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Memory is always fallible, and history is always partial. Yet these two weak reeds do lean upon each other, do inevitably depend on each other. Memory provides the initial impetus for history, while history becomes a reinforcement, possibly even a validation, of memory. Like wounded warriors, the two support each other as they make their way toward a brighter light. "Critical history," said Carl Becker, "is simply the instinctive and necessary exercise of memory, but of memory tested and fortified by reliable sources."
Memory is notoriously imprecise: it is faulty, failing, selective, and often self-serving. And "critical history," or even "scientific history" for a time seemed the unfailing corrective to the sins of memory. But then we came to see that history also has its failures: incapable of total objectivity, thesis riven and driven, impressionistic and spotty. And yet one author, seizing both horns of the dilemma, writes of History as an Art of Memory. Another, Jill Ker Conway, in her book When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography, asks whether autobiography is merely the "most popular form of fiction." But she responds that autobiography does have to pay attention to the "hard angularity" of facts. It does so in such a way, however, as to enable the reader "to try on the experience of another, just as one would try on a dress or a suit of clothes, to see what the image in the mirror then looks like." When a "convincing narrative" lets us inside another person's life, the result is "deeply satisfying."
At first glance, autobiography might seem to offer us the worst of all possible worlds so far as the potential virtues of memory and history are concerned. Surely here, if anywhere, memory is least likely to be trusted, while history is reduced to a subservient role: a Greek chorus offering "backup" for the solo voice. Is every autobiography of necessity a hopelessly egocentric Song of Myself, to cite Walt Whitman, or unseemly Advertisements for Myself, to name Norman Mailer? Or is the self-centeredness illusory? Is Whitman perhaps speaking for a young nation, and Mailer for a sorely tried generation? Collective autobiography may, of course, be as suspect as the private kind, but it may also transmute itself into the necessary myths by which peoples and nations live.
Arthur R. Gold, for example, argues that the Bible itself, the Book of Exodus in particular, cannot be properly appreciated until its autobiographical character is well understood. The Hebrew scriptures in particular, Gold writes, are "a people's description of itself, a national autobiography, in which a people investigates, affirms, and perpetuates its own complex identity." Similarly, many American autobiographers blend their own story with that of their society and their nation. An inner, private history becomes a window through which to see more clearly the complexities and ironies of the modern world. Such writers, as Robert F. Sayre has noted, "have made their personal dreams and nightmares a part of the public discourse."
Of course, the interests are not always that broad. Some write not so much to reveal themselves as to discover themselves. Alfred Kazin writes for himself, he admits, for he believes that he has been "saved by language." An autobiography is not raw memory, but a sifting and shifting of memory and, therefore, of one's life. "By the time experience is distilled enough," Kazin writes, "to set some particular thing down on paper, so much unconscious reordering has gone on that even the naïve wish to be wholly ‘truthful' fades before the intoxication of line, pattern, form." Other writers reach more for poetry than for truth, while still others find refuge in generalizations that obscure or omit all startling or illuminating detail.
And then there are those who, like Mark Twain, undertake their autobiographical mission with a maddening casualness. After much reflection on the proper technique, Twain reports that at last "I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography." That right way is as follows:
Start at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk about the only things which interest you for the moment; drop it the moment its interests threaten to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.
Yet, Twain, with supreme self-confidence, saw his work "as a model for all future autobiographies" just because it mixed past and present together so freely. For by this method, the reader would have his interest constantly fired up "all along like contact of flint with steel." Facts, he noted, sometimes get in the way of fancy, and that should never be allowed to happen.
Religious autobiography may take the facts more seriously, but here, too, larger purposes must often be served. The classic model, Augustine's Confessions, made its goal clear: "Let me know Thee who knowest me," he wrote, adding from Paul's words to the Corinthians, "let me know Thee even as I am known." One seeks to know the self better in order to know God better. And confession is the way to achieve both—confession which, at least in Augustine's case, took the form of a full-blown autobiography. The remaining purpose for him was to help others follow a similar path of liberation and salvation. "I, O Lord, confess to You that men may hear." The confession is to God; the testimony is in behalf of all humankind.
