Autobiography: The Art of Self-Definition

  • Eva Lennox Birch
Part of the Insights book series (ISI)


This essay arises out of my teaching on a course on Women’s Writing offered as an optional special study to third-year undergraduates at Manchester Polytechnic. The initial focus of the course is on autobiography, in the belief that this genre facilitates discussion of some issues we think are seminal to our appraisal of women’s writing. The autobiographies chosen were by twentieth-century women writers, whose historical placing and cultural setting separated them. Texts included Zora Neale Hurston’s Dust Tracks on a Road1 and Buchi Emecheta’s Head Above Water.2 The issues raised, and which will be addressed in this essay, were: (a) Do women’s autobiographies have pre-occupations that are particular to all women? (b) How does racial awareness shape self-definition? (c) How does this relate to the writer’s concept of class? (d) What conclusions could be drawn about gender socialisation? (e) How did we relate to the issues raised? (f) How did we evaluate the texts as literature?


Black Woman Tribal Community Romantic Love Woman Writer Historical Placing 
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  1. 1.
    Z. N. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road ( London: Virago, 1986 ).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    B. Emecheta, Head above Water ( London: Fontana, 1986 ).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    S. Butterfield, Black Autobiography in America ( Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974 ).Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    E. C. Jelinek (ed.), Women’s Autobiography: Essays in Criticism ( Bloomington, Ind., and London: Indiana University Press, 1980 ).Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    A. Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens ( London: The Women’s Press, 1984 ) p. 91.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Z. N. Hurston, Mules and Men ( Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1978 ).Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    Z. N. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (USA: 1937; London: Virago, 1980 ).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eva Lennox Birch

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