Rousseau introduced his Confessions with a boast: his autobiography would be a performance without example, an accomplishment without imitators. He was only half right: Augustine he was not, but he has had imitators aplenty, and especially now. Whereas unimaginative novelists were once routinely accused of changing the personal names in works that would otherwise have been autobiographies, today it’s more common to learn that a genuine piece of fiction has been sold as a writer’s “true confessions.”
Any good autobiography is necessarily a work of the imagination, but not exactly in either of those all-too-common disguises. France has a thriving tradition of experimental autobiography—think of Sartre’s The Words, Genet’s The Thief’s Journal or a whole series of works by Michel Leiris beginning with Manhood. Yet I know of only one American work of recent times that has profoundly revised the form of autobiographical writing: I Remember, which Joe Brainard began publishing in 1970 when he was 28. It reached its definitive form in 1975, and has recently resurfaced as the first section of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard (Library of America; $35), edited by Ron Padgett.
Brainard grew up in Tulsa, where his schoolmates included Padgett; later, the somewhat older poet Ted Berrigan would turn up at the University of Tulsa. All three would head east and become stalwarts of the so-called Second Generation New York School. Brainard was its semiofficial illustrator in chief, and throughout the 1960s and 1970s he produced a prolific array of paintings, collages, drawings and assemblages. Brainard was the most modest of artists and writers—yet he quietly maintained the most stringent of standards for himself, which may be why his work as a painter and prose poet fizzled out long before his death in 1994 from pneumonia as a complication of AIDS. “You know, the older I get the more I believe in nothing,” he wrote, and by the end of the 1970s he gave it all up in favor, as John Ashbery once observed, of “his two favorite hobbies, smoking and reading Victorian novels.”
Given Brainard’s modesty and short-lived success, it’s a surprise and delight that the Library of America has inducted him into its pantheon alongside Hawthorne and Melville, Stevens and Whitman. Until now, Brainard has been what’s known as a “cult author,” his cult being a minuscule and almost private one compared with those of the countercultural icons more recently admitted by the Library of America into its fold, such as Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut. Yet Brainard still hasn’t truly arrived. His Collected is not a title in the press’s trademark classics series; rather than being, as they are, robed in black like a Supreme Court justice, it sports a powder blue dust jacket spangled with insouciant yellow stars. I suspect Brainard would have approved: he’s been accepted, but only insofar as the acceptance accords with his relaxed style.