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Life Writing: Autobiography, Memoir and the Diary

Course Number
COML 511 640
Course Code
Course Key
Ben-Amos, Batsheva
Primary Program
Course Description
This course introduces three genres of life writing: Autobiography, Memoir and the Diary. While the Memoir and the diary are older forms of first persons’ writing the Autobiography developed later. We will first study the literary-historical shifts that occurred in Autobiographies from religious confession through the secular Eurocentric Enlightenment men, expanded to women writers and to members of marginal oppressed groups as well as to non-European autobiographies in the twentieth century.  Subsequently we shall study the rise of the modern memoir, asking how it is different from this form of writing that existed already in the middle ages.  In the memoirs we see a shift from a self and identity centered on a private individual autobiographer to ones that comes from connections to a community, a country or a nation; a self of a memoirist that represents selves of others. Students will attain theoretical background related to the basic issues and concepts in life writing: genre, truth claims and what they mean, the limits of memory, autobiographical subject, agency or self, the autonomous vs. the relational self.  The concepts will be discussed as they apply to several texts. Some examples are: parts of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions; the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin; selected East European autobiographies between the two world wars; the memoirs of Lady Ann Clifford, Sally Morgan, Mary Jamison and Saul Friedlander. The third genre, the diary, is a first person account, organized around the passage of time, and its subject matter is in the present.  We will study diary theories, diary’s generic conventions and the canonical text, trauma diaries and the testimonial aspect, the diary’s time, decoding emotions, the relation of the diary to an audience and the process of transition from archival manuscript to a published book. The reading will include travel diaries (for relocation and pleasure), personal diaries in different historical periods and countries, diaries in political conflict (as American civil War women’s diaries, Holocaust diaries, Middle East political conflicts diaries). We will conclude with diaries online, and students will have a chance to experience and report about differences between writing personal diary on paper and diaries and blogs on line. Each new subject in this online course will be preceded by an introduction.  Specific reading and written assignments, some via links to texts will be posted weekly ahead of time. We will have weekly videos of discussions of texts and assigned material and students will post responses during these sessions and class presentations in the forums. They will post comments, questions, essays and other written assignments between sessions also in the canvas forums.
Subject Area Vocab