- Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in Nineteenth-Century America
Some Wild Visions, by Elizabeth Elkin Grammer, is an insightful consideration of seven nineteenth-century female itinerant evangelists and their purposeful and strategically deployed memoirs. Grammer offers an insistently literary assessment, rather than historical analysis, of autobiographies by free and formerly enslaved women, abolitionist and temperance activists, mid-westerners, and a Canadian native.
Over the course of four chapters, Grammer discusses Zilpha Elaw, an aspiring teacher in the segregated schools of Burlington, New Jersey; Julia Foote, a New York native and future elder in the A.M.E. Zion Church; Laura Smith Haviland, a Canadian Quaker abolitionist, mother of eight, and founder of the Oberlin College-inspired River Raisin Institute; Jarena Lee, whose memoir is the earliest known extant personal narrative by an African American woman; Lydia Sexton, a white New Jersey woman who promised God that she would preach if he would save the life of her sick child; Amanda Berry Smith, a highly successful evangelist, temperance activist, and children's advocate who attained international outreach in India, Africa, and throughout the United Kingdom; and Nancy Towle, a white New Hampshire native whose evangelical career included missions to preach in Canada, England, and Ireland.
Some Wild Visions is primarily concerned with the evolution of itinerant women as writers and historians and the creation of an empowering and assertive evangelical autobiography. Grammer, whose study builds on the foundational work of William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and others, proposes that these life stories are provocative emancipatory texts that testify to the grueling life of an itinerant even as they achieve "textual revenge" against those who attempt to thwart their missions (37). Grammer makes a potentially poignant point when she proposes that these highly constructed narratives reflect the writers' awareness of their social alienation. It is clear, however, that these authors have created masterful life accounts that illuminate the limitations of the private sphere, justify a woman's departure from primary social relations and kinship ties, and accommodate the autonomy of unconventional women of faith.
Grammer, whose deft phrasings and understated sense of irony and humor invigorate the [End Page 77] book, insists on the social realities that shape the autobiographies and her own critical mission. In an absorbing discussion about the strategic rhetorical moves and generic innovations employed by the evangelists, she offers a persuasive argument about the "gender of genre" (134). She proposes that male itinerant and well-known secular autobiographies were fueled by a sense of patriarchal authority, eminence, and the "rhetoric of success" (86). According to Grammer, the female autobiographical narrative of salvation could not benefit from such elements. If itinerant women writers embraced "their culture's idealization of productivity and competitive individualism, and its belief in quantification as a reliable measure of success," writes Grammer, then a "constant resort to merely statistical measures of evangelical success ... inevitably obscured the individual aspect in the drama of salvation" (86).
Grammer recognizes the high emotional stakes involved in writing and publishing such memoirs, but argues that these texts are part of a complicated spiritual warfare. The autobiographies were weapons that "enabled [women writers] once again to seize a pulpit, to reinterrupt the dominant discourses that denied them a place and a voice outside domesticity" (40). In addition, when evangelists like Julia Foote employed biblical typology, they "engag[ed] in competitive marginality" and demonstrated forcefully their martyrdom (108). Grammer also notes that in order to "perform itinerancy," the memoirs depend on parataxis and are marked for their abandonment of traditional structural narrative devices. The sometimes desperate non-stop accounts of the wandering life prompt Grammer to consider that the evangelists have successfully created "a new sort of narrator, the autobiographer alienated from her own life story, which is left to tell itself without benefit of her ordering intelligence" (113). Indeed, it is a premise such as this that speaks to the delicate and simultaneously aggressive division of body and soul upon which the nineteenth-century female itinerant evangelist...