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The Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume Vlll, Number I, Spring 1977 TowardWaldenPond: The American Voice in Autobiography Earl Fendelman The personal narrative casts a longer shadow in America than elsewhere. Its evolution reveals many of the contradictions and paradoxes that are pervasive in American society. On the one hand, American autobiographers have approached experience from an entirely private perspective and have celebrated the power of individualism. They have confronted the implications of a literary form which, as de Tocqueville says about democracy itself, throws man "back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to cofine him entirely within the private solitude of his own heart." 1On the other hand, they have used autobiography as a way to provide an ideal example for society. In so doing they have run the risk of losing the uniqueness of personality in the search for a universal model, much as democratic society risks the ..tyranny of the majority." The conflict between the two approaches to autobiography recapitulates and fe~ds upon the corresponding conflict in the national life. As a result, autobiography has been the most consistently popular American literary form from the seventeenth century to the present. Such diverse figures as Mary Rowlandson, Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, P. T. Barnum, Henry Adams, Gertrude Stein, and Norman Mailer became '"best sellers" in their own times because they addressed the divided sensibility of the country even when they wrote most openly of themselves. At the very center of this American fascination with autobiography stand Emerson and his disciple, Thoreau. "These novels will give way by & by to diaries or autobiographies," Emerson wrote, "captivating books if only a man knew how to choose among his experiences what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly." 2 Although he 12 never pursued the argument by producing an autobiography of his own, Emerson did question repeatedly how the self can be conceived and how a , self-conception can be used to integrate other categories of knowledge. In his essays "Nature" and "Experience" he worries because experience is divided, with one of its legs planted in the daily round and the other in the empryean. How can these realms be joined in consciousness without denying. their essential differences? Emerson suggests, more by the structure of his thought than by example, that the autobiographer must seek a dialetical order, one that encompasses both the individuality of his life and its representative significance. In his view the process of life requires a portrait that offers multiple perspectives at the same time. Drawing on traditions of literary selfportraiture that begin in the earliest American colonies, as well as on European sources, Emerson's theory summarizes the inchoate efforts that preceded it and points toward Thoreau's great masterpiece that immediately ยท followed. There are, of course, many paths that lead toward the dialectic of the self envisioned by Emerson and reached by Thoreau, but the broadest and most traveled is the Puritan genre of spiritual autobiography. From the moment that William Bradford and his company landed at Plymouth Rock there was a repeated call for the preservation ofprivate experience. "The greatest Object , out of Heaven is the life and death of such upon Earth, who are now in Heaven," John Norton wrote in 1658."What God hath done for the Soul of the least Saint. .. would make a volume full of temptations, signes and wonders."3 The Puritans believed that all the forms of life-history might be useful, but especially autobiography. It came closest to forming that link between the personal and public realms of experience upon which the Puritan theocracy depended. Thomas Shepard, himself the author of a compelling autobiography, made the point when he declared that "the saving knowledge of Christ is dependent upon the sensible knowledge of man's self." 4 Yet no Puritan autobiographer could be completely satisfied that he had found the appropriate pattern for expressing his lifehistory. The characteristic emphasis on the exemplary, representative aspect of experience was off-set in all the early self-portraits by an opposite, if not quite equal impulse toward celebrating the self for its own sake. The individual was subsumed in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 11-25
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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