Autobiography and Memoir
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND MEMOIR
Autobiography and memoir, an author's narrative of his or her past experiences and present reflections, emerged as a popular genre during the early years of the Republic. Historians and literary critics have struggled to define these texts alongside other staples of Western letters—novels, poems, diaries, and "eyewitness" accounts. Unlike fictional narratives, autobiographies are rooted in verifiable circumstances. Yet these texts, unlike official or present-tense accounts, enable the author to select which themes to highlight, what significance to attach to persons or events, and what overall tone or interpretation to give the story. Thus such stories can tread a fine line between fiction and nonfiction. However defined in terms of style, intent, and veracity, however, autobiographies and memoirs serve two functions that might account for their popularity. First, they allow individuals room for self-invention, thus reflecting and reinforcing a belief in the fluidity of the American social order. Second, they lend the United States itself—which lacks the religious, racial, and ethnic commonalities of other nation-states—a set of shared memories, stories, traditions, and history.
Before the formal emergence of autobiography, North American immigrants used personal accounts to express spiritual longings and to defy various forms of oppression. The diary, a register of day-today experiences, gave Protestants the medium for revealing doubts, fears, and desires that Catholics found in confession. Diaries were particularly common among Puritan New Englanders, who used their literacy to define themselves against the American wilderness and the "savages" who lived there. New England settlers also read "captivity narratives," in which the authors' imprisonment by Indians and subsequent "redemption" to white society mirrored the quest for personal salvation. The best-known example, Mary Rowlandson's The Goodness and Sovereignty of God (1682), ranks as one of the first best-sellers in North America.
For the majority of immigrants who came to colonial America as indentured servants or slaves, illiteracy and day-to-day coercion made self-narration impossible. But a few gained control of the written word and bore witness to their suffering. Olaudah Equiano, an African who was shipped to America as a slave in the 1750s before buying his freedom and moving to Britain, described his ordeal in an Interesting Narrative, first published in London in 1789. His recollections of the Middle Passage—men, women, and children packed into ship holds, their breath, sweat, and feces producing "a scene of horror almost inconceivable"—helped to fuel the British movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. Equiano died in 1797, ten years before that movement bore fruit. His story helped to shape the later slave narratives of the nineteenth century.
In the Revolutionary period national identity and autobiography rose concurrently. American printers used personal accounts of British injustices to inflame Revolutionary passions. After the War of Independence, biographies of Patriot heroes (especially George Washington) provided newly minted citizens with guides to personal behavior in republican society. Writing, reading, and talking about individual lives encouraged Americans to question traditional forms of identity. Freed of ties to the monarchy, and filled with a phenomenally complex desire for "independence," Americans looked to carve their individuality out of the dense granite of family precedent, local obligation, and hierarchies of race and gender. Simultaneously, in the 1780s and 1790s, British and German writers identified "autobiography" as a new form of narrative. This genre immediately drew fire. One critic, quoted in Robert Folkenflik's Culture of Autobiography (1993), dismissed autobiographies as the self-obsessed drivel of self-deceivers, "women who also coquette with posterity," and historians (p. 3). Yet these texts would provide early Americans with a new means of understanding their lives and establishing their identities.
Several hundred Americans who were born after the Revolution published autobiographies; countless more perished along with their authors. The widespread circulation of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography in the 1810s helped to standardize the genre. The texts generally began with the author's earliest memory, thus underlining the intention to give a complete and truthful rendering of his life. The author then recorded a (lowly) background and (burdensome) duties. While reflecting on liberation from these powerful forces, the author might move from past to present tense and from description to evaluation. The incidents that the autobiographer featured, and the turning points around which the story was built, revealed not so much the memories that were self-consciously "chosen" as the memories that were available and comprehensible to the author at the time of writing. Common themes in early autobiographies include the escape from the farm, the fight against physical handicaps, and the search for a satisfying, distinctive "career." These were, in short, narratives of struggle—against fate, against inheritance, against an agrarian economy and a traditional society.
The memoir as a biography written by an intimate acquaintance of the subject became another medium for constructing lives through texts. From just twenty-seven during the 1790s, the number of memoirs surged to 270 during the first decade of the nineteenth century. Sometimes written by a husband about his late wife, these stories reveal the prized virtues of "Republican Womanhood": piety, fidelity, and devotion to the good of the nation.
During the early years of industrialization, autobiographies and memoirs poured out of printing presses for consumption by an increasingly literate public. Indeed, these texts captured the enlarged scope and vast diversity of American life during the 1830s and 1840s. Many celebrated social and geographic mobility, helping to make upward striving something of a national ethic. (This ethic also served to hide the high incidence of financial failure in a full-blown capitalist economy.) Memoirs proclaimed that virtue grew best in the free soil of the American Republic. But other narratives revealed quarrels with the institutions, mores, and values of the United States. Like Equiano, escaped slaves—Frederick Douglass was the most prominent—wrote stories about themselves to illustrate the brutality and duplicity inherent to the "peculiar institution." Slave narratives also indicted northerners for their indifference and bigotry. Whatever their tone or purpose, autobiographies and personal memoirs remained popular because of the special axis they created between author and reader, between subject and nation. In the privacy of their parlors, readers could judge their own desires and intentions through the prism of another person's life. Both readers and writers, in turn, could use these texts to set rules for and make sense of a society that often seemed ungovernable.
Appleby, Joyce, ed. Recollections of the Early Republic: Selected Autobiographies. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
Carretta, Vincent, ed. Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 2003.
Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.
Folkenflik, Robert, ed. The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.
J. M. Opal