the Private Geography: Autobiography, Identity, and America
Gerri Reaves’s book ranges among the numerous studies in American autobiography (and in particular women’s autobiography) published in the United States over the past three decades. Sari Benstock’s The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women’s Autobiographical Writings (1988), Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (1987) or Timothy Dow Adams’s Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography (1990), to name some of the most notorious ones, have paved the way for innovative approaches to the genre. If the issues of race, gender and identity came to be regarded as a “holy trinity” of sorts in literary studies, place—a concept widely used in cultural and anthropological studies—has recently gained status in autobiographical and travel literature. Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), James Clifford’s Roots: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (1997), Caren Kaplan’s Questions of Travel (1996) or Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory (1989) have become reference works for the scholar intent on exploring the relationship between literature, self and place. Hence, my surprise at Reaves’s total silence concerning these works.
That being said, Mapping the Private Geography: Autobiography, Identity, and America takes the reader on a pleasant and rewarding voyage even if, in my opinion, some of the stopovers are more interesting than others. The book divides into four sections: after a preliminary chapter devoted to “Definitional Dilemmas in Autobiography Studies,” Reaves examines “three unorthodox autobiographical works” [p. 117]—Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Lilian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1976) and Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles (1982). The book’s concluding chapter “Places of the Mind” (whose title is borrowed from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1981) uses the writer-journalist’s essays to encapsulate the argument of the book: “place, like self, is a construct” [p. 124]. Reaves also feels the need to justify her particular choice of writers in terms of their innovative devices: by juxtaposing travel literature, history, and photographs within the text, Stein, Hellman and Shepard have reinvented and expanded autobiography as a genre.
In her introductory chapter, Reaves surveys the latest developments in poststructuralist autobiographical studies. The demise of the Enlightenment self and the end of “metaphysical selfhood” (Sidonie Smith) have brought about a reconfiguration of our conception of the unitary “I,” of the coherent autobiographical subject. According to literary critics like Leigh Gilmore, the genre itself is threatened with abolishment:
For Reaves, debunking the myth of the coherent authoritative subject and letting go of the idea of genre have prioritized a creative approach to the text which she considers, justifiably, a welcome change after years of endless focus on taxonomy. Regrettably, Mapping the Private Geography is shot through with the very same jargon Reaves professes to dislike. Granted, most of it is to be found within the excessive number of quotations summoned by the author to back up her arguments. Was all this necessary? The book’s focus is stated nevertheless in clear terms:
Given the complex interplay of identity and geography in ethnic autobiographies, Mapping the Private Geography relies heavily on scholarship in this field, even though the book deals exclusively with mainstream authors.
I found the chapter on Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography to be the most interesting one. Reaves may have felt particularly inspired by Stein’s writings and personality, undoubtedly the most fascinating of the writers she has chosen to discuss.
While the self-exiled writer’s memoirs (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, 1933; Everybody’s Autobiography, 1937; Paris France, 1940; Wars I Have Seen, 1945) fell into relative oblivion soon after their publication, they have been “rehabilitated” in recent years and are considered as landmarks of twentieth-century American autobiography.
Everybody’s Autobiography, with its systematic disregard for genre boundaries, fits moreover into the current theoretical discussions. But, more importantly I would say, the instability and the complexity of the text mirror Stein’s contradictory, multi-faceted personality. Here is an example in which Stein discusses the tension between being and doing, i.e. between one’s multiple fleeting identities and the act of pinning them down on paper. Stein strikes at the very root of the ontological question that underlies the autobiographical act:
Reaves’s focus, however, is on “the exile’s oddly indeterminate status: of being imaginatively neither here nor there,” physically in Paris but “internally” in America [p. 44]. Stein explains the exiled writer’s dual belonging by clarifying the link between “geography of place” and “geography of mind”:
As Reaves rightly perceives, Stein’s existential and textual oscillation between private and public self, between present and past, between France and America, is brought to a momentary halt in the closing line of Everybody’s Autobiography: “I like what I have and now it is today.”
In her discussion of Stein, Hellman and Shepard, Gerri Reaves inevitably dwells on the concept of time but somehow fails to acknowledge the relevance of the time-place dyad, or to use Mikhaïl Bakhtine’s term—the chronotope. Applying this concept to autobiographical studies could have illuminated the comparison between the works analyzed. Moreover, it could have softened the reader’s overriding feeling of being faced with a random selection of writings.
Lacking a strong unifying thread, Reaves is hard put to find connecting elements between the authors’ diverse “geographics of memory” [p. 55]. Here is one such instance:
Reaves finds a loose connection between Stein’s and Hellman’s perception of the past. The episode called “the hours of the deer,” the visit of a large group of deer on Hardscrabble Farm, in Pleasantville, New York (where Hellman lived with Dashiell Hammet) is, according to Reaves, the “silent emotional center of the Scoundrel Time (1976).” The scene takes on as much importance as the writer’s appearance before HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee), during the McCarthy period. The loss of the farm, the microcosmic Eden where emotional and political geography intersect, dovetails into Hellman and Hammett’s portrayal as “innocents cast out from Eden and Joseph McCarthy and his men as the villains” [p. 58].
Even though Scoundrel Time deals with historical fact rather than private concerns, the book adopts an achronological approach thereby suggesting the inadequacy of the traditional chronological narrative. Stein, Hellman and Shepard are compulsive autobiographers, so to speak: they feel the need to rewrite the story of their life and sometimes recycle the same events in different texts. According to Reaves, for Stein and Hellman “memory’s ability to revise events, render them less precise, and diffuse them into an achronological landscape becomes an effective strategy to cope with an unpleasant past” [p. 71].
Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles (1982)—“an impressionistic collage of autobiography, fantasy, photographs, poems, and fragments” [p. 102]—allows Reaves to focus more clearly on the relationship between self and place. The very title links the act of writing to mobility and inscribes the text in the tradition of the frontier. Indeed “Motel Chronicles is a version of America ‘on the road,’ a migratory experience rather than a stable geographical place” [p. 83]. Shepard wrote the text while going through a personal crisis—in fact, the very project of the book is to record the “shattering” of his self, to explore the multiple “galaxies” of his fragmented identity. In the process, America functions as an internal map onto which the writer projects his displacement. Shepard’s quasi symbiotic bond with the American landscape compensates for his difficulty to establish human relationships. For Reaves, this is an expression of topophilia, “an ecstatic experience of pure individuality and identity that stems from some encounter with place” [p. 89]. In the chapter entitled “Sam Shepard’s Motel Chronicles: A Microcosmic America,” Reaves suggests an interesting parallel between designing maps and autobiographical writing. Both activities aim at establishing boundaries, identifying items, settling and naming. Viewed as a textual map where “geographical terminology and introspective language conflate,” Shepard’s Motel Chronicles is a collection of geographical stops which provides spiritual re-orientation and re-placement” [pp. 115-116].
Reaves concludes her critical journey by using Joan Didion’s recent essays as a summary device to further deconstruct any “real” constructions of geographical America found in Stein’s, Hellman’s and Shepard’s texts. Mapping the Private Geography ultimately argues that “America remains an idea more than a system of government, a federation of states, or even a geographical location.” In the texts considered, “it becomes a secular system of belief that transcends mere geographical definition” [p. 19]. And one is inevitably tempted to ask, “so what else is new?” The book, however, although uneven, does make for pleasant and rewarding reading.