhyme). As the poem is read out loud, try finding and listening to the rhythm. Is it a rhythm you can snap your fingers, clap your hands, or tap your foot to?

Read the poem here.

Questions for Discussion:

What is a myth? How can a poem about yourself be mythical? Think of one myth about yourself (write it down or share it out loud).

What do archaeologists do? How can a poem be archeological? Is a poet an archeologist?

Individual Writing  (10-15 minutes):

In a quiet, focused atmosphere, perhaps with each student finding their own special place to write (a corner, the school garden, or simply at their desk with some folders up for privacy), invite students to dive into their own writing. Below is the full prompt:

Write an autobiographical poem that is both archeological and mythical. Write a poem about you . Fill it with lots of detailed images or description about your personality, family history, childhood, dreams and hopes and wishes, and more. Who were you? Who are you? Who do you want to become?

Mythical can also mean magical. Magical can mean telling a truth about yourself through metaphors, exaggerations, symbolism, or wild imagination. You can be bold here. You want wings? Give yourself wings. You want to be a fire-breathing dragon? Be a fire-breathing dragon. Stay playful, trust your imagination. Your imagination knows you deeply.

Sharing (15-20 minutes):

Never force sharing, that’s my personal philosophy. Writing and art can be intensely personal and if the atmosphere is right, students will decide if it’s timely to share. So this section is simply to create an inviting space for those who do feel ready to share. You can invite students to read their own poems, have a friend read it for them, or even have the teacher read it for them.

Illustration and Extension Activities:

If the teaching artist wished to extend the lesson over multiple days, they could use the below prompts:

  • Write an autobiographical poem that takes one word and rhymes it throughout the poem in a song-like way. Garcia uses words that end in “-ical” like magical, radical, biblical, comical. Another example would be words that end in “-azing”, such amazing, star-gazing, razing. End most of your lines with these rhyming words and sprinkle them in other places throughout the poem too.   
  • Draw a self-portrait out of words. Instead of lines, use written words that describe who you are, who you want to be, who you were, who you could be, etc. Some words can be big, some small. Use regular handwriting, cursive, bubble letters, and more. The only rule is: you can’t draw lines. Words, words, and more words. Draw an outline with pencil and use pen to make the words follow the outline. When the portrait is done, erase the pencil outline so only the pen words remain.
  • A challenge: Explore the villanelle aspect of Garcia’s poem! Learn more about villanelles here. Which lines or words are repeating in Garcia’s poem? Use several highlighters to color code repeating lines/words. Then write your own villanelle. You can use your poem from the initial autobiographical writing exercise in this lesson plan and modify it to fit the villanelle form.

Contributor: 

Objectives: , education level: , genre: , format: , time frame: , prior knowledge/skills: , required materials: , literary model: , lesson plan: .

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The Value of Worthless Lives: Writing Italian American Immigrant Autobiographies

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1 Autobiography: The Literary Genre of Immigration

  • Published: April 2007
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Autobiographies provide the most real and sincere account of the process and effects of immigration that one could have. This chapter examines autobiographies as documents of an internal view of history to show how immigration has been experienced by its protagonists and how their experiences capture the scent of an era and a way of seeing the world. These stories reveal the immigrant's philosophy of hard work, a melancholic optimism, homesickness, and will. The discovery of autobiographies in the homes of unschooled workers tells us that immigrants were so concerned with their self-image that it propelled them to portray themselves, rather than passively accepting representations and cliches by others. It demonstrates that first-generation Italian Americans did not only work constantly, they also found the time and motivation for literary pursuits, as humble as they might be. Finally, it offers proof of the deep humanity of first-generation immigrants, who have often been seen as mere working beasts, through insulting nicknames and deviant stereotypes.

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This collection may be the closest we'll ever come to a Dickinson autobiography

Maureen Corrigan

Maureen Corrigan

autobiography definition poetry

A new collection of Emily Dickinson's letters has been published by Harvard's Belknap Press, edited by Dickinson scholars Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell. Three Lions/Getty Images hide caption

A new collection of Emily Dickinson's letters has been published by Harvard's Belknap Press, edited by Dickinson scholars Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell.

Among the Great Moments in Literary History I wish I could've witnessed is that day, sometime after May 15, 1886, when Lavinia Dickinson entered the bedroom of her newly deceased older sister and began opening drawers.

Out sprang poems, almost 1,800 of them. Given that Emily Dickinson had only published a handful of poems during her lifetime, this discovery was a shock.

" 'Hope' is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul," begins one of those now-famous poems. Whatever Dickinson hoped for her poems, she could never have envisioned how they'd resonate with readers; nor how curious those readers would be about her life, much of it spent within her father's house in Amherst, Mass., and, in later years, within that bedroom.

Every so often, the reading public's image of Emily Dickinson shifts: For much of the 20th century, she was a fey Stevie Nicks-type figure — check out, for instance, the 1976 film of Julie Harris' lauded one-woman show, The Belle of Amherst .

