Lawrence Buell—a major Americanist scholar—notes that autobiography in America between Franklin’s Autobiography Douglass’s Life and Times in 1892—roughly 100 years—offers no sturdy tradition of the kind of extended, retrospective, secular unfolding of the self across an extended period of time. Instead, according to Buell, we have more partial forms of self-writing: various forms of spiritual autobiography, diverse accounts of extreme hardship (e.g. captivity and slave narratives), and stories with more sensational interest (frontier exploration, criminal confessions, nautical expeditions).
But, Buell notes, there’s other stuff happening in literature in general that heightens what we might call the autobiographical impulse of literature in general. That impulse makes this, if not the era of autobiography, then at least the era of the autobiographical. What were some of these literary and political energies behind this impulse? In class, some of you brought up the political ideas of independence, personal freedom and autonomy–these were crucial. Others mentioned the importance of the lyric self in romantic poetry—a self that prized a different level of interiority and imagination. We also discussed the Transcendentalists in America, whose essays, while not strictly autobiographical, were certainly grounded in the experience of a concerted and distinct self. I mentioned one other development that Buell notes–the rise of the Bildungsroman, the novel of development and education. This mode helped the novel evolve from mere romantic tales and episodic quests to the more realistic development of a single subject. In that way, this new approach to the novel provided an artistic model for a lived life, for the evolution of character across time.
But if the “I” during this time is everywhere, it is also unstable. As Buell puts it: “We remain an I-centered culture deeply unsure about the viability of our available myths of self-realization.” In the context of this course, this sense of being unsure emerges through the conflicting pressures of individuality and relationality and through the tension between the narrated, narrating and ideological “I”s. Where, we might ask, does the true self resides in that matrix of the autobiographical self? Or, as Emerson puts it in that startling first sentence of “Experience’: “Where do we find ourselves”?
Sacvan Bercovitch (another well-regarded scholar of American literature) has taken this idea of the self under pressure a step further. Talking about Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin and Thoreau in particular, he offers a question that has implications for just about each text that we have readings up to this point: “There is an invitation lurking in each of them,” he writes: “how would you like to disappear?”
I love that question—it perfectly captures a grounding tension in autobiography: while focused on the self, so much of what goes on in autobiography has to do with integration into a broader community of people, or a broader set of ideals. In class, we discussed how the Puritans disappeared into God, into the divine; how Franklin disappears into the political structures that claim him; how Thoreau seems seduced by solitary nature; how Larcom gets lost in memories of childhood—memories that bury in a veil of innocence all the hardships and realities that her adult self clearly recognizes; how Berkman loses himself in a broader socialist / communist cause; and how Mary Antin claims her former self to be dead, and casts her lot into the ever-hopeful futurity of the American dream as Franklin’s American story becomes the immigrant story. In all of these instances, it is not the utter success of their disappearing acts that move us, but the tensions and difficulties that the authors encounter along the way. After Franklin, who seems somehow less reflective on many levels, each of these characters reveal significant moments of vulnerability that keep them from merging with this or that external entity. The authors are too richly reflective to simply disappear; they leave a thick residue of self.
At the start of Wednesday’s class, I offered a quiz that I hoped would help us access these new autobiographical selves. The Puritan cultural script, the quiz prompt read demanded religious uncertainty—uncertainty of grace, of salvation. The drama, therefore, often seemed staged. Franklin answers this religious uncertainty with the possibility of progressive secular certainty. But after Franklin, things begin to fall apart. That old certainty springs forth here and there (Whitman? Antin? Larcom?) but never as convincingly. There always seems to be something cutting against the grain of stability and progress, something challenging one’s sense of self. With this provisional hypothesis in mind, I asked each of you to choose one text that we read during Week 11 and analyze a specific moment in that text that you think either supports or challenges my hypothesis.
You all offered an excellent set of responses. In class, we discussed Antin and W.E.B. Du Bois. In some cases—W.E.B. Du Bois in particular—the lesson has less to do with how one might disappear than the impossibility of ever doing so in a society which demands what he calls a “double consciousness,” a sense in which one is both self and observer. One is forced to objectify oneself, which offers a charged knowledge of loss and prejudice, but which also makes the ideal of authentic subjectivity utterly difficult to realize. As we discussed in class—thanks in particular to Morgan, Tiffany and Charles (if I remember correctly)—Du Bois seems locked in a world where his identity is always comprised of additive pieces that never comprise a whole. What he desires is an integrated and intersectional identity where all facets of self are essential as they comprise a whole person. The cultural scripts comprising his world, however, keeps the self fragmented.
Many of you reflected on Du Bois in your quiz, but I was happy to see a number of you engage Henry Adams (his use of the third person, the sense of crumbling secular stability that emerges in the face of technological innovation); Whitman (tension between the one and the many); Emerson (the difficulty of attaining and recognizing true experience in light of all the societal “temperaments”—his word for cultural scripts, I think); and Alexander Berkman (how the increasingly impersonal industrialization makes cultivating a true human self all the more difficult). Great responses all around. I’m always disappointed that we cannot cover absolutely everything in class, but I like that we get some of that content back on the blogs and on these quizzes. All is not lost after all.
This course has been a challenge for me as a teacher because it has a macro-objective balanced against a number of micro-objectives. On the broadest macro level, we’re telling the collective autobiography of autobiography itself as a genre in America. We’re tracing the evolution of an idea—the idea of self, the idea of authenticity, of memory, of experience; we’re exploring that compound self’s relation to others and to the cultural scripts that constrain and challenge and enable it. This macro-story, this autobiography of autobiography itself, grew more complex over the past few weeks, and the plot will thicken with each subsequent week. Let’s keep a keen eye on how each of these texts offers their own micro-objectives, their own visions and revisions of what it means to be a “self,” as we tell this broader story of American autobiography itself.
Looking Ahead and the Blog:
One quick blog reminder: remember to balance out your creative and critical blogging. Out of the 10 posts that will comprise your blogging grade, at least 4 of them should be critical.
For your blog posts (or comments) this week–again to be posted on Thursday by 10:00 instead of Tuesday to give you more time to consider all the materials for this week–I’ll offer the following options:
(1) Critical options remain stable as always: marry a concept from RA to a specific text. The more attention to detail–reflecting on and framing on the concept (quote!) and zeroing in on a specific moment in your chosen text (quote!)–the better.
(2) This week, in honor of Kingston, you can offer a small piece of mythical autobiography: the self as allegorical super-hero.
(3) A combined approach: using Anzaldua as your guide, reflect on multiple facets of your identity–how they clash with one another and how they have been or might be ideally combined. Weave the story of your own identity into this broader autobiographical concept of intersectionality.
We have some excellent material coming up this week, from James Baldwin and Gloria Anzaldua on Monday to Maxine Hong Kingston, David Shields and Kathleen Norris on Wednesday. Baldwin extends a tradition of African American autobiography that began, for us, with Douglass. Anzaldua reflects on her dynamic intersectional identity as a lesbian/Chicana/female/poet/scholar/activist. Kinston introduces us to a more experimental mytho-autobiography. Shields problematizes conceptions of self and memory in his fragmentary memoir-manifesto, and Kathleen Norris brings us back to spiritual autobiography while also introducing a tension we haven’t yet considered: how does depression affect the autobiographical subject?
Looking forward to it!