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Estelle B. Freedman. Maternal Justice: Miriam Van Waters and the Female Reform Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. xvii + 458 pp. ISBN 0-226-26149-2 (cl).
Just over a decade ago, Ursula K. LeGuin spoke to graduating seniors at Bryn Mawr College about the "mother tongue" and the "father tongue." The mother tongue, said LeGuin, is language not as mere communication, but as relation, relationship." The mother tongue "expects an answer." Its essence is "conversation, a word the root of which means `turning together.'" By contrast, the father tongue is a language bent on "distancing-making a gap, a space, between the subject or self and the object or other." Because of its claim to a "privileged relationship with reality," LeGuin argued, "the father tongue is spoken from above. It goes one way. No answer is expected, or heard." LeGuin roots the mother tongue in private life, in the kitchen and the bedroom, those messy places where we learn to construct ourselves and our stories about each other, those places through which much of life flows without any illusion of objectivity. The language she described is porous and accessible; "it connects. It goes two ways, many ways, an exchange, a network. Its power is not in dividing, but in binding, not in distancing, but in uniting."(1)
LeGuin's charge to the Bryn Mawr Class of 1986 was to import the mother tongue into their public discourse, to expect relationship and connectedness in all of their communications. This is a worthy goal for all of us who teach, but it is an equally worthy goal for those of us who write--and especially for those of us who write biography. For LeGuin's praise of a language that does not claim a "privileged relationship with reality" reflects the contemporary embrace of subjectivity which has utterly revolutionized biography as a genre.
The biographer writing in the mother tongue does not speak in distant, omniscient tones about some unbiased "truth" that has been erected from some objective, seamless body of evidence on the subject's life. The biographer writing in the mother tongue is more honest and more messy. While she is certainly willing to make an argument about the subject's life, to figuratively stand in her scholarly kitchen, swing her wooden spoon, put her hand on her hip, and tell the story her way, the biographer writing in the mother tongue knows she is telling the story her way, knows why, and says so.
That contemporary biographer, speaking in the mother tongue, is part of an epistemological revolution of which feminism is a vital part. This is a revolution that recognizes every biography as a subjective interpretation of a subjective body of evidence. It acknowledges that public and private constructions of the self produce multiple identities and necessitate simultaneous readings of those identities. And it respects the fact that the surviving evidence about anyone's life is a construction that must be noticed and examined.(2)
When I read biographies I listen for the mother tongue. I attend to signs that the biographer is aware of the subjectivity, constructions, and connections implicit in the enterprise. Theoretical developments over the past two decades about biographical writing have persuaded me of the `benefits to be realized when the biographer is conscious of the complexities involved in both the subject's construction of the self and the biographer's construction of that self--and uses a voice about those complexities. LeGuin describes it as a conversant voice which "goes two ways, many ways," which creates …