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Autobiography, Lesbian  
 
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In the first century of its existence, lesbian autobiography has moved from being coded to being outspoken, and it is both wide ranging and contradictory in the stories that it tells.

Although autobiography is traditionally regarded as a truth-telling genre in which the author commits to telling her story and readers in turn agree to accept that story as true, lesbian autobiography consistently defies and subverts this conventional assumption. Not only does it challenge divisions between biography and autobiography and between fiction and nonfiction, but it also renders problematic the term lesbian itself.

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Early Lesbian Autobiographies: The Necessity for Coding

A literary barometer that measures the cultural status of lesbians over the past century, lesbian autobiography has at times necessarily been closeted. Indeed, in works written before the 1970s, lesbian content is usually obscured; authors tend to rely on a reader's being "in the know" or being able to decode the lesbian story concealed within. The contradictory features of the genre point to a fundamental question: Can, has, or will lesbian signify truth?

Most early twentieth-century lesbian autobiographies either use discreet or veiled language or avoid discussing the author's lesbian relationships altogether. There are, however, a few exceptions. Linda Dunne mentions The Story of Mary MacLane (1902) and I, Mary MacLane (1917), apparently written by a woman from Montana. These works suggest the author's lesbianism, but they cast it as a horrible, alienating defect.

The memoirs of noted British composer Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) are more typical. Smyth, who was remarkably candid about her lesbianism, had several involvements with women, including one when she was 71 with (at the time) 47-year-old Virginia Woolf. Yet, Impressions that Remained (1919), As Time Went On (1936), and What Happened Next (1940), which include Smyth's letters to a number of women, are so discreet as to permit her being read as heterosexual.

Other important lesbian literary figures who wrote essays or books with coded autobiographical content include Margaret Anderson (1886-1973), Sylvia Beach (1887-1962), and Janet Flanner (1882-1978). One might also mention Vita Sackville-West (1892-1995) and Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) because of the autobiographical narratives present in their fiction.

Sackville-West's roman à clef Challenge (1923) considers her passionate affair with Violet Trefusis. Although coded, Challenge's depictions of actual events and people, as well as its lesbian content, were discernible enough to incite Sackville-West's family to protest the novel's release.

In the stylistically ornate Nightwood (1936), her best-known work, Djuna Barnes explored her feelings toward the sculptress Thelma Wood, with whom she lived during the 1920s. In the novel, Nora Flood's hauntingly obsessive meditation on Robin Vote refigures Barnes's involvement with Wood.

Perhaps the most famous example of early twentieth-century lesbian autobiography is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933), written by American modernist Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). As its title suggests, The Autobiography ruptures the conventional assumption that autobiography's subject is the author herself. Here Toklas, Stein's lifelong partner, is the nominal subject.

This decision to have her lover's voice mediate her story allows Stein to interrogate the boundaries between author, narrator, and subject: Where does Stein end and Toklas begin--or, rather, where does Toklas begin and Stein end? Do they share the same story? Stein's innovative narrative strategy here attests to her sustained commitment to experimental writing; it made her famous and, perhaps more important, it pays formal homage (albeit in a highly coded way) to her relationship with Toklas.

Toklas (1887-1967) herself wrote essays and books in which she reminisced about her life with Stein. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) and Aromas and Flavors of Past and Present (1958) include anecdotes about Stein and their friends as well as fanciful recipes. These books, and her final memoir, What Is Remembered (1963), suggest without ever being explicit the range of the women's shared appetites.

Lesbian Autobiographies of the 1970s and 1980s: Telling the Truth

The mid-1970s saw a shift in lesbian autobiography. With the advent of the gay liberation and the women's movements of the late 1960s and the 1970s, lesbian literary production increased dramatically. Perhaps the best-known and best-selling lesbian novel from this period, the lesbian picaresque Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), by Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944), is largely autobiographical. Nonfiction flourished as well during this time. In their explicit naming of lesbianism and their avowal at times of separatism, mid-1970s nonfiction narratives--such as Jill Johnston's weekly articles in New York's Village Voice and her book Lesbian Nation (1973)--contrasted sharply with the highly coded autobiographies of the first part of the century.

The consciousness-raising strategies of feminist collectives, as well as the prevalent idea that the personal is political, encouraged women to seize political agency by writing about their lives. Bonnie Zimmerman cites the publications Class and Feminism (1974) and Lesbianism and the Women's Movement (1975), both works edited by Nancy Myron and Charlotte Bunch, for their inclusion of personal narratives that served as "political ammunition."

This cultural climate also gave rise to a new subgenre, the coming out story, which typically chronicles lesbians' sexual awakenings and, with it, their personal and political empowerment. The 1980 anthology The Coming Out Stories included pieces by both unknown and famous writers, such as Cherríe Moraga (b. 1952), Minnie Bruce Pratt (b. 1946), Joanna Russ (b. 1937), and Adrienne Rich (b. 1929).

Within academia, Rich also spread the message of the importance of narratives of lesbian visibility. In 1976, at the annual Modern Language Association convention, the acclaimed lesbian feminist poet urged women to embrace "the lesbian within," calling for the naming of lesbianism both in their own lives and in their scholarship. Her remarks politicized the academy and, in effect, gave an important impetus to the fledgling gay and lesbian studies movement, in which personal narrative continues to be a standard feature of literary and cultural analysis.

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Alice B. Toklas, the subject of Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).
  
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