A feminist Emily Dickinson emerged during the Second Women's Movement, when poems like "I'm 'wife' " were celebrated for their avant garde anger. And, jumping to the present, a new monumental volume of Dickinson's letters — the first in more than 60 years — gives us an engaged Emily Dickinson; a woman in conversation with the world, through gossip, as well as remarks about books, politics and the signal events of her age, particularly the Civil War.

autobiography definition poetry

The Letters of Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson, edited by Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell Harvard's Belknap Press hide caption

The Letters of Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson, edited by Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell

This new collection of The Letters of Emily Dickinson is published by Harvard's Belknap Press and edited by two Dickinson scholars, Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell. To accurately date some of Dickinson's letters, they've studied weather reports and seasonal blooming and harvest cycles in 19th century Amherst. They've also added some 300 previously uncollected letters to this volume for a grand total of 1,304 letters.

The result is that The Letters of Emily Dickinson reads like the closest thing we'll probably ever have to an intimate autobiography of the poet. The first letter here is written by an 11-year-old Dickinson to her brother Austin, away at school. It's a breathless, kid-sister-marvel of run-on sentences about yellow hens and a "skonk" and poor "Cousin Zebina [who] had a fit the other day and bit his tongue ..."

The final letter, by an ailing 55-year-old Dickinson — most likely the last she wrote before falling unconscious on May 13, 1886 — was to her cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross. It reads:

Never Mind The White Dress, Turns Out Emily Dickinson Had A Green Thumb

Never Mind The White Dress, Turns Out Emily Dickinson Had A Green Thumb

Little Cousins,  "Called back."  Emily. 

In between is a life filled with visitors, chores and recipes for doughnuts and coconut cakes. There's mention of the racist minstrel stereotype Jim Crow, as well as of public figures like Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman. There are also allusions to the death toll of the ongoing Civil War.

Dickinson's loyal dog Carlo walks with her, and frogs and even flies keep her company. Indeed, in an 1859 letter about one such winged companion, Belle of Amherst charm alternates with cold-blooded callousness. Dickinson writes to her cousin Louisa:

New Film Celebrates Emily Dickinson's Poetry And 'Quiet Passion'

Movie Interviews

Film celebrates emily dickinson's poetry and 'quiet passion'.

I enjoy much with a fly, during sister's absence, not one of your blue monsters, but a timid creature, that hops from pane to pane of her white house, so very cheerfully, and hums and thrums, a sort of speck piano. ...  I'll kill him the day [Lavinia] comes [home], for I shan't need him any more ..."  

Dickinson's singular voice comes into its own in the letters of the 1860s, which often blur into poems: cryptic, comic and charged with Awe. A simple thank-you note to her soul mate and beloved sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, reads:

You Don't Know 'Dickinson'

Pop Culture Happy Hour

You don't know 'dickinson'.

Dear Sue,   The Supper was delicate and strange. I ate it with compunction as I would eat a Vision.

There are 1,304 letters, and, still, they're not enough. Scholars estimate that we only have about one-tenth of the letters Dickinson ever wrote. And, on that momentous day in 1886, Lavinia entered her sister's bedroom to find and successfully burn all the letters Dickinson herself had received from others during her lifetime. Such was the custom of the day. Which makes this new volume of Dickinson's letters feel like both an intrusion and an outwitting of the silence of death — something I want to believe Dickinson would have relished.

  • Emily Dickinson

COMMENTS

  1. Autobiography Definition and Examples

    An autobiography is an account of one's life written by the subject. E.g. In her compelling autobiography, the author delved into the intimate details of her life, recounting personal experiences, triumphs, and challenges in a candid narrative. Related terms: Narration, novel, coming-of-age novel, first person point of view.

  2. Autobiography

    autobiography, the biography of oneself narrated by oneself. Autobiographical works can take many forms, from the intimate writings made during life that were not necessarily intended for publication (including letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and reminiscences) to a formal book-length autobiography. Formal autobiographies offer a special ...

  3. Autobiographical Poetry

    Autobiographical poetry broadly refers to a verse form of life writing that reflects the poet's life experiences. It does not necessarily mean an "autobiography in verse" or a "poetic autobiography" that claims to narrate the author's entire life in verse. To illuminate Victorian women poets' strained relationships to this genre ...

  4. Autobiography

    Autobiography: A personal account that a person writes himself/herself. Memoir: An account of one's memory. Reflective Essay: One's thoughts about something. Confession: An account of one's wrong or right doings. Monologue: An address of one's thoughts to some audience or interlocuters. Biography: An account of the life of other persons ...

  5. Autobiography in Literature: Definition & Examples

    Autobiography Definition. An autobiography (awe-tow-bye-AWE-gruh-fee) is a self-written biography. The author writes about all or a portion of their own life to share their experience, frame it in a larger cultural or historical context, and/or inform and entertain the reader. Autobiographies have been a popular literary genre for centuries.

