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Reviewed by:
  • Declarations of Independency in Eighteenth-Century American Autobiography
  • Benjamin H. Irvin
Declarations of Independency in Eighteenth-Century American Autobiography. By Susan Clair Imbarrato. Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press. 1998. xix, 171 pp. $32.50.

Imbarrato charts the “development of subjectivity” (13) in American autobiography. She argues that early Puritan conversion narratives reveal an impulse toward self-examination that, though muted by more salient forces of community, nevertheless fostered personal autonomy. In the eighteenth century, this Puritan impulse, nurtured by Enlightenment humanism, evangelical individualism, and democratic egalitarianism, blossomed into a more fully articulated conceptualization of the self. Through a careful reading of six authors, writing in three distinct autobiographical traditions, Imbarrato illuminates this new subjectivity and its impact on American literature. Imbarrato begins with a provocative discussion about the nature of autobiography, which she broadly defines to include letters. Here she engages the rich secondary literature, well catalogued in her bibliography, that has exposed the bare texts of modern autobiography to the astringents of postmodern literary theory: a concern for the limitations of language, a skepticism toward the possibility of truth, and an awareness of the agency of the reader. But if informed by these tenets, Imbarrato’s study owes more to those of new historicism, “which incorporates social, economic, and political factors in assessing cultural conditions” (xix). Having presented her theoretical framework, Imbarrato then investigates the three traditions, the first of which is the spiritual autobiography. As [End Page 586] penned by Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge, the spiritual autobiography traces the author’s increased reliance on her inner voice; for Jonathan Edwards, it witnesses the emergence of a lone seeker who looks to nature as well as to scripture. In this discussion, Imbarrato expounds upon the theme of gender, a theme that adds further depth to her study, though at somewhat irregular intervals. As a woman, Ashbridge agonizes over her spiritual autonomy; Edwards, by contrast, seems to take his for granted. Imbarrato’s second tradition is the travel narrative, as represented by Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth House Trist. Both of these narrators see tremendous social possibilities in the American landscape, but Hamilton, as a male, enjoys greater freedom to interact with the “passing pageantry of colonial diversity” (56). Finally, Imbarrato introduces the political autobiography, as written by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These presidents use the political autobiography not only to set straight the public record of their service but also to shape the political consciences of their readers. In each of the three traditions emerges a more independent individual who “confidently embraces the risks of moving in new directions” (xix). One problematic aspect of Imbarrato’s argument is her point of departure: the Puritan conversion narrative. Not all colonists were Puritans, and many of the writers she discusses descended from other literary traditions. So, for instance, when Imbarrato contrasts the observations of Hamilton, a Maryland resident, with those of New Englander Samuel Sewall (64), she misleadingly suggests that their differences resulted from change over time rather than from region or culture. Similarly, Imbarrato’s assertion that the political autobiography evolved from the spiritual autobiography (86) seems more compelling for Adams, who descended from an introspective Puritan tradition, than for Jefferson, who descended from a less self-scrutinizing Anglican tradition. Though hindered by this schematic flaw, Imbarrato’s book still enhances our understanding of autobiography and the self.

Benjamin H. Irvin
Brandeis University

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pp. 586-587
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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