Defining Autobiography

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Don Quixote
Poet W.H. Auden said that every autobiography is concerned with two characters: "a Don Quixote, the Ego, and a Sancho Panza, the Self" (The Dyer's Hand, and Other Essays, 1962). Chris Hellier/Corbis via Getty Images

An autobiography is an account of a person's life written or otherwise recorded by that person. Adjective: autobiographical.

Many scholars regard the Confessions (c. 398) by Augustine of Hippo (354–430) as the first autobiography.

The term fictional autobiography (or pseudoautobiography) refers to novels that employ first-person narrators who recount the events of their lives as if they actually happened.

Well-known examples include David Copperfield (1850) by Charles Dickens and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Some critics believe that all autobiographies are in some ways fictional. Patricia Meyer Spacks has observed that "people do make themselves up. . . . To read an autobiography is to encounter a self as an imaginative being" (​The Female Imagination, 1975).

For the distinction between a memoir and an autobiography, see memoir as well as the examples and observations below. 

Etymology

From the Greek, "self" + "life" + "write"

Examples of Autobiographical Prose

Examples and Observations

  • "An autobiography is an obituary in serial form with the last installment missing."
    (Quentin Crisp, The Naked Civil Servant, 1968)
  • "Putting a life into words rescues it from confusion even when the words declare the omnipresence of confusion, since the art of declaring implies dominance."
    (Patricia Meyer Spacks, Imagining a Self: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England. Harvard University Press, 1976)
  • The Opening Lines of Zora Neale Hurston's Autobiography
    - "Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me. Time and place have had their say.

    "So you will have to know something about the time and place where I came from, in order that you may interpret the incidents and directions of my life.

    "I was born in a Negro town. I do not mean by that the black back-side of an average town. Eatonville, Florida, is, and was at the time of my birth, a pure Negro town--charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all. It was not the first Negro community in America, but it was the first to be incorporated, the first attempt at organized self-government on the part of Negroes in America.

    "Eatonville is what you might call hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. The town was not in the original plan. It is a by-product of something else. . . ."
    (Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road. J.B. Lippincott, 1942)

    - "There is a saying in the Black community that advises: 'If a person asks you where you're going, you tell him where you've been. That way you neither lie nor reveal your secrets.' Hurston had called herself the 'Queen of the Niggerati.' She also said, 'I like myself when I'm laughing.' Dust Tracks on a Road is written with royal humor and an imperious creativity. But then all creativity is imperious, and Zora Neale Hurston was certainly creative."
    (Maya Angelou, Foreword to Dust Tracks on a Road, rpt. HarperCollins, 1996)
  • Autobiography and Truth
    "All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies. No man is bad enough to tell the truth about himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him."
    (George Bernard Shaw, Sixteen Self Sketches, 1898)
    "Autobiography is an unrivaled vehicle for telling the truth about other people."
    (attributed to Thomas Carlyle, Philip Guedalla, and others)
  • Autobiography and Memoir
    - "An autobiography is the story of a life: the name implies that the writer will somehow attempt to capture all the essential elements of that life. A writer's autobiography, for example, is not expected to deal merely with the author's growth and career as a writer but also with the facts and emotions connected to family life, education, relationships, sexuality, travels, and inner struggles of all kinds. An autobiography is sometimes limited by dates (as in Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography to 1949 by Doris Lessing), but not obviously by theme.

    "Memoir, on the other hand, is a story from a life. It makes no pretense of replicating a whole life."
    (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. Eighth Mountain Press, 2002)

    - "Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer's life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance."
    (William Zinsser, "Introduction," Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir. Mariner Books, 1998)
  • An "Epidemical Rage for Auto-Biography"
    "[I]f the populace of writers become thus querulous after fame (to which they have no pretensions) we shall expect to see an epidemical rage for auto-biography break out, more wide in its influence and more pernicious in its tendency than the strange madness of the Abderites, so accurately described by Lucian. London, like Abdera, will be peopled solely by 'men of genius'; and as the frosty season, the grand specific for such evils, is over, we tremble for the consequences. Symptoms of this dreadful malady (though somewhat less violent) have appeared amongst us before . . .."
    (Isaac D'Israeli, "Review of "The Memoirs of Percival Stockdale," 1809)|
  • The Lighter Side of Autobiography
    - "The Confessions of St. Augustine are the first autobiography, and they have this to distinguish them from all other autobiographies, that they are addressed directly to God."
    (Arthur Symons, Figures of Several Centuries, 1916)

    - "I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide what it is or isn't."
    (Philip Roth, Deception, 1990)

    - "I'm writing an unauthorized autobiography."
    (Steven Wright)

    Pronunciation: o-toe-bi-OG-ra-fee

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Autobiography." ThoughtCo, Jun. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-autobiography-1689148. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, June 6). Defining Autobiography. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-autobiography-1689148 Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Autobiography." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-autobiography-1689148 (accessed November 19, 2017).