Harry Graves

The need for self expression is one of those pieties we grew up with. That there was such a thing as a self, and that it needed expression, were taken for granted. Most of us began early, in the primers, writing compositions with titles like What I Did On The Weekend. It was natural to write these pieces in the first person singular, the tense we use to narrate the day's adventures or misadventures, to describe the progress of a work project or a love affair, to tell the tale of a trip somewhere.

When we tell stories about things that have happened to others, we naturally use the third person: he or she or they. The equivocal second person, singular or plural, can be used to refer both to self and other, sometimes so ambiguously it is hard to know exactly who is meant: It isn't good for you to smoke cigarettes.

Narratives can be constructed out of each and every one of the voices we use to describe real life experiences. If you (who?) use the first person, there are certain presumptions a reader will bring to your narrative: that it is true, that it really happened, that another participant/observer of the same events would tell essentially the same tale.

These are not the same assumptions a reader will bring to something written in the second or third person, although they still pertain to some degree. To say When I was eight years old I started smoking cigarettes is not the same as saying When Harry Graves was eight years old he started smoking cigarettes. Is one more an act of self expression than the other? Perhaps only if we know that Harry Graves is talking about himself.

In the second formulation, there are questions we will immediately want to ask: Who is Harry Graves and why did he start smoking so young? These questions do not arise in the same way in the autobiographical version, in part because the use of the first person singular suggests that such a statement will not be made without a (probably immediate) qualification. We confidently expect the autobiographer to explain why he or she did what he or she did. Otherwise why tell us?

But Harry Graves ... who is Harry Graves?

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