Similarly, in America the case of John Woolman demonstrates that religious autobiography can be understood more as an instance of self-effacement than of self-aggrandizement. "I have often felt a notion of Love," Woolman wrote, "to leave some hints of my experience of the Goodness of God." The self is diminished, so that the goodness of God may be enlarged. Or, as John the Baptist is recorded as saying of Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." Woolman's identification with the Indian and the slave was, moreover, autobiographical rather than theoretical. He reached them by walking, "that by so Traveling I might have a more lively feeling of the condition of the Oppressed Slaves"; and, in the case of the Indians, "a Concern arose to Spend Some time with [them], that I might feel and understand their life."
Some have pointed out that the conversion narrative is at the root of autobiography. Robert F. Sayre quotes Roy Pascal to the effect that genuine autobiography "imposes a pattern on a life, constructs out of it a coherent story." Sayre adds that the conversion narrative does precisely that and is, from this point of view, "the major precursor of modern autobiography." Such narrators look "back from a single organizing perspective and [tell] a fairly coherent story of a sizeable portion of their lives." In the present volume, Jonathan Edwards's Personal Narrative best represents this classic form. In telling what God had done for him, Edwards would have a wider public know what God may, in turn, do for them. And, to some degree, every autobiography—religious or no—offers the reader an enlargement, or perhaps a confirmation, of his or her own experience.
In Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography many see the transition from a salvation story to a secular one. Yet, Franklin's immensely popular memoir can be regarded as but an adaptation of the more explicitly spiritual "pilgrim's progress." Franklin tells of another kind of salvation: from obscurity and poverty to fame and an agreeable station in life, from ignorance to illumination, and from intense activity to calm reflection—"the Thing most like living one's Life over again." Though the word "autobiography" had not yet been invented, Franklin nonetheless gave the genre an ever enlarging place in American letters. And however skeptical or doggedly practical his tone, he did not drive religion from the field.
Indeed, Alfred Kazin has argued in God and the American Writer that much of our literature does not escape that "Hound of Heaven" that Francis Thompson identified. The American writer may well avoid a public religion often so "vehement, politicized, and censorious." But there is another kind of religion, Kazin notes, that envelops: a heritage, a teaching, a company, a safety. This religion "is where we are most at home and is always there when we need to go home again." And Thornton Wilder saw the ephemeral ("adulteries of dentists") as unworthy of the attention of the serious writer. "I am interested," he noted, "in those things that repeat and repeat and repeat in the lives of millions"—in other words, in the human heartbeats and the spiritual searches. Autobiographers do not trivialize history: they embody it.
In this book, many of the authors do not see themselves as writing a religious autobiography. Mary Rowlandson (ch. 1) concentrates on a single episode of her life, though certainly a traumatic and transforming one. Jonathan Edwards (ch. 2) tells a quite limited story, though some of his other expansive writings illuminate his short "personal narrative." In the crowded canvas of the American Revolution and its aftermath, Benjamin Rush (ch. 3) hardly has time for a full unfolding of his religious views. But in Chapters 4, 5, and 6 (Richard Allen, Peter Cartwright, and Orestes Brownson), the reader is exposed to a more nearly complete autobiographical statement, though only portions of each are offered here.
With the famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass (ch. 7), one encounters for the first time an autobiographer who is essentially unfriendly to religion, at least to the Christianity that he saw being practiced all around him. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise (ch. 8) provides "reminiscences" as valuable for their insight into nineteenth-century American Judaism as into the reason and passion of Wise himself. In Chapter 9, one garners some insight into the religion of a Native American, though one who at this point in the nation's history has not been impervious to the influence of Christianity. Harry Emerson Fosdick (ch. 10) was so totally immersed in the strong and contrary currents of American religion in the first half of the twentieth century that his autobiographical prism is inevitably of unique value.
Orestes Brownson had introduced one kind of Roman Catholicism to a largely hostile, even more largely ignorant, American audience, but the sophisticated and literate Jesuit, John LaFarge (ch. 11) seized many more opportunities to exercise influence at another level. And if Rabbi Wise represented one kind of official Judaism, Mary Antin (ch. 12) speaks for the operational force of Judaism at a less formal level. For a time, Reinhold Niebuhr (ch. 13) stood in danger of becoming everyone's favorite Protestant theologian: of the politicians, the journalists, the philosophers, and even other theologians. On the other hand, if the American public knew the name of any spokesman for the Hindu tradition—apart from Gandhi—that name was likely to be Yogananda (ch. 14).
