I love what the OED online has to say about "autobiography," so I will cut and paste the whole main entry:
"The writing of one's own history; the story of one's life written by himself.
The complaint from 1797 about the word's combining Greek and Saxon roots is lovely. (I have a colleague who loathes words that combine Greek and Latin words.) I almost never agree with Carlyle, but I agree with him on this sentiment: oh, for an autobiography by Shakespeare. And calling geology the autobiography of the earth: inspired. Thank you, Sir C. Lyell. And finally: how surprising that the word seems to have entered English as late as the late 18th century. I wonder when the term "celebrity autobiography" was first deployed.
Here's a (non-celebrity) autobiographical poem:
1954: The Situation
On January 29, 1:06 a.m. I was made available for appointments
with the world.
Meetings occurred between me, air, light, milk, mother, father,
brothers, snow, odors, trees, fabric, belly aches, noise. Like
other newborns, I did not know who or where I was. Did I know
that I was? Like some other newborns, I had the makings
of brown hair, blues eyes, and one hammer-toe.
Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
Permanent Committee on Investigaions. Korean Peninsula. Eli
Lilly designs LSD for the CIA.
Rather late in the game, I walked: May of 1955.
I was neither reluctant nor satisfied. Lore says
I walked for a beer held by my Aunt Nevada;
more is the pity.
I wouldn’t have walked just for beer or
just for Aunt Nevada,
but the beer and smiling
Nevada (nicknamed "Babe") together
were too much to resist, says the lore.
Questions persist: If your name
is Nevada, why do you need a nickname,
and if you do need a nickname, why must
it be Babe?
Emmett Till. Allan Freed coins “Rock `n Roll.”
Sun Records signs Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins,
Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. Emmett Till.
Also, I gathered (I gather) that walking
was expected of me. Okay, fine.
Distant Early Warning. The French withdraw
from Viet Nam. Good idea.
Many years later I took up dancing.
Also, I costumed myself in pajamas,
six-gun holsters, a variety of hats.
I was a humorless, earnest dancer
and had general problems with specific gravity.
Brother Sven was always quicker on the draw.
I learned to fall down dead.
Dick Nixon. Little Richard. The deaths of Henri
Matisse and Charles Ives. Emmett Till.
I took up reading and shadow-boxing.
I’ve since abandoned shadow-boxing
except in the most figurative sense.
"Friday Night Fights" on black-and-white TV.
At six I sat on slate steps, warm in
Sierra Nevada sun. My father had built them.
Mother was inside the house or sun-bathing
on the vast porch beneath a vast Sierra sky.
I thought, “I am six, and I will remember this.”
I remember this because I willed myself
to remember this then: Memory for its own sake.
The invention of TV Dinners, advertised on TV.
Also I remember the magpie that would not
leave the woods. It let me come close and stare.
A rational bird, it was not afraid of me.
A discerning boy, I appreciated the gesture.
It seemed to want to be more than a magpie
or at least not wild. Having not been entirely
committed to walking, I understood the magpie’s
reluctance to fly, migrate, act frightened, etc.:
That is to say, “What’s the point—in what ways
will flying, migration, and fear materially
change the situation?”
It is much later now.
I have completed another sentence.
Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom