The rhetoric of subjectivity: The written self in the autobiographical writings of Hawthorne, Adams and James.
AuthorParkhurst, Joseph Lanius.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractThe study takes the measure to which "self" and "self-representation" do not coincide in autobiography. Each of the writers in this study--Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Adams, and Henry James--writes an autobiography that consciously divides the writing-self from the written-self. Each does this at least in part as a result of his discomfort with the patriarchal culture of nineteenth-century America. Never fitting the normative models of male action in the areas of commerce and politics, each uses his autobiographical writing to construct himself along the model of the "other." This gesture requires presenting the self as a cultural construct, fabricated in a language that is always already alienated from the writing subject. As such, the signifiers of personal and social identity are manipulable in a pervasive rhetoric of subjectivity, a rhetoric supremely adapted to the literary enterprise of autobiography. In "The Custom-House," Hawthorne insists on the separateness of the sign of the self from the signified. This separateness permits the author a dilatory space which keeps him unreadable even while being read, a gesture he reproduces in The Scarlet Letter, which is read as a fictional extention of the same rhetoric of illegibility that he presents in the autobiographical preface. In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams presents a self which figuratively corresponds to a text. The "self" is a palimpsest of all the influences that have been inscribed on it, and the job of the autobiographer is to edit that palimpsest into a self/story. Fashioning a self, therefore, is consubstantial with fashioning a book, and the two activities coincide in the autobiography. Notes of a Son and Brother shows James purporting a complementary relationship between reader and writer, whereby a reader lives in and completes the life of a writer. In the memoir, James's commemorative task as reader of the family's letters allows him to appropriate the historical personages through the acquisition of their writing. In this way, autobiography (both the activity and the product) and the self are no longer supplemental to others but originary and self-realizing.