Saturday 3 September 2011



I have read a large number of autobiographies - but have not re-read many, because most are not much good. As a genre, autobiography is of generally low quality.

Which ones were good?

John Cowper Powys, for one. I have heard this described as the best autobiography ever written. Certainly it must be one of the most eccentric. Powys was a one-off: a ?great novelist and a very strange man indeed. Like all good autobiogs, it is highly selective - Powys does not mention any women!

C.S Lewis's Surprised by Joy is another that I have re-read several times: it is probably the most famous spiritual account of the twentieth century - very frequently quoted in Christian circles. Like Powys, he leaves out almost everything about women - except his mother. Maybe this is significant?...

There are semi-autobiographical accounts of a person's life in a particular place - but short on personal details; such as Thoreau's Walden, or the more recent Ceremonial Time by John Hanson Mitchell - both of which I love. But these hardly count as formal autobiographies.

I was deeply impressed by Beyond a Boundary by C.L.R James - an intoxicating account of his life, cricket - mostly, politics and social analysis by the Anglicized Black Trinidadian Communist.

One autobiography which made a big impact on my work was What mad pursuit, by Francis Crick. From this I learned certain things about how to do theoretical biology which helped make me the scientist I am today (ahem).

A scientific autobiography of clear genius, but which I only read a couple of years ago and haven't yet gone back to, was Erwin Chargaff's Heraclitean Fire: simply as a writer he stands among the best of his era. The book also impressed by its burning, passionate honesty and indignation at what was happening to science.

Other candidates?



Phil R said...

Fully concur with Beyond a Boundary. My copy was signed by Garry Sobers who seemed less than impressed when I asked if he would do the honours. Why this was I didn't dare ask!

Seven Storey Mountain? Whatever one makes of Merton's eventual trajectory it is full of real youthful insight and wonder - a great 'early' autoboigraphy.

dearieme said...

A recent one that's sheer good fun-

"Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes" by Ferdinand Mount

For a biographical/autobiographical snippet: Jim Watson's "The Double Helix".

dearieme said...

Come to that, how do you rate the writings of Medawar?

Bruce Charlton said...

I haven't yet read any Merton. Interestingly Merton didn't respond to an enquiry by the young Eugene (later Father Seraphim) Rose - the counter-factual is what if he had responded and established a link- would the greatest modern American monk have become Roman rather than Orthodox Catholic... Of course not, but anyway.

JD Watson's Double Helix - absolutely! I have read it many times, and always love it.

Medawar - I read a lot of his stuff including the autobiography about 25 years ago, but have never felt inclined to re-read. As I recall, he hated Gilbert and Sullivan therefore he must be a bad person.

Thursday said...

Autobiographies I have read and enjoyed:

Augustine - Confessions
Cellini - My Life (very entertaining description of Renaissance Italy)
Rousseau - Confessions (a very bad man, but the book is a must read, brilliant, with many great psychological insights)
Thomas De Quincey - Confessions of an English Opium Eater
J.S. Mill - Autobiography (best at describing his bizarre and disturbing opium dreams, including when he makes out with the alligator)
Frederick Douglass - Life
James Baldwin - Essays (all the good ones are autobiographical)
William Styron - Darkness Visible

Books I plan to read at some point:

Goethe - Poetry and Truth, Italian Journey
Benjamin Franklin - Autobiography
Newman - Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Richard Wright - Black Boy
G.K. Chesterton - Autobiography
J.P. Sartre - The Words
Primo Levi - If This Is A Man, The Truce
Vladimir Nabokov - Speak, Memory
C.S. Lewis - Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed

Anonymous said...

How do find Mark Twain's Autobiography - well, as far as it has been taken?

Thursday said...

Another I've read and liked:
Leo Tolstoy - A Confession

A few others I'm interested in:

St. Teresa of Avila - Autobiography
John Bunyan - Grace Abounding in the Chief of Sinners
Edward Gibbon - Autobiography
Chateaubriand – Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb
Henry Adams - The Education of Henry Adams
John Ruskin – Praeterita
I.B. Singer – In My Father’s Court
Isak Dinesen - Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass
Annie Dillard - Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Bruce Charlton said...


Some good ideas here. I am v. slowly reading St Augustine, didn't warm to De Quincey, Goethe's Italian or Newman and didn't finish them, hated Annie Dillard, read Ruskin as a young man but it left no trace.

I was somewhat disappointed with Chesterton, but it was worth reading once.

I had raised the bar, here, to books I have re-read with profit and enjoyment, sometimes more than once.

Does the re-reading test apply to any of your choices here?

Thursday said...

Worth re-reading:

Not so sure about the rest, though they were definitely worth reading once.

Also, Wordsworth's Prelude, though it is in verse, is well worth re-reading.

BTW it was DeQuincey, not Mill who had the opium dreams. My mistake.

The Crow said...

Here's one:

"Inside my egg there was so much to see,
a frog by a pond, and a crow in a tree,
a bear licking honey, three mice and a flea,
and sights never seen, not by them, not by me.

How big is this egg? asked the frog to he bear,
but the bear could not answer, for he did not care.
We don't think it matters, squeaked the mice, over there,
to the crow, who decided to see, from the air.

So I jumped from the tree and fell into the skies,
and discovered no limit to what filled my eyes.
I think it's as big as the biggest of size,
squawked I, to the frog, and continued to rise.

Soon all the egg was left far down below,
and the heavens now opening, continued to grow.
While the air became thinner, and progress was slow,
still I climbed ever higher, still wanting to know.

With a crack, I ran into the edge of the shell,
and pecked it a few times, really doing quite well.
And when I was able, I popped through, and fell,
and discovered this thing that I now want to tell...

For my egg was the same, both without and within,
but to tell it, I don't quite know where to begin.
There are parts of the shell quite especially thin,
where the light from forever comes streaming right in.

If you look very hard for the light that is there,
you will find that it leads you to everywhere.
There are frogs, there are mice, there are crows, and a bear,
there is honey, a tree, and a great deal of air.

And this is my little autobiography.
From an egg to a crow to a life in a tree.
With a great deal of noise, just to fall silently,
to be right where I am, is just right where I'll be."

Dennis Mangan said...

The Diary of H.L. Mencken qualifies as an autobiography, I suppose, and is excellent.

Agree with Thursday's Life of Frederick Douglass - he actually wrote 3 autobiographies. Same genre, Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington.

Brett Stevens said...

I would recommend "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" by Alex Haley and "The Glass Castle" by Jeanette Walls. Much lower-brow fare but rather informative.

Wurmbrand said...

Arthur Machen's Far-Off Things has quite a bit of appeal to me, not so much his sequels Things Near and Far and The London Adventure.

Alexander Herzen's Chilhood, Youth and Exile (Oxford World's Classics paperback)

Konstantin Paustovsky's Story of a Life I: Childhood and Schooldays (there are several sequels, but this is the only one I have read)

Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and Wordsworth's Prelude perhaps?

How about published diaries, such as that of the Victorian clergyman Francis Kilvert?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - Diaries and journals are a different genre from autobiography - but I certainly agree that Kilvert's is first rate! I shall blog on my favourite diaries some time - I read them quite a lot; and then there are letters, which are another favourite genre of mine. I read a lot more auto/biographies, diaries and letters than I do novels.