SSI1 176

American Autobiography from Franklin to Facebook

The urge to tell one's life story has a long and illustrious history in American literature. Benjamin Franklin wrote one of the first American autobiographies, a life story and at the same time a blueprint for Franklin's vision of a new kind of person--an American. Frederick Douglass's devastating first-person slave narrative worked to establish the humanity of African-Americans and attacked the system of chattel slavery. Maxine Hong Kingston's experimental memoir told of another new kind of American, the urban immigrant. These masters of the genre used their personal stories for varied rhetorical aims. In the process, each helped create a distinctively American literary genre: biography of self-as-nation, slave narrative, and immigrant story. Over the course of this seminar, students read American autobiographies, addressing a set of linked questions: What is autobiography? Why have Americans chosen to write it? How have its rhetorical functions in American life altered over time? What does it mean to be an American, and how are American autobiographies shapers of and shaped by this notion? The varied conclusions students reach will help them achieve a clearer understanding of both the uses of literature and the complexities of American identity. Course texts include autobiographical works by Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Art Spiegelman, as well as social media. Affiliate department: English.