Life Writing from Below in France

Nathalie Ponsard


Without seeking to be exhaustive, this paper offers an overview of the different ways in which workers’ autobiographies have been analysed in France in the human sciences. In the first phase, a social and political approach was dominant. Through workers’ autobiographies written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, researchers have attempted to grasp the relationship to politics, and especially in the twentieth century the acceptance or rejection of the communist model in the reconstruction of their political and trade union trajectories. At the same time, in a cultural approach, they have tried to understand the educational and literary influences which marked these self-taught workers who, unusually in the workers’ world, crossed over from practices of reading to practices of writing. Over the last ten years, workers’ autobiographies have become sources particularly used in the framework of labour history and workers’ history. Indeed they make it possible to grasp how men and women articulate their working conditions: the atmosphere in the workshop, gestures in work and relations between the body and the work, perception of noises and smells, relationships with hierarchy and trade-unions. These autobiographies can be considered as constituting real “political acts” which contribute to class struggle. Finally, at the intersection of anthropological researches about “ordinary writings” and literary studies about the writing of work and writing at work, they pose a question about the means and the meaning of writing experiences by paying more attention to the form of the writings and to the workers’ literary ambitions, which are often revealed in interviews.


life writing from below, France, political autobiographies, workers’ literary writings, workers’ identity, protest and emancipation

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European Journal of Life Writing - ISSN 1876-8156 - is an open access initiative supported by University of Groningen Library