  6. Autobiography

    Spiritual autobiography. Spiritual autobiography is an account of an author's struggle or journey towards God, followed by conversion a religious conversion, often interrupted by moments of regression. The author re-frames their life as a demonstration of divine intention through encounters with the Divine. The earliest example of a spiritual ...

  7. Autobiography: definition and examples

    autobiography, Biography of oneself narrated by oneself. Little autobiographical literature exists from antiquity and the Middle Ages; with a handful of exceptions, the form begins to appear only in the 15th century. Autobiographical works take many forms, from intimate writings made during life that are not necessarily intended for publication ...

  8. Autobiography: Definition and Examples

    Definition & Examples. I. What is Autobiography? An autobiography is a self-written life story. It is different from a biography, which is the life story of a person written by someone else. Some people may have their life story written by another person because they don't believe they can write well, but they are still considered an author ...

  9. Autobiography

    Autobiography is a form of religious literature with an ancient lineage in the Christian, Islamic, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It became an increasingly common and significant form of discourse in almost every religious tradition during the twentieth century, and its many forms and recurring themes raise crucial religious issues.

  10. Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction

    Autobiography continues to be one of the most popular forms of writing, produced by authors from across the social and professional spectrum. It is also central to the work of literary critics, philosophers, historians, and psychologists, who have found in autobiographies not only an understanding of the ways in which lives have been lived but the most fundamental accounts of what it means to ...

  11. Autobiography Definition, Examples, and Writing Guide

    Autobiography Definition, Examples, and Writing Guide. As a firsthand account of the author's own life, an autobiography offers readers an unmatched level of intimacy. Learn how to write your first autobiography with examples from MasterClass instructors.

  12. Biography

    Biography. There are several different kinds of biographies that fall under the larger category of "biography". These include historical biography, fictional, literary, reference, and popular. Fictional biography is one of the most creative. It tells the story of a fictional character as if they were a real person.

  13. Autobiography Definition & Meaning

    autobiography: [noun] the biography of a person narrated by himself or herself.

  14. Edward Byrne: "Examining the Poetry of Confession and Autobiography

    Consequently, confessional poetry was defined by its content ÷ the intimate, sometimes sordid, autobiography of the poet revealed in explicit first-person narration ÷ rather than any novel technical development or formal advancement. A century after Whitman's inclusive ego attempted to incorporate everyone and everything around him and ...

  15. Autobiography

    An autobiography is a kind of literary nonfiction, which means it is a factual story that features real people and events. It also has features like plot, character, and setting that are common in ...

  16. Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction

    Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction defines what is meant by 'autobiography', and considers its relationship with similar literary forms such as memoirs, journals, letters, and diaries. Analysing the core themes in autobiographical writing, including confession, conversion, testimony, romanticism, and the journeying self, this VSI ...

  17. Autobiography by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

    Autobiography. By Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I am leading a quiet life. in Mike's Place every day. watching the champs. of the Dante Billiard Parlor. and the French pinball addicts. I am leading a quiet life. on lower East Broadway.

  18. From Poetry & Autobiography to Poetry & "Autothanatography"

    Linking poetry and autobiography is a challenge but also a logical development: the poem is indeed often understood as a place where the linearity, intended clarity or at least clarification, and claim to truth, of autobiography need not be maintained, but these demands on autobiographical writing have proved to be expository decoys, defining ...

  19. Autobiography definition and example literary device

    Definition of Autobiography. Autobiography is one type of biography, which tells a life story of its author, meaning it is a written record of the author's life. Rather than being written by somebody else, an autobiography comes through the person's own pen, in his own words. Some autobiographies are written in the form of a fictional tale ...

  20. Autobiographical and Archeological: A Poetry Lesson

    Write an autobiographical poem that takes one word and rhymes it throughout the poem in a song-like way. Garcia uses words that end in "-ical" like magical, radical, biblical, comical. Another example would be words that end in "-azing", such amazing, star-gazing, razing. End most of your lines with these rhyming words and sprinkle them ...

  21. (PDF) Poetry as autobiography

    1 Poetry as autobi ography. Introducti on. 'This To Do' is a frequently overlooked poem in R. S. Thomas's 1966. collection Pieta. Although appearing twenty years into Thomas's career. as a ...

  22. 1 Autobiography: The Literary Genre of Immigration

    In this book, I have accepted his much-quoted definition of autobiography: "A retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality." 15 Close Lejeune's definition reintroduces a lost element in literary criticism, the notion ...

  23. Poetry

    poetry, literature that evokes a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience or a specific emotional response through language chosen and arranged for its meaning, sound, and rhythm. (Read Britannica's biography of this author, Howard Nemerov.) Poetry is a vast subject, as old as history and older, present wherever religion is present, possibly—under some definitions—the primal and ...

  24. Emily Dickinson's singular voice comes into focus in a new ...

    The Letters of Emily Dickinson collects 1,304 letters, starting with one she wrote at age 11. Her singular voice comes into its own in the letters of the 1860s, which often blur into poems.