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They Did It Their Way : WRITTEN BY HERSELF: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology Edited and with anintroduction by Jill Ker Conway (Vintage Books: $15, paper; 672 pp.)

April 04, 1993|Valerie Miner | Novelist Miner is associate professor of English at the University of Minnesota. Her latest book is "Rumors From the Cauldron: Selected Essays, Reviews and Reportage."

Jill Ker Conway's anthology, "Written By Herself: Autobiographies of American Women," is part of an avalanche of recently published or republished memoirs, journals and autobiographies. What makes this self-writing so popular among writers and readers?

The writers' motives vary: to inspire, to propagandize, to settle scores or justify choices, to secure places in history. The most interesting stories ask, How did I get here from there? When narrative is a process of discovery for the writer, so it can be for the reader.

We read these stories for literary pleasure, entertainment, escape, psychological and social edification. What distinguishes autobiography from other genres is the chance to witness different versions of "real life" and thereby widen our range of compassion.

Autobiography offers the satisfaction of gossip and the promise of role models. Personal examples are particularly useful to women breaking new ground through jobs or private relations or a balance of the two.

Years ago, as an earnest adolescent, I read life stories to learn how to be a good person while my sophisticated best friend was reading other lives in order to become a successful person. Nowadays I suspect we're each more interested in being a whole person. The thread common through these autobiographies is the achievement of this kind of fulfillment.

Conway, herself the author of a best-selling memoir, "The Road From Coorain," and a historian of science at MIT, has collected 25 stories spanning more than 150 years. Voices include birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, singer Marian Anderson and journalist Gloria Steinem as well as less celebrated figures such as astronomer Cecilia Payne Gaposchkin and literary scholar Vita Dutton Scudder.

Perhaps the book's most powerful, eloquent piece is the first, Harriet Ann Jacobs' "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Jacobs, writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent, says, "I now entered on my fifteenth year--a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. . . . I was compelled to live under the same roof with him--where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things." This strong initial section of the anthology also includes inspirational stories by Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, opera star Marian Anderson and Inaugural poet Maya Angelou.

Next Conway introduces physicians and scientists who often were isolated in "male" professions. These women came from affluent and/or academic families and were given innovative private schooling. Especially engaging are the stories of early anthropologists Hortense Powdermaker and Margaret Mead.

Powdermaker describes her arrival in the village of Lesu on the southwest Pacific island of New Ireland: "Now I was sitting on my veranda, presumably ready to begin work, yet in a panic. I asked myself again, why am I here alone? . . . I quickly decided that although I may have been mad, I did not have to remain so. I would go home on the next boat." That evening, after being visited by a village family, she changes her mind, "I was no longer alone. I had friends. I went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately. No more thoughts of madness or leaving entered my mind. Several years later I learned that a definition of panic is a state of unrelatedness."

Less satisfactory is the third section, "Arts and Letters," in which Conway's selections pale in comparison to many of the narratives in this abundant field. Why, for instance, isn't there a contribution by Gertrude Stein, Lillian Hellman, Natalie Barney or Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston? Among the successful pieces here are excerpts from the acclaimed autobiographies of Maxine Hong Kingston and Margaret Bourke-White. Hong Kingston, the lone West Coast contributor, writes movingly about her life in California as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Bourke-White, an adventurous photojournalist, concludes with provocative thoughts on independence: "I have always been glad I cast the die on the side I did. But a woman who lives a roving life must be able to stand alone. She must have emotional security, which is more important even than financial security. There is a richness in a life where you stand on your own feet, although it imposes a certain creed. There must be no demands. Others have the right to be as free as you are. You must be able to take disappointments gallantly. You set your own ground rules, and if you follow them, there are great rewards."

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