The true diversity of the American experience comes to life in this superlative collection.
A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), perhaps the first American bestseller, recounts this thirty-nine-year-old woman’s harrowing months as the captive of Narragansett Indians.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1771–1789), the most famous of all American autobiographies, gives a lively portrait of a chandler’s son who became a scientist, inventor, educator, diplomat, humorist—and a Founding Father of this land.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), the gripping slave narrative that helped change the course of American history, reveals the true nature of the black experience in slavery.
Old Times on the Mississippi (1875), Mark Twain’s unforgettable account of a riverboat pilot’s life, established his signature style and shows us the metamorphosis of a man into a writer.
Four Autobiographical Narratives (1900–1902), published in the Atlantic Monthly by Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird), also known as Gertrude Bonnin, provide us with a voice too seldom heard: a Native American woman fighting for her culture in the white man’s world.
Edited and with an Introduction by William L. Andrews and a New Afterword
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William L. Andrews is E. Maynard Adams Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of To Tell a Free Story and editor or coeditor of more than thirty books on African American literature.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Autobiography occupies “an astonishingly large proportion of the slender shelf of so-called American classics,” according to James M. Cox, one of the genre’s most astute critics. Cox suggests that this predominance has something to do with the fact that autobiography emerged as a literary form about the same time the United States came into being as a new nation. In a sense, we might say, autobiography and America were made for each other. The revolutions in the United States and shortly thereafter in France demanded a radically new form of self-expression. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions (written between 1764 and 1770 and published posthumously from 1781 to 1788) epitomized this new form in France, while Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (which its author left incomplete in 1789, a year before his death) came to represent a similar new departure in the eyes of Americans.
What made these books unprecedented, however, was not the fact that they had an autobiographical agenda. The literature of selfhood, what we have come to term “life writing,” had had a long and notable history before Rousseau and Franklin made their contributions to it. In the West, autobiography in the most general sense of the word is usually traced back to St. Augustine, who wrote his Confessions of sin and salvation between A.D. 397 and 401. It is not by accident that Rousseau’s autobiography bears the same title as Augustine’s. For all his individuality, Rousseau wanted his story to be recognized and valued as part of a distinguished tradition. Though some, he admitted, would see him as breaking with that tradition, Rousseau was convinced that he was actually fulfilling its most fundamental demand for an unsparing examination of self.
Yet to speak of a tradition of autobiography in the time of Rousseau and Franklin is a little misleading, since the term was not known during either man’s life. It was not until 1809 that this amalgam of three Greek words meaning “self-life-writing” came into currency, having been coined apparently by the British poet Robert Southey in a review of Portuguese literature. Neither Rousseau nor Franklin thought of himself as writing autobiography as we understand it today. Franklin’s life story is known as his Autobiography because of the decision of editors who, well after Franklin’s death, preferred the more modern term to the more old-fashioned “memoir,” the word Franklin himself used to refer to his book. Rousseau and Franklin were traditional enough to affiliate themselves with two of the most established genres of life writing in Western literature: the confession—an inner-directed, soul-searching mode of self-examination—and the memoir—an externally focused history and justification of a public life. What was revolutionary about Rousseau’s Confessions and Franklin’s self-styled “Memoirs” was not the form in which each author addressed his world, but the ways in which each author reshaped and expanded his chosen form to create models of expression that forecast a new form: American autobiography.
From Augustine to Rousseau, the purpose of writing a confession was to take stock of oneself, morally and spiritually, so as to consider seriously the state of one’s relationship to God. In revealing one’s sins one broke down barriers between sinner and God and thus opened the door to divine redemption. Like Augustine, Rousseau was determined to confess as fully as possible his moral transgressions— and there were many of them—but unlike anyone in Christian confessional literature before him, Rousseau claimed special credit from his readers for baring his soul so completely, so honestly, so shamelessly. Instead of thanking God for leading him to confession, as Augustine did, Rousseau denounced society for forcing him to choose between his natural sense of right and the rules of conventional behavior. While admitting that at times he had violated the laws of God and the social order, Rousseau insisted that he should not be condemned by those more culpable than he, namely, those who had capitulated to society’s corrupt standards, against which he had struggled, in his view, so heroically. Anyone who would judge him, therefore, was probably hiding behind a mask of suspect respectability and was too false or too fearful to be as open and honest as Rousseau claimed he had proven himself to be. Through this line of argument Rousseau turned the confession of a socially alienated man into an act of self-justification for his own nonconformist individuality. In the end society, not the self, is weighed in the balance and found wanting in this immensely influential model for American autobiography.
