Beyond Endings: Past Tenses and Future Imaginaries

The Afterlives of Those Who Write Themselves. Rethinking Autobiographical Archives


  • Sidonie Smith University of Michigan
  • Julia Watson The Ohio State University



textual afterlives, archives of feelings and impressions, remediation and/as afterlife, digital afterlives


As those who write themselves, life narrators are readers, interpreters, and curators of the archival material, both intimate and impersonal, accrued during their lifetimes. These materials form an archival pre-life that is extended and complemented by posthumous remediations of their narrated lives. Personal archives may include writing in journals and diaries, digital exchanges on social media and blogs, documents, and images in photographs and drawings, as well as the ephemera of recorded memories and impressions; as this archive is activated in life writing, its texts project an archival  imaginary. Once a life narrative enters public circulation, the archive of self accrues future ‘afterlives’ as it is edited, reframed, and remediated in subsequent editions and by translation into other languages or media for different reading publics, both during and after a writer’s life.

The interactive relationship of self-archives and afterlives makes clear that the texts of self-life-writing, whether published or unpublished, complete or fragmentary, are objects of inquiry in movement – not transparent, stable phenomena that generate ‘truth,’ but dynamic sites open to interpretation in their textual afterlives. An autobiographical narrative is, thus, never just ‘the life’: supplements, remediations, and new versions are created in interactions with the practices and positions of new generations of readers. This essay takes up the iterative, interactive, and intersubjective dynamics of autobiographical archives and the temporalities of autobiographical afterlives in eight exemplary cases of life writing. Observing autobiographical archives in their histories of circulation, republication, and repurposing situates the question of afterlives as a mode of ‘beyond endings’ in larger debates about ethical reading, methodological constraint, and theoretical adequacy.

Author Biographies

Sidonie Smith, University of Michigan

Sidonie Smith is the Lorna G. Goodison Distinguished University Professor Emerita of English and Women’s Studies, University of Michigan, and Past President of the Modern Language Association of America (2010). Her major research interest is in autobiography studies, particularly women’s life writing, life writing and human rights, and contemporary genres in textual, graphic, performance, and online media. Her publications include A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (1987), Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body: Women’s Autobiographical Practices in the Twentieth Century (1993), and Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (2015). With Kay Schaffer, she coauthored Human Rights and Narrated Lives (2004). With Julia Watson, she coauthored Reading Autobiography: A Guide to Interpreting Life Narratives (2010 second expanded edition) and Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (2017).


Julia Watson, The Ohio State University

Julia Watson is Academy Professor Emerita of Comparative Studies, a core faculty member of Project Narrative, and an affiliate of Germanic Languages and Literatures at The Ohio State University. With Sidonie Smith she coauthored Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (expanded edition, 2010) and co-edited five collections. Their Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader (2017) is accessible in open access. Watson’s recent essays are on women’s visual diaries, voice in Patti Smith, online publishing, reading in women’s comics, and Philippe Lejeune. Email:





Beyond Endings: Past Tenses and Future Imaginaries