This course is an introduction to the developments and theories of various genres of life writing. Assessing traditional cultural assumptions of the field, the course will emphasize the dynamic expansion in recent decades of the subjects and forms of biography, autobiography, testimony, and memoir. In line with the UH journal Biography, which we publish at the Center for Biographical Research, the course assumes that biography is an interdisciplinary and often trans-generic product. This means that you”ll be studying biographical and auto/biographical texts as forms of communication that are subject to historical, literary, political, and cultural environments (though not always popularly recognized as such). In addition, since some of you are (or will be) teachers, and all of you have an interest in what our schools teach, the class will look at a range of life writing courses from numerous institutions.

As you read critically and analytically, you”ll become very attentive to the multiple identities and phenomena that are designated as “she,” “he,” “they,” “I,” “us,” and“ it.” Along with ideas concerning subjectivity, referentiality, and resemblance, you”ll consider tensions between privacy and the public “right-to-know” and how these affect biographical and auto/biographical choice of subject, modes of research and documentation, interpreting personal letters and diaries, and interviewing techniques. All of these need to be adjusted to understandings of what we think about “truth,” “truthfulness,” what Tim Dow Adams calls “truthiness,” the reach of ethics, laws, and our literary desires and ambitions in our roles as readers and writers. In reductive but useful terms, this class explores who has what rights to relate representational life stories–in which ways and through what contexts to whom, where, and when.


  • One short oral report on the week’s assignment
  • a short essay by mid-semester
  • a prospectus
  • and a final project and presentation.


The following selections should serve as a guide to the approach and scope of this class, but not as a specific booklist: 

  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Nigel Hamilton, Biography: A Brief History
  • Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction
  • Fuchs and Howes, eds. Teaching Life Writing Texts.
  • Selections from Phyllis Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages
  • from Susan Tridgell, Understanding Our Selves: The Dangerous Art of Biography
  • from Gertrude Stein, Portraits
  • Henry James, “The Real Right Thing.”

Essays/Chapters/Biography Excerpts

  • Philippe Lejeune, “The Autobiography of Those Who Do Not Write”
  • Diane Middlebrooke, “Telling Secrets”
  • Phyllis Rose, “Bearing Witness”
  • Dori Laub,“ Vicissitudes of Listening”
  • Noelani Arista, “Listening to Leoki: Engaging Sources in Hawaiian History”
  • Emily Bauman, “The Dutch Controversy”
  • Wider and Krary,“ The Contour of Unknown Lives”
  • Kyle Cardell, “Bloodsport: Thomas Goltz and the Journalist’s Diary of War”
  • Sam Raditlhalo, “Truth in Translation”
  • Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith, “Conjunctions: Life Narratives in the Field of Human Rights”
  • and essays by your own graduate faculty here at UH.