The historical value of 18th century autobiographies?

Like many others, I’ve been thinking for some time about the historical value of autobiographies, and why this genre seems to open out to historical and cultural studies in ways that other genres do not.  For one thing, after telling my undergraduate students over and over again that novels, poems, and even plays are not necessarily autobiographical, it’s a relief to say that, yes, autobiographies are indeed autobiographical.  Then again, we also enjoy saying that autobiographies are not really autobiographical at all, but are actually filled with all sorts of strategic gaps, misrepresentations, and artificial connections that an astute critic needs to see through. 

At the same time, one of my hobbyhorses is to focus upon the artfulness of autobiography, the degree to which novelists, memoirists, essayists, and various kinds of life-writers (including pamphleteers) are absorbing and imitating each others’ conventions, which are most easily recognized when we read vertically, looking at contemporaneous genres rather than horizontally, through diachronic, linear histories of a single genre.  But I am convinced that certain kinds of literary or anti-literary material makes its way into this genre that gets excluded from other genres, as I have argued about Rousseau.

Because of my own research and teaching interests in autobiography and life-writing, I was interested to see that Caroline Wigginton has a nice post here regarding Franklin’s Autobiography, which thoughtfully narrates her own repeated encounters with this text over many years, from her first reading in junior high school to her difficult decision not to include Franklin in her first intro to lit course.

Wigginton’s essay really focuses upon the power that our first, unreflective readings of canonical texts still exert over us, regardless of how many other approaches we learn, and how many critical discourses we master.  Should we, then, transmit those canonical texts, along with our own ambivalences, to our own students, or try to break the circuit?  This is a tough question, and really depends on what we want to accomplish in a particular course. 

In this instance, Wigginton argues that the received interpretation of Franklin as “self-made man” and hero of American individualism is so seductive that it would overpower anything else she could offer to her first-year students: 

 I don’t want to imply that Franklin’s Autobiography is not complex, only about individualism, and not an important text for students of American literature to read. I do want to question how we as teachers escape repeating our earliest lessons in literature when we no longer agree with them, but they are so deeply embedded in how we approach literature. For me, my earliest lessons appear to be an unavoidable lens through which to read a text for the first time. They are interpretations that I worry my students will be unable to avoid when they are so obvious within dominant U.S. cultural ideology (whether or not they are the “correct” interpretations).

By offering us this narrative of her own intellectual formation, Wigginton has bravely captured something of her own ambivalence toward–and fascination with–the “unavoidable lens” of “individualism,” a personal history that she hesitates to reenact with her students.  Even if she does not teach Franklin in Intro to Lit, I think she has the makings of a very interesting course on the ideology of individualism in early American literary culture.  And I suspect that autobiographies would play a prominent role in such a course.



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