Everybody's Autobiography

David Cowles

Apr 28, 2022

Is it possible to write an autobiography of everyone, to somehow incorporate the wildly varying events of different people’s lives into a single story? Absurd, right? But not so fast!

Gertrude Stein once wrote, “Anyway, autobiography is easy. Like it or not, autobiography is easy for any one, and so this is to be everybody’s autobiography.” (Everybody’s Autobiography)

Is it possible to write an autobiography of everyone, to somehow incorporate the wildly varying events of different people’s lives into a single story? Absurd, right? But not so fast! When we talk about ‘wildly varying events’ we implicitly admit that there must be a common substructure upon which these ‘variations’ occur.

Ok, if not absurd, then at least impossible. You will grant me that much, right?

Sorry, no again! Compared to what Joyce and Pound were attempting, Stein’s project is child’s play. When Stein wrote Everybody’s Autobiography, Joyce had already written and published his Ulysses and Pound was well into his Cantos. (In fact, some of the early Cantos had already been published.) These works are very different from each other and both are very different from Everybody’s Autobiography.

Joyce and Pound did not share a common style or even a common medium (Ulysses is prose, Cantos poetry) but both wanted to write a ‘universal history’ – a history of tout le monde, the whole world. But they approached their project very differently.

Joyce chose to telescope the world’s history into a single place (Dublin) and a single time (June 16, 1904, now called Bloomsday after the book’s hero, Leopold Bloom). Like all of us, Stephen Hawking included, Joyce stood on the shoulders of giants. He recognized two previous attempts to write a universal history: Homer’s Odyssey and the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church (Mass), and he incorporated both into Ulysses. Joyce meticulously mapped the world’s events (historical, mythological, and liturgical) onto the imagined events of Dublin on Bloomsday. Joyce discovered what today we would call ‘the fractal nature of reality’…long before Benoit Mandelbrot.


Pound took a radically different course. He attempted to catalog all the world’s events, but he used a different device to avoid writing a 'million volume novel’. He picked only those events that he judged to be richly emblematic of other events. All the events described in Cantos are paradigms.

Stein takes a third direction. She records the minute details of her life with Alice B. Toklas, but she chooses to include only those life events that Gertrude and Alice had in common with everybody else. They got up; they went places; they saw things; they engaged in conversations; they ate food; and they drank wine, etc. In this, their lives were no different from my life or your life or anyone’s life. Stein discovered the common substructure of all human life.

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