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The use and misuse of autobiography

19 roth from web 19 Dylan SCAN adjPhilip Roth, The Plot against America.

New York: Vintage Books, 2005. 391 pp. (paper).

Bob Dylan Chronicles: Volume One.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 293 pp. (paper).

Reviewed by Henry Milner

There was a great flutter early this year over A Million Little Pieces, the largely faked autobiography by James Frey. Faking an autobiography amounts to taking people into your confidence only to lie in their faces. Frey’s downfall was assured when the truth came out and one of those faces belonged to Oprah Winfrey. While we cannot require an autobiographer to get everything right, we expect him or her not to intentionally get things wrong. Two important books came out in paper last year which, in quite different ways, raise intriguing questions about the use and misuse of autobiography. I did not especially like either, but each provides important, if sometimes unintended, insights into a major American cultural figure of our era.

Philip Roth’s The Plot against America and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One, though they could not be more different in conception, can both be described as non-autobiographical autobiographies. Dylan’s book has no discernible structure at all. It might be titled “snippets” rather than “chronicles,” jumping back and forth among events, reflections and characters with scant regard for making connections – even chronological ones – between them. Roth’s book, in contrast, is carefully structured, though even more unconventional as autobiography. He describes in detail his own life from the age of eight to ten in Newark, New Jersey – only not as it was but as it would have been had the regime in America been a pro-Nazi one with Charles Lindbergh instead of Franklin Roosevelt as president.

First Dylan. I was in my late teens during the early sixties, the period that Dylan tells about in his Chronicles; relatively few of the many scores of people who turn up mean anything to me. Yet Dylan seldom tells me enough to make them interesting: what matters is that they influenced him. Moreover, while he repeatedly tells us that these various passing characters changed his perceptions and often his sense of himself and his art, he never tells us how those influences found their way into the songs that were etched into a generation. Despite this, reading the book is in itself enjoyable since, as in his music, Dylan has a way with words. Here the words give us a nice feel for New York’s Village in the heady early days of the folk music scene.

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About the Author

Henry Milner
Henry Milner is co-publisher of Inroads and a political scientist at the Université de Montréal.


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