Historical Identity in early American Spiritual Autobiography


In Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, a component of autobiographical subject is “Identities as Historically Specific Models” (Page 39). In this category, cultural identities are created “‘within the discourses of history and culture’” and may be influenced by narratives “available to life narrators” (39). For example, there are many different types of writings, such as poems, diaries, and speeches, which profess Christian teachings and how to redeem one’s “suffering soul” (39).

The Puritan ideal of total depravity insists that everyone is sinful. In Levi Ames’ “The Last Words and Dying Speech,” the notion of sin and retribution are emphasized as Ames confesses to his crimes of chronic “Thieving” (177). I find it interesting when Ames writes that he felt “so distressed” after he would steal, yet he continued to take goods that were not his again and again (181). When Ames is facing the gallows, he accepts that his “wicked” ways have assured his place in Hell, since he does not have enough time to “do good works (in attempts) to go to Heaven” (182). Yet, Ames still believes in his faith and whatever “just” judgment that God will bestow on him (182).

Additionally, Michael Wigglesworth’s diary entries from 1653-55 outlines the self-loathing and struggle he felt about his sexuality and how it related to his relationship with God. Wigglesworth begs for the Lord’s “help” after his conscious is tainted with “carnal lusts” about his male pupils (319). Then, in May of 1655, Wigglesworth’s solution to his publically-unsavory, sexual deeds, which cause him great anxiety, is to marry a woman (320). Wigglesworth’s sexual identity does not coincide amicably with society or his faith; his “sins” plague him (321). According to Smith and Watson, “Some narrators explicitly resist certain identities,” and Wigglesworth’s diary entries suggest that he attempts to push away his true feelings and live by the word of God (40). In this time, most of the literature available dealt with religion and living a pious life; if one fails to meet that bar of perfection, there does not seem to be much hope or optimism about salvation.

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