What Franklin called his “Memoirs” also provided a precedent for American autobiography by presenting the life of a nobody who became a somebody, a provincial outsider who became a cosmopolitan insider, a poor boy who made good and then tried to advise others on how to do the same. Writing a memoir, an account of his rise to success and public leadership, was for Franklin a way of promulgating a view of the individual that stressed humanity’s potential to do good rather than its propensity to succumb to evil. Franklin did not look to divine redemption to set men free to do right, as Augustine did, nor did he hold with Rousseau that the individual’s innermost feelings and intuition would serve as his or her most reliable guide to the good. Instead, the pragmatic American placed his trust in common sense enhanced by a reasoned, systematic appraisal of what lay in the best interests of the individual and the social order together.
Like his Puritan New England ancestors Franklin believed that God’s will was for everyone to have a calling, a vocation, through which each person would seek not only to fulfill the self but also to benefit the community. Unlike Rousseau, Franklin wrote his autobiography to show how the needs and desires of self and society could be balanced and reconciled so that true progress for all could be effected. Franklin made his life illustrate how a respect for social norms helped him curb the excesses of unrestrained self-regard. At the same time the autobiography bears witness to Franklin’s conviction that individual leadership could provide the dynamism needed by the social order to enable it to improve. Thus Franklin’s example, though sometimes linked to such rampant individualists as Jay Gatsby, the gaudy hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, has little to do with the glorification of crass, single-minded self-seeking. Franklin’s story of how a colonial handyman remade himself into an American everyman is told with such mixed self-satisfaction and ironic self-deprecation that most readers are left wondering just how seriously to take Franklin as the archetypal American apostle of success.
Franklin’s retailing of his public successes along with his homely advice on how to make it in the world are not what is most original in the Autobiography. What is fundamentally new is that nowhere in his story does Franklin imply that the act of remaking oneself, the perpetual reinvention of one’s role and image in the social order, is in any way revolutionary or even abnormal—certainly not for an American. The real American, the true student of schoolmaster Ben, remakes himself not in spite of, or in opposition to, what America is but because he is an American. America is the land of inventors, and the greatest of Americans is the self-inventor—and the self-reinventor.
The most famous expressions of American autobiography in the nineteenth century—such works as the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), Mary Chesnut’s blend of Civil War novel and diary, composed in the early 1880s but published a century later as Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981), and The Education of Henry Adams (1907)—grew out of a hybridization of confession and memoir, self-revelation and self-celebration. Before the advent of autobiography in the United States, confession and memoir were seen as contrasting, even diametrically opposed, modes of life writing. The impulse to strip the psyche bare and to ask ultimate questions of the self led in one direction. The desire to represent the self in full dress, socially and historically, and to ask of it an accounting of its contribution to the making of the world steered a life history on quite a different course. Yet in the colonies and later the states of North America, the evolving ideology of democracy demanded that the self be regarded as both unique and typical, both the capital of its own spiritual sphere and the cohort of everyone else in the sociopolitical realm. Thus when Americans wrote autobiography they felt the need to explain and justify the self in accordance with inner and external identifications that were by no means easily reconciled. When the American who attempted autobiography was someone other than the white male, in whose interests the ideology of democracy had been designed, the problems of self-representation only intensified as questions arose about the legitimacy of one’s claim to selfhood and the willingness of the social order to claim one as a member.
These conflicting attitudes toward self and society that emerge in the confession and the memoir inform the classics of American autobiography. Those marginalized by race and sex seem to rely more on internal standards of self-evaluation and to picture themselves as pitted against hostile forces intent on robbing them of their carefully nurtured sense of inner worth. The African-American Frederick Douglass and the American Indian Zitkala-Sa, for instance, cast themselves in a Rousseauesque mold, demonstrating strong affinities with the idea that true individuality is forged in an inevitable struggle with the conformism and oppressiveness of a corrupt society. Douglass predicates the “resurrection” of his self-respect and his “manhood” on his hand-to-hand battle with a southern slave-breaker, the symbol of all that was tyrannical in the antebellum American social order. In her autobiographical essay, “Why I Am a Pagan” (1902), Zitkala-Sa takes a bold stand in publicly resisting the orthodox religion of most white Americans and even her own mother, a converted Sioux. Zitkala-Sa pities the Christianized Indians because they have lost their God, their sense of oneness with Nature, and in a cultural sense, themselves, in the process of accepting the white spiritual norm. What links Douglass and Zitkala-Sa to the confessional tradition is not an apologetic view of self but rather a sense of spiritual obligation to chart the self’s quest for fulfillment in accordance with its God-given mission—to resist white America’s denial of colored America’s identity.
