Teaching Autobiography: Welty, Baker, and Cheever
The current interest in biography and autobiography, as well as the still-open questions about critical standards, invites developing approaches to and teaching units in "life writing." A course in fiction readily accomodates a study of autobiography because this context permits students to see the connections between fiction and nonfiction and to apply the methods of fiction analysis to autobiography. Three texts that work well together are Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings (1979), Russell Baker's Growing Up (1982), and Susan Cheever's Home Before Dark (1984). That all are available in mass-market paperback editions makes the works accessible to any audience. Individually and collectively, these books allow instructors and students to explore the methods of the artist who cannot "make up" a plot and whose characters are set by life, not imagination. Each book shows the shaping of self and the use of symbols in the creation and transmission of self. Each allows us to understand the way fact (the real item or experience from life) becomes artifact as the artist handles it.