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Circuitous Journeys

Modern Spiritual Autobiography

David Leigh

Publication Year: 2000

Circuitous Journeys: Modern Spiritual Autobiography provides a close reading and analysis of ten major life stories by twentieth-century leaders and thinkers from a variety of religious and cultural traditions: Mohandas Gandhi, Black Elk, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm X, Paul Cowan, Rigoberta Menchu, Dan Wakefield, and Nelson Mandela. The book uses approaches from literary criticism, developmental psychology (influenced by Erik Erikson, James Fowler, and Carol Gilligan), and spirituality (influenced by John S. Donne, Emile Griffin, Walter Conn, and Bernard Lonergan). Each text is read in the light of the autobiographical tradition begun by St. Augustine's Confessions, but with a focus on distinctively modern and post-modern transformations of the self-writing genre. The twentieth-century context of religious alienation, social autonomy, identity crises and politics, and the search for social justice is examined in each text.

Published by: Fordham University Press


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pp. v

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pp. vii

I would like to express my gratitude to colleagues and friends who have helped with various versions of the manuscript: Philip Boroughs, Hamida Bosmajian, Jeffrey Cain, Peter Ely, John Hawley, Tibor Horvath, Patrick Howell, Justin Kelly, Janet Blurnberg, Mike MacDonald, Elizabeth Morelli, and Andrew...

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pp. ix-xvi

My own story of meeting these ten major religous autobiographers of our century-Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, C. S. Lewis, Malcolm X, Black Elk, Paul Cowan, Rigoberta Menchu, Dan Wakefield, and Nelson Mandela-is no mere ghost story. They have haunted my imagination for thirty...

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pp. 1-31

“A man’s work is nothing but a slow task to rediscover, through the detour of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.” These words of Albert Camus suggest the spark that ignites the narrative fire...

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1. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain

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pp. 32-56

A HALF-CENTURY after its publication, The Seven Stovey Mountain remains the most popular of Merton’s fifty books. Why is this life story, with all its youthful exaggerations, stylistic lapses, and revealing omissions, so readable?1 I would suggest that...

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2. Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness

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pp. 57-80

DOROTHY DAY tells us that the motif for her autobiography came in part from a letter her daughter sent telling about the loneliness of being a mother of small children (243). Day embodied the motif in the title and in the epigraph from Mary Ward, founder of a seventeenth-century order of nuns in...

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3. The Psychology of Conversion in G. K. Chesteron and C. S. Lewis

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pp. 81-101

“A YOUNG MAN who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” C. S. Lewis makes this remark in Surprised by Joy (191), just at the point where he describes his reading of Chesterton. At the time, Lewis was a nineteen-year-old second lieutenant in the British infantry...

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4. The Dual Plot of Gandhi’s An Autobiography

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pp. 102-136

THE SUBTITLE OF GANDHI’S An Autobiography-“the Story of my experiments with Truth”-gives the reader a clue to why it is difficult to follow its plot. Written periodically during and after a prison term from 1921 to 1924, the narrative of Gandhi’s “experiments” appears episodic and disorganized, in part...

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5. Malcolm X and the Black Muslim Search for the Ultimate

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pp. 137-161

THE LIFE OF MALCOLM X (1925-65) provides one of the most intriguing and prophetic stories of the search for ultimate meaning in the twentieth century. His life story and teachings, as expressed in his world-famous autobiography and his speeches and interviews, embody a range of experience...

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6. Black Elk Speaks: A Century Later

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pp. 162-177

READING Black Elk Speaks a century after its story ended at Wounded Knee raises issues quite different from those raised by other modern spiritual autobiographies. The primary problem for the reader is: what context to read it in? Some critics...

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7. The Remaking of an American Jew: Paul Cowan’s An Orphan in History

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pp. 178-196

ALTHOUGH CALLED BY A New York Times reviewer “beautiful and moving,” and applauded by a later critic as the greatest Jewish spiritual autobiography of the century, Paul Cowan’s story remains somewhat of an orphan in the history of recent autobiography. It is overshadowed, of course, by great...

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8. I, Rigoberta Menchú : The Plotting of Liberation

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pp. 197-214

READERS OF I, Rigobevra Medd have been fascinated by the naive intensity of the young Guatemalan woman’s faith and perseverence in the face of atrocities that destroyed her Indian family. But her storytelling, first audiotaped and then rearranged by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, seems awkward and...

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9. Dan Wakefield’s Returning

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pp. 215-229

ALTHOUGH PAUL COWAN’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY includes most of the patterns of twentieth-century spiritual autobiographies, his story has a distinctively different tone from that of Merton, Day, or Lewis. No longer dominated by the “Wasteland” and Depression periods between the world wars, Cowan’s account takes for granted the post-1960s ruptures in Western...

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10. Retraveling the Century: Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom

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pp. 230-251

THIS FINAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the century has puzzled its readers. Published in 2994 to great acclaim, it reads like a mid-century spiritual journey with a structure similar to those we have seen in Merton or Malcolm X. Yet it lacks the periods of wandering and dramatic conversion of its predecessors. Its style is...

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pp. 253-255

What will be the future direction of spiritual autobiography? If we look only at the kaleidoscopic style of Wakefield’s new journalism, we realize that it reflects the loosely structured wanderings of Malcolm X, Paul Cowan, and other late twentieth-century seekers. The twists in the spiritual piIgrimage toward...


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pp. 257-259

E-ISBN-13: 9780823246724
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823219933
Print-ISBN-10: 0823219933

Page Count: 259
Publication Year: 2000

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Subject Headings

  • Autobiography -- Religious aspects.
  • Spiritual biography -- History and criticism.
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