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The Narrating and Narrated 'I'

Walter MacKay Draycot served in the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment between 1914 and 1917. The Draycot collection is particularly interesting to scholars of autobiography owing to its unusual richness: in addition to a complete set of diaries (1907–1985) covering Draycot’s life in Canada and participation in World War One, and a comprehensive memoir, it contains many well-preserved sketches and photographs. A comparison of the textual and pictorial media reveals different and conflicting facets of the identity of the narrating and narrated ‘I’.
Autobiography, identity and fiction
Oliver Sacks argues that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative,” and ... this narrative is us, our identities ... for each of us is a biography, a story’.i Textual and pictorial media represent different modes of referentiality that present opportunities for as well as limitations to the enactment of ‘self’;ii all autobiographical writing is to a greater or lesser extent fiction.

In each of the four autobiographical media, Draycot is a hero: he demonstrates bravery and suffers ordeals (memoir and diaries), produces detailed sketches close to enemy lines (sketches and topographical charts) and is in the foreground of the action but successfully eludes death (photographs). He is a hero without fear. Yet the types of hero represented in Draycot’s narratives belong to different modes of fiction, as proposed by Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism) and later adopted by the World War One scholar Paul Fussell (The Great War and Modern Memory). Frye defines these modes in terms of the hero’s power of action: if this is greater than ours, it is classified as myth or romance; if it is similar, it belongs to the low-mimetic mode of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel; if the hero’s power is less than others’, it belongs to the ironic mode, which is characterised by bondage and suffering and relies on demonic imagery. The memoir, diary and charts are on the knife-edge between the low-mimetic and ironic modes; the photographs of Draycot (as opposed to those taken by him), on the other hand, belong to the myth/romance mode.

i Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (New York: Summit, 1985), 105.
ii Timothy Dow Adams, Light Writing and Life Writing: Photography in Autobiography (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), xxi.

Next: The ‘I’ of Autobiographical Narrative
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