Notes on Richard Rodriguez and Autobiography

[By: Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Rodriguez, Richard. Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.  New York: Viking, 2013. 

 As a writerly act of defiance and discovery, Rodriguez published Hunger of Memory: The Education of  Richard Rodriguez in 1982. In the contexts of stereotyped machismo and socially imagined American desire, the book was a triumph of ethnic spirit. It exploited the seductiveness of American literary history. The main title was a slantwise echo of Richard Wright’s American Hunger; his subtitle, an appropriation of The Education of Henry Adams. It reiterated the indeterminate properties of autobiography as a genre as well as the articulation of ethnicity. One could read the book as a post-modern signifying on Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, if one deemed autobiographies to be success stories. An uncommon reader might contrast Hunger of Memory with Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) to ponder gender, ethnic and class differences in American Writing. One imagines Rodriguez took a tip from Wright in meditating on alienation, especially in distancing himself from the assumptions of Mexican American Catholic decorum and from parents who were “always mindful of the line separating public from private life.” Rodriguez wanted a consumed cake to remain intact.

There was daring in his belief that he could “scorn those who attempt to create an experience of intimacy in public” while he willed himself “to think there is a place for the deeply personal in public life.” Such ambivalence comes with a price tag. It puts its thumb on the psychological sundering associated with fictions of double or triple consciousness. Like a brutal collection agency, it demands a reckoning form the autobiographer — “Pay up or else….”

Thirty-one years after his noteworthy success with Hunger, Rodriguez pays up with accumulated interest in Darling. He commits unclad intimacy in public. His scorn boomerangs, knocking him into a pool with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Not having read Brown and Days of Obligation, the books he wrote after his secular autobiography, I only guess that Rodriguez experienced a crisis of Catholicism. Darling suggests that he found himself standing on sand, attempting to learn desert religion and getting no response from Allah, Yahweh, and God. The Semitic trinity mocks him by abandoning him. Such justice is the reward for those who are not acquainted with Egyptian monotheism or the “Great Hymn to the One God Aten.”

Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s concept of the spiritual is too manipulative and commercial, too camp and crass, and too theatrical to inspire conversion and enlightenment. In that sense, Darling is a brilliant exposition of how, with the singular exception of James Baldwin, Americans understand little about spirit and soul.