[Tin House; 2020]
Sometime in the 1950s, in an essay called “The Limits and Conditions of Autobiography,” the French philosopher and critic Georges Gusdorf introduced the academic world to the study of autobiography, a genre previously considered too frivolous for academic research. Yet, even with Gusdorf’s introduction, it turns out there was still one major “limit and condition” to the academy’s embrace of autobiography: it would be another several decades before the autobiographies of women were given any serious consideration.
Now, I know these facts about the autobiography’s place in scholarship because I — like Jenn Shapland, author of My Autobiography of Carson McCullers — am slowly clearing the hurdles of an R1 doctoral program. My next rite of PhD school is passing my prelim exams, which basically means reading dozens of books on autobiographies with the hopes of bamboozling my committee into believing that I am, indeed, an autobiography expert.
As any good academic might (some call it “strategic,” others “lazy”), I signed up to review Shapland’s book because the paradoxical title made me think: Oooh, incredible opportunity for double duty, I can both review this and put it on my prelims list. Fortunately, as it turns out My Autobiography of Carson McCullers is a truly expert reconfiguration of the autobiographical, as well as, biographical form. It’s also probably the only book on my list that’ll be inviting enough to read in one sitting.
My Autobiography blends Shapland’s own memoir with a biography of McCullers — an “(auto)biography,” if you will. Born out of her internship as a frustrated PhD student at the University of Texas’ renowned Ransom Center, Shapland’s book is also a work of scholarship. Lovingly researched and written, My Autobiography cracks the normative bounds of literary scholarship and shows us what kind of knowledge production is possible when the researcher drops the veneer of “scholarly objectivity” and makes herself fully present in the research process.
While working in the Ransom Center, known for holding David Foster Wallace’s and Norman Mailer’s papers, a scholar requested that Shapland pull letters between 20th century literary It-Girl, Carson McCullers, and Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Shapland recognized McCullers’ name, noting that having never read any of her books, McCullers’ titles nonetheless “always struck a chord with [her]. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? Like, same.” Immediately, Shapland recognized these as love letters between the two women. After finding these letters (the original letter-requesting scholar never followed up) Shapland quickly learned that McCullers, though twice married to the same man, did indeed seem to have a long and thinly obscured history of romantic/sexual relationships with women. And thus launched Shapland’s — who is queer herself — fixation with McCullers, a research crush that led to My Autobiography.
The structure of Shapland’s blended (auto)biography is fragmented, which perhaps is an unconventional choice for the “biography” aspect of My Autobiography, but it’s actually quite a traditional choice for the “auto” part. This fragmented construction (the book is split into 80 short fragments, or “chapters”) isn’t simply an aesthetic choice; it also works as a crucial comment on the genre of women’s life narratives and the construction of self. Borrowing from dancer Isadora Duncan’s autobiography, Shapland quotes, “No woman has ever told the whole truth of her life. The autobiographies of the most famous women are a series of accounts of the outward existence, of petty details and anecdotes which give no realization of their real life.” (McCullers was a big Duncan fan. And Duncan, like McCullers, is another queer woman artist who was married to a man.) That is to say, the self — especially the woman’s self — can only ever be presented as partial and fragmented. Now, to any of us living in the 21st century, the rejection of the Cartesian self and the acceptance of our always-forming, forever partial self doesn’t seem necessarily ground breaking. But that Shapland so seamlessly renders and makes sense of her self-construction as a writer and a lesbian alongside McCullers’ respective history in a fragmented yet long-form manner feels novel.
Shapland extends the question of fragmentation beyond the self and out to the creation of a lesbian history. This history, which is in itself a fragmented history, requires the researcher to be “queer” in their reading practices (that is to say: reading between the lines). Through My Autobiography, Shapland demonstrates that fragmentation (but not partialness) is nothing to fear. It does not “invalidate” rigorous research, nor does it mean she’s fallen short of some “burden of proof” we expect from expert knowledge. Rather, fragmentation and queer reading and research practices are a critical collapsing of epistemology and ontology. Shapland questions the research impulse, the need for evidence and the type of evidence: Why does she need McCullers to utter the words “I am a lesbian” when she knows she read love letters between McCullers and Schwarzenbach? Why does Shapland not feel satisfied when she actually reads a transcription of McCullers explicitly describing herself as a “lesbian” to her therapist (and lover), Mary Mercer? As Shapland writes, “What [am] I trying to prove?” (Due to copyright constraints, quotes from transcripts are not published in the book and are only referenced without direct quotations.)
