ClassWrap 6: February 19


This week, we moved from the male-dominated world of Puritan (and post-Puritan) spiritual autobiography to forms of early women’s autobiography, which, to varying degrees, echoed and challenged the dominant Puritan ideology.  Seeking these women’s voices, we turned to trial transcripts, criminal confessions, letters, confessions, and poems, amongst other documents.  Before beginning this conversation in earnest, however, we discussed, briefly, the continued usefulness of Reading Autobiography–a book I like to think of as a grounding and orienting text in this course. I’m glad that many of you continue to find the text generative.  For those that do not, please work to reacquaint yourself with its core concepts.  Each concept is not an “answer” by which we play a game of critical connect-the-dots (“Look, embodiment!  Look, an ideological I!) but a key or a question that helps us engage the text on increasingly deeper and more complex levels.  These concepts, in short, should help us ask questions of a text that we might not ordinarily ask, unlocking layers of meaning and providing a vocabulary for describing the autobiographical act and subject under consideration.  Okay–enough advocacy!

We began our week with excerpts from Thomas Shepard’s congregational confessions or “evidences” (focusing on the female confessions).  Compared to the already tightly scripted autobiography, where all occurs according to “God’s Plot,” the confessional record from the congregation seemed to be even more constraining.  Delivering such confessions and conversion stories, as we discussed in class, was a requirement for church membership in the Puritan community.  If Shepard showed some slightly more liberal tendencies in asking women to provide an account of their conversion experience,  the nature of those reflections–controlled by both religious and communal expectations–showed little of what we would consider true or progressive self-authorship.  The mangled syntax might prove something of their rushed authenticity as Shepard took down the “evidences” in shorthand, but way in which he would shuttle back and forth between first and third persons suggests the degree to which his controlling hand and vision shaped the discourse of his congregation.  We found the confessions lacking in detail (what’s the point of a confession if there’s no juicy content!) and generally lacking in the kind of dynamic differentiation that would have given them a stronger sense of autobiographical truth.

The exhausting cultural script (can you tell how much I liked them?) of these church “evidences” provided an interesting backdrop for more transgressive and suggestive forms of female self-authorship that we witnessed in Ann Hutchinson, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, and Elizabeth Rodgers.  In each instance, we get a version of female authorship that transcends the tight script of Shepard’s church confessions.  How did, we asked ourselves, did these voices emerge in the world?  To what extent do they need to be “authorized” by an external (male) authority before they gain purpose and traction and audience?  And how did each author both exist within and contest, in certain cases, the tight cultural scripts in which their voices emerged?

We began with Bradstreet’s “Meditations Divine and Moral,” a set of maxims addressed to her son and never intended for publication.  As with so may of these texts, we need to take a step back and defamiliarize ourselves a bit: these “meditations,” though framed in that brief, modest preface, offer a rhetorically ambitious and diverse set of dictums—she unfolds metaphors of war, exploration, and the body politic as much as metaphors involving sewing, baking and the Bible.  But most of all, when the role of women was officially to rear as many children as possible, to claim such worldly knowledge and wisdom would have startled many in her time, and it should therefore kind of startle us now.

Bradstreet’s poems startle as well.  In the “Prologue,” despite Bradstreet’s perhaps overly-rigorous displays of female modesty, Charles pointed out that her poem contains a pointed critique of the “carping” (superb, emasculating word choice on her part) male authorities who refuse to sanction an accomplished female poetic voice.  Other poems, as Whit and Jamie noted, express a deep love for her husband, injecting a kind of emotional force that we don’t often seen in Puritan texts.  As Tiffany suggests in a recent post on auto[blog]raphy, by remaining within the constraints of the family unit, Bradstreet carved out a certain freedom of expression–one that allowed both for deep emotional connection and for the sharing of wisdom and knowledge that a women of her time would not be assumed to possess.

Though Hutchinson shared Bradstreet’s extreme intelligence, she was less willing to play along and within with the cultural scripts that composed her world.  Hutchinson’s extreme Puritanism–her vision of immediate revelation and divine, unmediated Grade–severely threatened the male-dominated church hierarchy.  We marveled at her Shakespearean wit as she effectively deconstructed poor Governor Winthrop in front of his esteemed colleagues.  It seemed that she could have easily circumvented the charges against her via the same feigned modesty and deference that we witness in Bradstreet.  But instead, she chose to declare her relationship with the divine to be truer than any she could ever achieve through submission to the male hierarchy of the Puritan church.  Her testimony makes clear her incisive critique of the Puritan cause, and how it had drifted from its ideals in divine justification by grace (as opposed to sanctification by works).  Needless to say, the church leadership could no longer “authorize” this voice, and chose to excommunicate and banish her.

