Revaluing Memoir and Rebuilding Mothership in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts


While much of the scholarship on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts has analysed it through the framework of auto-theory, I argue that considering it through the genre of memoir enables a better understanding of its political reach, particularly in achieving its aim of transforming cultural constraints and anxieties around social reproduction. As a roomy vehicle to explore complex, lived experiences of care and diverse relationality, the memoir was important to the feminist movement and gay liberation of the late twentieth century and remains crucial in the twenty-first century. Analysing mothership as a form of citizenship, Nelson shifts from identity to iterative practice through D.W. Winnicott’s concept of ‘good enough’ mothering. I consider how Winnicott’s ‘good enough’ mothering limits Nelson’s engagement with mothership and her journeying between connection and separateness as well as between responsibility and freedom. Lastly, I explore how her construction of an alternative genealogy and focus on happiness risks rebuilding a hegemony of social reproduction.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson explores the possibilities of the memoir to reconceptualise maternity, deconstructing its cultural alignment with heteronormativity and division from queerness. While some scholars have focused on the book jacket’s framing of ‘autotheory’ (Reid, Fournier), I would suggest that memoir enables Nelson to be considered within a wider community of those seeking to understand experiences of family-making through writing. Mobilised to describe a wave of recent writing that turns the critical gaze inwards, autotheory traverses the public and private, the intellectual and the emotional theory and the personal. Yet, as Laura Edbrook points out, ‘[w]riting the personal, the intimate, the quotidian, the domestic and the particular has long been a strategy in the dismantling of patriarchal ideologies and discourse’ and a means of modelling social reform (132) I want to take up Edbrook’s questions of ‘who . . . gets the privilege to speak . .…

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Published 28 April 2020 in Volume 35 No. 1. Subjects: Feminism, LGBTIQ+ literature & writers, Memoirs, Motherhood, Autotheory, Maggie Nelson.

Cite as: Vickery, Ann. ‘Revaluing Memoir and Rebuilding Mothership in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 35, no. 1, 2020, doi: 10.20314/als.ad45a0d006.