21L.512 | Fall 2013 | Undergraduate

American Authors: Autobiography and Memoir



For all your essays, be sure to focus, preferably on a single character, scene, or even passage in the work(s), and to support your point with a close reading of the text. Do Not Generalize. Make sure your essay has a central point against which someone might argue, using the evidence of the text. Try to avoid a mechanical, five-paragraph structure, aiming instead to engage your reader in dialogue with your process.

For any essay in which you cite a text, use MLA Works Cited format (put page numbers in parentheses after your first quotation) and list the text at the end of the essay in a Works Cited list. You will find links to sites on MLA Works Cited format at the class web site.

Essay 1 Close Reading of Voice

We have been reading eighteenth- and nineteenth-century authors with particular attention to voice as an indicator of expectations. That is, authors like Mary Rowlandson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Mark Twain often seem to announce at some point what they see as the role of autobiographical writing: to offer a lesson, to celebrate achievement, to probe a social issue, to experiment with other genres that a life story might inspire (sermon, fiction, guide to youth). Select a passage (no more than a paragraph) to read closely for evidence of the author’s consideration of these issues.

Tips for success in close reading:

  • Use your passage to focus on details of the author’s use of language, references to a historical or literary context, or elements of style.
  • You do not need to advance an argument for the whole text. Your reading will proceed from careful and sustained attention to one small piece of the larger work.
  • Remember that you are writing for people who have read this text as you have and will not need a report on or summary of its content. Present your reading as part of a continuing dialogue among interested readers.
  • You may wish to write out the passage as an appendix, but do refer to and quote its details within your essay as part of your close reading.
  • Give your essay an evocative title.

Essay 2 Family and Narrative

In our reading of works by Tobias Wolff and Art Spiegleman, we have noted the presence of a strong parental figure (father or mother) and his or her influence over the young protagonist’s development as an artist or writer. Choose one episode in which you see this development most strikingly displayed and analyze it more closely. What techniques does the author use to make the moment dramatic? What does this episode reveal about choices the author has made in telling his story? With Wolff, you will focus primarily on language; with Spiegelman you can also address visual effects. Be sure to use the techniques of close reading to develop your point and stay close to the text.

Essay 3 Nation and Outsider

Both Sherman Alexie and Shirley Geok-lin Lim, while presenting themselves as Americans, examine U.S. culture critically from the perspective of outsiders with a vivid experience of colonialism. Drawing on research into a particular historical event one of these authors refers to in the text, discuss how she or he derives a political argument from personal experience. Be sure to use and cite research materials appropriately.

Essay 4 Writing and Self

For this assignment, you will write a brief memoir of your own. Keep your scope narrow, with attention to details. You may think of it as the opening chapter of a longer work or a singular turning point. Focus on a specific conflict, episode, or discovery. It does not have to be complete or comprehensive. Add a cover sheet explaining how your paper shows what you’ve learned about memoir in this class.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
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