In class, I read a quote from Daniel Shea–a scholar of spiritual autobiography–who writes: “what Anne Hutchinson finally revealed to the Massachusetts Bay authorities was that the source of her doctrinal errors was also the source and essence of autobiography.” Her  Antinomian voice was an autonomous, self-authorizing voice.  “This voice,” Shea continues, “was banished from the Massachusetts Bay less for what it had said than for what it might be imagined to say.” I love that sense of autobiographical threat–one whose sharpness we will see in more disguised and insinuating forms when we discuss the poetry of Phyllis Wheatley at the start of next week.

That leaves Rowlandson and Rodgers–one a captive, the other a criminal. Both of their texts, however, are contained within a broader, sermonizing paratextual apparatus.

Rowlandson’s story–authorized at the start by Increase Mather and at the end by her husband’s last sermon (not included in our edition)–became an allegory for God’s Grace working at the level of the individual sinner and at the level of the community as a whole.  It also serves as a kind of original allegory of American identity as it provided a way, thinking of what Rachel noted in class, to carve out a distinct identity against the Native American “other.”  Despite these broad constraints that worked to control the meaning of Rowlandson’s account, we organized out discussion around those moments where the Pro-Puritan / Anti-Indian framework begins to break down, when the “discursive regime” that had made sense of her world comes under threat.   We covered too much ground here to accurately capture–trauma, the unique pattern of emplotment, the pure pathos of the story, its relation to contemporary captivity narratives that juxtapose female victimhood and national righteousness.  Perhaps some of the ClassWrap commenters this week will choose to pick up one of the many threads of our conversation!

In Rodgers criminal narrative, we come full circle.  We’re back in the world of the confession, but by this point (1701) the church seems to grasp that strange mix of voyeurism and empathy that could more effectively sell ideals of salvation and grace– ideals that were already waning in the second and third generations of Puritan settlers.  Rodgers’ narrative shows where extreme criminality and extreme grace coincide–a grace, the ministers are sure to remind her when they fail to knock her faith off balance, that is only afforded by the prayers of the church and, moreover, by the authority of that “sacred order” of men who effectively hold the keys to the kingdom.  The pastors, of course, wanted to impress the rabble with stories of God’s infinite grace.  But they didn’t want them to think that grace arrived apart from the power of the church.  In Roders’s account, we sense the degree to which an authorial female voice would often emerge only through intense mediation and conformity to a male-controlled cultural script.  Rodger’s gains an autobiographical selfhood only by taking on the dramatic role assigned to her by that “sacred order” of men.  Talk about “coaxers” and “coaches”!

Looking Ahead and Blogging:

We’ll pick up next week with Wheatley before moving on to what I call “canonical” autobiography in the work of Benjamin Franklin.  For this week, in order to allow you to get more settled into Franklin before you blog about him, I’m going to move the blogging deadline to Thursday night.  That will give you more fodder for your critical and creative posts.

Critical Prompt:

As for the prompts themselves, the critical one remains the same: apply a concept from Reading Autobiography to some aspect of Franklin’s Autobiography.  As you do this, however, you might also think of the transition from spiritual autobiography to Franklin’s more secular autobiography.  What is changing culturally, and how is that reflected in the text?  Does Franklin seem more our contemporary than the Puritans? In your critical posts, try to keep your attention not only on the text we’re reading, but how it relates to, echoes, or diverges interestingly from what came before.

Creative Prompt:

In Bradstreet’s “Meditations Divine and Moral,” we get a prescient version of the kind of practical wisdom and advice that Franklin seems so eager to share a century later.  While Bradstreet more humbly cast her advice into the future, hoping it would aid her son’s progress in life, Franklin is eager to show his own triumphs and tribulation as he strives to life up to his famed “13 Virtues” (on pages84-85).  Considering he was quite the libertine at times, the guy was all about self-improvement.

For your creative post, offer a version of autobiographical wisdom–the self, we might say, cast in aphorism.  You can borrow from Bradstreet’s style of the numbered list, or re-define (over-write) Franklin’s 13 virtues.  Or, you can come up with your own list of virtues.  Frame them in a sensible way (as our two authors do) and feel free to digress on your struggles to achieve these virtues–that should help you fill out the 300-400 words. Feel free to be as upright or transgressive as you want (within reason, of course).

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