A long way from home: Class, identity, and ethics in autobiography

Date of Completion

January 2004


Biography|Women's Studies|Literature, American




This dissertation analyzes the autobiographies of writers who spent much or all of their youth in working-class circumstances, and who moved into the upper-middle class in their adulthood. The study examines how these autobiographers, in their present incarnations as upper-middle-class writers, confront their working-class pasts and the people in it. Specifically, my analysis investigates how the authors' identity construction in the texts relates to the authors' portrayals of family members and significant others. Further, the dissertation focuses on autobiography as an ethical act, seeking to illuminate ways in which the authors appropriate, exploit, “primitivize,” patronize, or in some other manner diminish the dignity of their working-class family members in their texts. Little attention has been given to the ethical aspects of autobiography, and it has largely focused on the matter of privacy. This dissertation differs in focus, analyzing the ethical nature of the representations of proximate others—particularly those of the working-class—by autobiographers who are trying to reconcile their own class-identity conflicts. I adopt the approach modeled by ethical critic Wayne Booth, applying such questions as (to quote Booth) “Is this ‘poem’ morally, politically, or philosophically sound? and, Is it likely to work for good or ill in those who read it?” I also appraise the “truth-value” of the narratives. ^ Chapter 1 analyzes Russell Baker's Growing Up as an example of a positive model of ethical working-class autobiography, but contends that it is Baker's closer approximation to the dominant culture that simplifies his task of delineating an identity metamorphosis. The following three chapters identify the ethical problems in the texts by Wideman, Agate Nesaule, and Bobbie Ann Mason and demonstrate how these problems largely arise from the authors' attempts to negotiate their class and cultural duality. Chapter 2 argues that Wideman exemplifies an autobiographer's grappling with issues of race. Chapter 3 examines Nesaule's difficulty with writing autobiography about class differences. Chapter 4 emphasizes Mason's problematic construction of a regional identity. ^