Biography 24.4 (2001) 927-933
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David Leigh's study of twentieth century spiritual autobiographies is the second work in the Studies in Religion and Literature Series. The connection of Circuitous Journeys to the Series may be the most illuminating fact about the book and an important consideration in reading and assessing it. (The first publication was Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Religion and Literature, [End Page 927] edited by John L. Mahoney.) At the end of the twentieth century, theories surrounding language, self, and culture--represented, for example, by post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, semiotics, Marxism, feminism, postcolonial theory, and race/class/gender approaches--have transformed intellectual debate and scholarship; the fields of literature and religion have been among those perhaps most deeply affected. Thus, whether one sees the response as reactionary or revitalizing the fields, it is not surprising that this Series recently emerged in the context of these intellectual developments. In either case, Leigh's work illustrates divisions within scholarship today that are manifested also in autobiography studies.
Leigh's position in these debates is suggested already in the title. In what many see as a postmodern world, his focus is the modern (though the scope is twentieth century); in a secularized world of post-cold war capitalist domination, his emphasis is on the spiritual; and as current scholarship focuses on "life-writings" (incorporating diaries, letters, memoirs, reminiscences, with the category of autobiographies), the focus here is specifically on autobiography. Operating assumptions of this work also illuminate positions in contemporary intellectual debates: although much scholarship on autobiography today questions both the transparency of language and the coherent subject, Leigh does not. Rather, Leigh adheres to traditional intellectual assumptions and literary categories of language and self as he applies a close textual analysis to ten autobiographies. Furthermore, he assumes a continuity of the autobiographical genre from the fifth century, while he accepts modernity as an unquestioned category. For these reasons, some scholars will neglect Leigh's work; others will find his study refreshing.
The ten autobiographies represent known works by public figures. Significantly, most of these autobiographers write within western, Christian traditions--Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis (examined together), Dan Wakefield, Nelson Mandela, and Rigoberta Menchú (Quiche Mayan and Christian). Yet other religious frameworks are also represented with Mahatma Gandhi (Hinduism), Malcolm X (Islam), Black Elk (Lakota spiritual traditions), and Paul Cowan (Judaism). The selection of these works is understandable--these are public figures who speak candidly about their religious lives. But Leigh tells us the selection is also personal--these narratives have touched him, he writes, as a priest and teacher, and "haunted my imagination for thirty years" (ix). Ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1968 and acquiring a Ph.D. in English, Leigh has combined his fields of interest in literature courses he teaches, such as "Religious Experience Through Autobiography," and in this volume. This study, he asserts, is responding to three recurring questions students ask him: What makes a [End Page 928] book religious or spiritual? What is distinctive about twentieth century religious autobiography? Why read this autobiography?
Starting with traditional Christian frameworks, Leigh draws upon St. Augustine's Confessions as a model for the "classic" religious autobiography, and he refers to Augustine throughout the book. He defines the spiritual autobiography in his Preface: "When this lifelong search for an ultimate reality that gives meaning to one's life in the face of evil, suffering, and death becomes the theme of the book, then the writer has created a 'spiritual autobiography'" (xi). The distinctiveness of the twentieth century religious autobiographies, he asserts, can be explained by the historical context, and Leigh draws upon John Dunne's A Search for God in Time and Memory to characterize the century's distinctive traits: 1) alienation (religious) given the decline of a visible church presence; 2) autonomy (individual) that surfaces with "the breakdown of traditional hierarchical society" (xiii) that historically defined the place...