As a seventeenth-century Puritan minister’s wife, Mary Rowlandson believed that God had brought about her captivity by Narragansett Indians in order to test her faith and her moral fortitude. In her True History (1682), Rowland-son confesses her own waverings and weakness of will, but her story concludes with an affirmation of God’s redemptive power. Her experience in the wilderness teaches her to “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord,” a message that she proclaims to her reader as a spokesperson for God. Rowlandson’s sufferings at the hands of the “heathen” give her special authority to tell her story and to call attention to herself as one of the favored of God. Yet the ultimate hero of Rowlandson’s story is God, who not only delivers her but enables her to read her individual experience as a verification of the principles that held the Puritan social order together. Rowlandson’s focus on her individual spiritual quest under the strain of alienation and captivity by the Other links her with the likes of Douglass and, ironically, Zitkala-Sa. But the dovetailing of that spiritual quest with the myths and ideals of the society Rowlandson longed to rejoin after her captivity anticipates the uses to which Franklin would put his autobiography.
Mark Twain’s Old Times on the Mississippi (1875) shows more obvious affinities with the Franklinesque tradition. The former “cub,” or apprentice pilot, who reminisces about the antebellum heyday of steamboating, recalls his training in the art and science of riverboat piloting partly to celebrate a lost era in American history and partly to show how Sam Clemens became Mark Twain. To graduate from the provincial backwater of his boyhood and be accepted into the grand fraternity of Mississippi riverboat pilots was, for Mark Twain, a metaphoric expression of the American drive for success. Like young Ben Franklin, the unlikely hero of Old Times must undergo an initiation that prepares him for a world in which the prize goes to the quick-witted and the adaptable, not the stolid follower of conventional wisdom. Divested of the comforting dependencies of the landsman, the newly made riverman gains a new self-confidence, which enables him to supplant the pilot who taught him, and a new realism, which shows him how to navigate the ever-shifting currents of American life for himself. Thus like Franklin’s account of his own youthful development, Mark Twain’s initiation story becomes a living lesson in pragmatic American values, a guide for a society that renews and defines itself primarily by rejecting its guides.
Placing the classic American autobiographies, whether by a Douglass, a Mark Twain, or a Zitkala-Sa, under a single rubric, either the confession or the memoir, can be a bit risky, however. What reader of Douglass’s Narrative would deny that in some important ways this former slave’s autobiography incorporates a pattern of successes reminiscent of Franklin’s, particularly in the rise of the once-marginalized African-American to economic independence and public prominence? Certainly Douglass intended to offer his rebellion against slavery as a testimonial, an unconquerable selfhood arrayed against the inhumanity of the southern social order. Yet as the fugitive slave proudly recalls his resistance to exploitation in the South, he lays a claim to acceptance and integration in the socioeconomic order of the North, where presumably every self-respecting individual is recognized and rewarded regardless of skin color. Perhaps Douglass was a Rousseauesque autobiographer to his southern enemies and a Franklinesque one in the eyes of his northern supporters. Yet one might wonder: though Douglass had “that aversion to arbitrary power” that Franklin claims stuck with him throughout his adult life, would Franklin have counseled the outspoken black man to decry in such extreme ways the failures of his America to live up to the ideals that Franklin helped draft into the language of the Declaration of Independence?
Similar questions about the dual allegiances of American autobiography arise when thinking about Old Times on the Mississippi. How much does Mark Twain’s image of the imperious riverboat pilot have in common with Franklin’s idea of the democratic hero dedicated to the betterment of his fellows? It would seem that the pilot’s aristocratic disdain for the thinking and expression of ordinary landsmen affiliates him with a tradition of lordly individualism that Fr...
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