QUERY: American Autobiographies

Lynne Adrian's picture

I am bringing a course back to life this fall after a multi-year hiatus.  It is called "American Lives" and it uses autobiographies of individuals who are somehow marginalized as a starting place to find cultural commonalities between Americans.  The basic premise is that by starting at the margins and looking to the center we can see patterns that would be otherwise invisible.  As a result I use all texts by women and minorities.  The class is geared to sophomores, a mix of majors, minors and general interest.

Looking over the past syllabi I realized that everything is 20th Century in publication.  I would love to get suggestions for 21st Century autobiographies to use in the class.  All suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Lynne Adrian

Two suggestions: First, Lila Quintero Weaver's Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (U of Alabama Press, 2012) is a beautifully rendered graphic narrative about the author's experiences growing up Latina in civil rights era Alabama. I have taught this before to great success. Second, Hope Jahren's Lab Girl (Vintage, 2016) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. It traces her experiences as a woman building a career in science and as someone dealing with mental illness. I haven't taught it but my colleague is now, and the students really like it. Have a great course!

Published in the early 1830s, The Falcon, an autobiography by John Tanner, recorded/ghostwritten by polymath scientist Dr. Edwin James is a winner. Penguin paperback I believe. Tanner, a white man, was a child captive of Indians; ended up in far north Gt. Lakes region; ran afoul of Indian Agent Henry Schoolcraft; was befriended by James. His book includes wonderful details of Ojibwe (Chippewa) folkways and geography, plus plenty of material about cultural clashes in first half of 19th century. Tanner had pressures on him to perform by both whites and Indians and his story shows the many conflicting expectations. He had to "out-Indian" the Indians with his prowess and yet also meet white morés. Tough task.

Linda Bryan, Maplewood, Minn.


Eddie Huang's FOB could be a good fit. I haven't taught it yet but hope to do so soon. Also Tizon's Little Big Man might work--I haven't read it yet but hear good things.



Lila Quintero Weaver's beautiful graphic narrative Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (U of Alabama, 2012), about her experiences growing up Latina in civil rights era Alabama -- students love it. Also Hope Jahren's Lab Girl (Knopf, 2016), a memoir about building a career in the sciences, also treats her dealing with mental illness -- it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Good luck with the course.

Julie Armstrong

Dear Lynne, 

I'd recommend taking a look at Domingo Martinez, The Boy Kings of Texas (2013).  I'd think it would work well in an undergraduate course, and it speaks to both the experience of being an outsider and the banality of American life in general (or at least that's how I read it). 

Kind Regards. 

David Prior
Assistant Professor of History
University of New Mexico

Hi Lynne,

If it's not on your list, I recommend Redefining Realness by Janet Mock. It is usually well received with undergrads. Several students will probably already know who she is and the book raises important questions about race and gender from the perspective of a black trans woman.

Kadin Henningsen
PhD Student in 19th American Lit and Transgender Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign