Autobiography and American Literature

Module code: EN3111

Module co-ordinator: Nick Everett

American culture has always attached great value to the individual; autobiography – in one form or another – has always flourished in the United States. In this module we will read a number of modern and contemporary American autobiographical works, examining the various literary, cultural, and political purposes behind the selves and lives they present. You will also produce short first-person fictional or autobiographical pieces of your own that are coordinated with the autobiographical works we are studying.

There are four broad categories of autobiography, all of them prominent in American literature:

  • Conversion narratives describing moments of realisation or transformation in the author's life
  • Political narratives seeking to use a personal story to analyse a social issue
  • Thematic autobiographies exploring the significance of an interest, activity, illness, another person etc. in the author's life
  • Experimental, postmodernist approaches to the representation of selves and lives that implicitly question the purposes and effects of conventional realist autobiography

We will read classics in each category and then compose short examples of our own.

Topics covered

  • Henry Adams: The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
  • Richard Wright: Black Boy (1945)
  • Vladimir Nabokov: Speak, Memory (1967)
  • Joe Brainard: I Remember (1975)
  • Lyn Hejinian: My Life (1987)


  • 20 one-hour seminars
  • 1 hour of project supervision


  • Essay, 2,000 words
  • Portfolio of one, two or three creative exercises (1,500-2,000 words total)

The assessment for the module will be either essay 80%, creative portfolio 20% or creative portfolio 80%, essay 20% - whichever yields the higher mark.