Modernist Autobiography, Audience and the Archives

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At least in its most textbook form, modernism has long remained associated with ideas of impersonality, detachment, autonomy and the absence of authorial emotion. Yet autobiography is also a key narrative mode of modernist poetry and prose. For several decades, by the 1930s, a number of key modernists were not just writing material from their lives, but were starting to publish their own complete autobiographies. Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, William Carlos Williams, the Sitwells and Ernest Hemingway all took the opportunity to produce major autobiographical volumes during this time, with varying approaches and levels of success.

When it comes to archival research into modernist autobiography, there are several fruitful avenues for assessing the potential for this genre and its execution by technical innovators under modernism. In fact, authors in the Bloomsbury circle were some of the first theorists exploring methods for building on archival evidence while simultaneously using the techniques of good fiction to re-animate the corpse. More recent criticism has focused on questions of subjectivity, authenticity and (the stretching of) truth. Scholars like Max Saunders and Jerome Boyd Maunsell — both, like Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey before them, biographers themselves — have further opened up modernist autobiography to an exploration of the borders between fiction and non-fiction, revealing the extent to which archival evidence available to the scholar may be at odds with the manuscript version of self or the narrative of events that the authors are keen to promote. There is little question that this critical terrain is highly relevant to the modernist project in terms of exploring subjectivities and authenticity, but it sometimes situates the archive as the battlefield on which biographers and autobiographers debate and contest versions of narrative lives. This is not to suggest the task of biographers is simply to use archival research to correct faulty autobiographies, but it raises questions about what the modernist archive is for when it comes to autobiographical narrative.

This chapter examines two case studies of 1930s modernist autobiography in order to address this question, opening the archive of Gertrude Stein and of Wyndham Lewis to further explore what can be learned from the papers of each author. Rather than reading the volumes alongside the evidence of their lives, as found in biographical research, the autobiographies will briefly be reconstructed in terms of motivation for sharing the personal and the intimate, in terms of textual publication, promotions and sales — certain crude measures of success — and in terms of reception. We find in key modernist autobiographical texts authors hungry to reach new reading publics, either to change the narrative version of themselves already in circulation or to broaden their appeal and extend their reach. This does not always work as intended, of course, but we can learn as much about the cultural moment in which an author seeks to negotiate their own identity before a newly identified readership in those cases where it fails as clearly as we do when it succeeds. What the archive can reveal is that the attempt to reshape a life and a career is probably more important in some cases than the shape itself — and that autobiography, unlike other modes of writing, is best understood when put into the context of its intended readership.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationModernist Archives
Subtitle of host publicationA Handbook
EditorsJamie Callison, Anna Svendsen, Erik Tonning
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 7 Oct 2022


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