Course Description

English 4395: Selected Topics in Autobiography

Topic of this section: Contemporary American Memoir

TTh 11:30—1:00

Dr. James Pipkin


This catalog entry allows faculty to teach a variety of topics about autobiography, and this semester the course will focus on Contemporary American Autobiography.  This course will introduce students to some of the forms, tropes, and critical issues in a variety of recent examples of this increasingly popular form of creative non-fiction.  The assigned works range from autobiographies that have already attained the status of classics--Tobias Wolf’s This Boy’s Life, and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club—to 2005’s critically-acclaimed The Tender Bar, a memoir by the Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent, J.R. Moehringer.  Because autobiography has become a particularly rich source for the diverse voices seeking to express their particular vision of American identity, one cluster of the readings will focus on ethnic autobiographies: Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America and Andrew Pham’s Catfish and Mandala.  Gender will also be a major critical issue in discussions of the works of Wolfe, McCall, Moehringer, and Karr.  Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals provides an example of an important sub-genre, the trauma autobiography, as well as a construction of gender and sexual orientation very different from those found in Wolf’s account of coming-of-age in the 1950s or Karr’s female bildungsroman set on the Texas Gulf Coast. The other readings--Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—offer stimulating examples of experiments in form and content.   Recurring issues will include the writers’ motivations for writing about their lives, the different ways they construct the self, and questions about authenticity and truth in publishing accounts of their personal experiences. The course will also place the genre in the larger context of American literature, especially the trope of self-invention.


Because the course will be taught in a seminar format, students should be prepared to assume a greater responsibility than the conventional lecture-discussion class requires.  Students will write 1-2 page response papers about seven of the nine works that will provide the basis for the initial class discussion of the books and two 5-7page critical essays on topics that reflect their developing interests in issues raised by the works.  The final assignment is the traditional end-of-the-seminar essay in which the students will develop their ideas about some of he recurring issues in the course or reflect on the characteristics of memoir as a genre and the cultural needs it fulfills.