The Norton Book of American Autobiography

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9780393046779: The Norton Book of American Autobiography

"The essential American form of expression."―from the Introduction by Jay Parini

From Mary Rowlandson's story of her capture by Indians in the mid-seventeenth century to Mary Paik Lee's story of being a pioneer Korean woman in America at the beginning of the twentieth century, the autobiographical form has provided our most vivid, intimate glimpses of daily American life and self-understanding.

In this groundbreaking anthology, respected writer and critic Jay Parini brings together an abundant selection from over three centuries of "the democratic voice . . . discovering itself." Here are the voices of the Founding Fathers and African American slaves; of transcendentalists and suffragists; of ancestors such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Mark Twain, Henry James, Helen Keller, Zora Neale Hurston, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, and many others; and of a wide range of contemporaries, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Gore Vidal, Julia Alvarez, and Mark Doty.

The rich, continuous influence of autobiographical writing in our culture is clear, and as memoirs continue to fascinate readers, this invaluable anthology provides an essential guide to our foremost American literary tradition.

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Review:

Rounding up all the usual suspects (Benjamin Franklin to Mary Karr) as well as some once-popular authors now criminally neglected (Ulysses S. Grant, Lucy Larcom), editor Jay Parini has assembled 62 entries that amply attest to both the diversity of American autobiography and its essential coherence. It's been a long two and a half centuries from the majestic, near-biblical cadences of Jonathan Edwards's chronicle of his striving towards God to the intimate (some might say whiny) tone in which Elizabeth Wurtzel examines her generation's reliance on friends to heal the wounds inflicted by family. But both of these writers and most of those in between delineate a very American process of self-discovery and enlightenment. Parini manages to represent most of the genre's important contributors: African Americans (including W.E.B. Du Bois and Malcolm X); women (from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Terry Tempest Williams); nature writers (Thoreau, of course, and Annie Dillard); and today's nothing-is-off-limits confessors (Caroline Knapp on booze, Paul Monette on AIDS). Those readers who are familiar with the books from which most of these pieces are excerpted may find their brevity frustrating, but Parini has gone for breadth rather than depth. Consider this a collection of tasty hors d'oeuvres designed to whet individual readers' appetites for full-course offerings from the chefs they find most appealing. --Wendy Smith

About the Author:

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. Parini's recent books include The Last Station, Benjamin's Crossing, and Some Necessary Angels: Essays on Writing and Politics.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) was an American novelist and critic. His recent books include his collected essays, United States, and a novel, The Smithsonian.

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