Martin Luther King is surely the best known African American voice in the twentieth century, but he would be glad to share a small portion of his fame with his good friend and mentor, Benjamin Mays (ch. 15). Few if any in this book would think of themselves as even remotely related to the notion of sainthood; Dorothy Day (ch. 16), however, has actually been proposed, informally, for this exalted status. Mary McCarthy (ch. 17) was a different kind of Catholic and a different kind of writer, her presence here helping to illustrate the breadth of that ancient tradition. On behalf of a much newer tradition, Virginia Sorensen (ch. 18) movingly re-creates the Mormonism of her childhood. Roman Catholic breadth is further revealed in the abundant writings of America's "favorite monk," Thomas Merton (ch. 19).
The awareness of, or admission of, pluralism in America took a major step forward via the facile pen of Alan Watts (ch. 20), while the "old-time religion" found a powerful spokesman in the person of Billy Graham (ch. 21). Former president Jimmy Carter (ch. 22) managed to give religion, and especially the good works presumably associated therewith, a good name. In the late twentieth century, Catholicism could take pleasure in another eloquent spokesman and loyal churchman: William Buckley (ch. 23). If Benjamin Mays revealed the social force of black religion, Maya Angelou (ch. 24) recalled the power of its passion. Alone among the twenty-six authors, Barbara G. Harrison (ch. 25) writes of a religious identification wholly rejected and abandoned. Also alone among these twenty-six, Richard Rodriguez (ch. 26) shares the warmth and the strength of a family Catholicism that was Hispanic.
Why these twenty-six and not others? No easy answer can ever be given to justify or fully explain the selectivity that operates, generally more subtly, in any historical undertaking. In a collection of this sort, readers will be tempted to offer replacements or additions. This is both appropriate and healthy. My own choices respond to two uneven desires: first, to include some favorites; and, second, to give the bright tapestry that is American religion a fair (though it can never be full) representation. Memoirs of the Spirit invites one to walk through a variety of corridors and rooms that reveal something of the nation's rich religious past. It may even invite a few to indulge in autobiographical reflections of their own.
Such reflection need not be lengthy. My own, for example, is quite short. It echoes the anxiety of the father of the epileptic child, as recorded in the Gospel of Mark (and expressed in the King James Version with which I grew up and from which I have never wholly escaped): "Lord, I believe; help, Thou, mine unbelief."
Santa Fe, New Mexico
|1||The Captive: Mary Rowlandson||1|
|2||The Sinner: Jonathan Edwards||17|
|3||The Patriot: Benjamin Rush||35|
|4||The Bishop: Richard Allen||51|
|5||The Frontiersman: Peter Cartwright||63|
|6||The Convert: Orestes Brownson||77|
|7||The Slave: Frederick Douglass||93|
|8||The Americanizer: Isaac Mayer Wise||107|
|9||The Holy Man: Black Elk||119|
|10||The Polemicist: Harry Emerson Fosdick||131|
|11||The Editor: John LaFarge, S.J.||147|
|12||The Immigrant: Mary Antin||157|
|13||The Theologian: Reinhold Niebuhr||167|
|14||The Yogi: Paramahansa Yogananda||179|
|15||The Educator: Benjamin E. Mays||193|
|16||The Pacifist: Dorothy Day||207|
|17||The Schoolgirl: Mary McCarthy||219|
|18||The Westerner: Virginia Sorensen||229|
|19||The Monk: Thomas Merton||241|
|20||The Buddhist: Alan Watts||257|
|21||The Revivalist: Billy Graham||269|
|22||The President: Jimmy Carter||287|
|23||The Mariner: William F. Buckley, Jr.||303|
|24||The Poet: Maya Angelou||319|
|25||The Witness: Barbara G. Harrison||331|
|26||The "Minority Student": Richard Rodriguez||345|