Moving Images, New Media, and Autobiography

Dwight Swanson
Independent Scholar

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

This project began about five years ago. At the time I was thinking of putting together a website on home movies and went online looking for links. What I discovered was that at the time there wasn’t much information about home movies on the web, but there numerous examples of home movie and home video clips. In preparing this paper, I went back to find look at those clips again, but also to look at what they were saying about the creators and how they fit into the more general field of autobiography. One of the main questions in the study of autobiographies is this idea of what is called the “Autobiographical Impulse.” In other words: What compels people to put their life stories down on paper or, increasingly, on the Internet?

The field of autobiography studies is a bourgeoning field, but it does have a long tradition behind it. In 1909, Anna Robeson Burr wrote The Autobiography: A Critical and Comparative Study, which contains the insightful line: “It is rare when a literary movement starts from the throne; for Nature loves to mock the grandeur of kings by seeing to it that enduring and influential waves shall start from the people.” [p. 34] Burr looked at several hundred classical autobiographies in order to help define the genre. In her appendix she included a survey of some of the reasons the authors had for writing their autobiographies. The top three reasons were: Self study; Amusement, or to recall the past; and to bear religious witness, while other less popular reasons listed were: for money; “to revive his Latin,” and “to Emblazon the power of Opium.” [pp. 411-412] Put in the most general terms, though, the motivations were some combination of looking inward at themselves and projecting some sort of lesson outwards to their perceived audiences.