It’s the researcher’s dilemma: you can read everything written about someone or something, but the produced and published knowledge on your subject is never enough. Evidence and certainty seem impossible, Shapland muses, because you simply aren’t your subject, but also because, if something were true, “wouldn’t someone already have said so?”
With this uncertainty, Shapland turns her attention to the material and experiential embodiment as praxis; she seeks to “relive” parts of McCullers’ life in order to learn, to get closer, and to find certainty. She takes up residency at McCullers’ childhood home-cum-museum in Georgia and she attends the famous Yaddo Residency to research and work on her own manuscript of My Autobiography, but also to simply experience the spaces in which McCullers herself wrote. All this inhabiting in hopes that “the buildings themselves, the trees, the streets would reveal what I couldn’t find in published writings about her.” In one fragment, Shapland feels the shape of McCullers’ feet in an archived pair of wool socks. In another, Shapland is unable to throw out a partially eaten “ninety-ninth birthday” cake for McCullers, as if throwing out a cake with her silk-screened face at the McCullers Center is throwing out McCullers herself. In these moments of material connection, we begin to see that Shapland not only illuminates McCullers’ personal language of love, but also posits research as a potential mode of loving for the rest of us.
Shapland finds this epistemological and ontological collapse in attempting to make sense of the material and the written through theorizing biography as genre itself. The “ideal biography,” Shapland speculates, is maybe “just [a] transcription of events in strict chronological order without comment or explanation.” But evidence, Shapland learns, “is slippery, and discoveries are never final.” In fact, discoveries “shift according to the mood of the biographer or the critic,” even “according to the mood of the weather on the day [she, or the researcher] reads.” The author — which I take to mean both McCullers and Shapland, and really, any researcher — as Shapland observes, is in a constant state of change, as each reader will inevitably bring “[their] own experiences and assumptions to bear on the author and what she writes.” The biography (or retelling) “inevitably brings to the surface some aspect of the teller and her motivations.”
The motivation of the aforementioned “teller” reaches one of the most — for me, at least — anxiety inducing questions My Autobiography raises: are we, the writers and researchers, just projecting? Shapland cites another fellow biographer of McCullers, Josyane Savigneau, and her disdain for those who believe in McCullers’ queerness. To Savigneau, such people are “‘partisan[s] of homosexuality’ seeking to ‘appropriate [McCullers’] story for [their] ‘cause.’” No matter the research subject, don’t all writers and scholars worry that we’re pushing interpretations that are, well, maybe fake? Especially if we think that — to repeat Shapland — if these interpretations are true, wouldn’t “someone already have said so”?
To Savigneau’s accusation, Shapland admits that “perhaps [she] is” such a “partisan of homosexuality,” a frequent Googler of “[insert name] lesbian.” I, too, sometimes become fixated on a particular identity trait I share with certain writers. My most recent of these searches? “jenn shapland dissertation.” Easily, I found a PDF of her 2016 diss, Narrative Salvage, co-supervised by Ann Cvetkovich. In her dissertation acknowledgements, Shapland thanks Cvetkovich for her “openness” to “formal experimentation.” My experiences with Cvetkovich have been similar, having attended one of her writing workshops and lectures, and I’m fully willing to accept that my reaction to seeing Cvetkovich’s name and influence in Shapland’s work may have led to my own projection and narrative formation upon her writing. But as My Autobiography posits, these habits of readerly projection aren’t inherently good or bad. Whether it’s my projection onto Shapland or Shapland’s projection of queer love onto those initial letters between McCullers and Schwarzenbach, My Autobiography illustrates that what matters is the kind of space for creation these projections open.