Autobiography as Generic Hybrid

It must be admitted from the outset that to refer to English-language narratives created during the 18th century as "autobiographies" is to speak anachronistically. According to Susan Imbarrato, the word did not circulate in Anglo society until 1809, when Robert Southey used it in the Quarterly Review (Imbarrato 2); after this debut, "autobiography" quickly became a "distinct [...] form of both elite and popular literature" (Payne 15).

Yet to say that autobiographical writings did not exist until after this date would be to commit a serious blunder. Works illustrating what Rodger Payne refers to as the "'subjective impulse'" precede the term "autobiography" by hundreds of years, and are to be found in such various genres as "spiritual diaries" and the "'oral relations'" popular in New England during the 17th century (Payne 16). Indeed, students of early American literature have not hesitated to use the term liberally: Daniel Shea compiled his lengthy survey of 17th and 18th century works using the framework of "Spiritual Autobiography," and when Cotton Mather's Paterna was finally published in 1976, editor Ronald Bosco subtitled it "The Autobiography of Cotton Mather." In referring to these 18th century works as "autobiographies," then, I am hardly beyond the pale of academic scholarship.

Indeed, considering the specific content of these six narratives of conversion, it seems quite appropriate to locate them within the autobiographical tradition. Payne suggests that "[a]utobiography and evangelicalism both appeared at roughly the same time in Western culture," and although one may quibble over whether the 1730s are proximate to the 1800s (even "roughly" speaking), Payne makes a good case for viewing the evangelical conversion narrative and the autobiographical impulse as interconnected (Payne 16). In Payne's estimation, not only were conversion narratives the "oldest example" of autobiography, but conversion was autobiography's only proper impetus; with reference to Jean Starobinski, he argues that "[o]nly the transforming self constitutes both the subject and the object of proper autobiographical activity" (Payne 16). Thus conversion narratives may exist without autobiography, but autobiography cannot exist without conversion.

The question remains, however, of whether a conversion relation truly can exist independently of autobiography. The case against considering conversion narratives as inevitably autobiographical is strong: not only were conversion narratives often created to fulfill a public function (in the case of church admissions, "to convince the elders that the presence of grace was evident in their experience"), but they were highly formulaic in content (Shea 91). Patricia Caldwell, citing Edmund S. Morgan, describes the typical "'morphology of conversion'" as "'knowledge, conviction, faith, combat, and true, perfect assurance'," and Shea claims that conversion narratives are little more than "formalistic recitation and mechanical pattern" which rendered them "not so much composed as recited" (Caldwell 164; Shea 90, 106). Thus Shea opines, "These narratives hardly deserve to be considered as autobiography" (Shea 91). Although Shea admits that the spiritual autobiographies which contained these narratives are surprisingly variable--too variable, in fact, to merit the overly generalized manner in which they are often described--he questions the limits of the individual voice: "[H]ow far does autobiography of any sort allow itself to be put to special uses while remaining autobiography?" (x, 94). Shea's answer is fairly conservative; he suggests that highly formulaic relations like the conversion narrative are not in themselves autobiographical, and that their prescribed quality can compromise the autobiographical aspects of the works that contain them.

Rodger Payne, however, interpreting the conversion narrative model using the terms of Foucaultian "discourse," insists that "[t]he conventional language of the texts of conversion need not be viewed as a liability" toward the narrative's self-expression (Payne 10). Payne suggests:

"Certainly, evangelical spiritual autobiography and similar narratives of conversion cannot be read as descriptive texts if by this we mean that they give a straightforward account of the author's conversion experience; but neither can they be dismissed as insufficiently autobiographical because they offered only stale reiterations of theological paradigms. To speak (or to write) the language of conversion was to claim the experience of conversion; but, conversely, only the experience of conversion empowered--and compelled--the convert to speak of conversion" (10-11; emphasis mine).

In other words, at the heart of the formulaic conversion narrative was a genuine experience, some aspect of which must have been present in the resulting relations. Payne goes so far as to assert that this autobiographical experience was responsible for creating the conversion itself, insofar as that it was an instance of language "perform[ing]--by giving shape and form to individual experience--what it also described" (Payne 60). In effect, the conversion narrative, like the marriage ceremony, constituted a kind of speech act. Moreover, as Payne reminds us, the "model of evangelical conversion" was not simply "imposed upon individual autobiographers," but was "constantly created" by the authors of these texts (Payne 11); thus the charge that the narratives were restricted by their genre may be inappropriately retrospective, assuming a conception of genre which was only imposed when, hundreds of years later, the narratives were placed under scholarly scrutiny. In sum, conversion narratives were neither overdetermined nor created independently of autobiography.

Scholars who agree that the conversion narrative must contain the genuine experience to which Payne refers (however diluted) have interpreted its presence in a variety of ways. Patricia Caldwell, in her study of 17th century relations, suggests that the American conversion narrative grappled with specifically American themes. While English conversion narratives often included dream sequences, in American conversion narratives the generic "dream" was replaced by the "American dream" (Caldwell 26). Puritan immigrants, expecting to find the "promised land" in America, encountered instead a "wilderness," and wrestled with this very personal "disappointment" in their narratives (Caldwell 120): "It is as if, for most of the people, there is an unexpected deadlock between their experiences of the migration and the fulfillment of their religious hopes" (Caldwell 120). If the Puritans were disillusioned by the reality of the New World, they hardly considered this to be a simple matter of unfulfilled expectations. Rather, as God himself had directed them to America, their unhappiness in their new home was nothing less than "a sin" (Caldwell 130). Conversion narratives thus became a tool for sorting out the conflict between expectation and reality, the result often being narratives that professed successful conversion but betrayed significant doubt. As Caldwell puts it, "the words of the narratives say that hearts have been cured of disappointment in New England, but the music says that the hearts are disappointed in themselves for still being disappointed in New England" (130). Thus these early conversion narratives, contrary to Shea's dismissal of them as "hardly deserv[ing] to be considered as autobiography," belie a kernel of selfhood which cannot be fully extricated (Shea 91).

In Rodger Payne's estimation, this kernel of selfhood emerges as the true heart of the 18th century conversion narrative. Payne describes the "rise of the concept of the 'self'" as concurrent with "the rise of various pietistic traditions that emphasized personal and affective experience," and he interprets the conversion narrative as an attempt to work through these new concepts and traditions (Payne 7). Protestant pietism demanded the "humiliation" of the self in accord with the belief that "true salvation implied the negation or extinction of the self" (i.e., that the self was in no way responsible for salvation, which was granted wholly by God) (Payne 41). Nevertheless, "iconoclasm requires an icon, and in their need to search themselves in order to deny themselves, pietists had to first imagine themselves" (Payne 41). Thus, when authors used the conversion narrative to "eliminate the self," they paradoxically engaged in a project of self-creation (Payne 41). Rather than being oppressed by proscribed narratives, the authors of conversion narratives were given the opportunity to speak (or write) themselves into being. Payne sees this as an avenue to egalitarianism: "By investing the experiencing self with the ultimate power to speak about conversion, evangelicals democratized religious authority" (Payne 9). Although Payne argues that the emergence of these "first 'democratic' forms of literature" (spiritual autobiography and conversion narrative) is directly related to the emergence of political democracy in the United States, his observations apply to the genre long before the period he identifies as the birth of democracy, 1780-1830 (Payne 47).

Susan Imbarrato, too, believes that the "self-examination" borne of spiritual autobiography and conversion narrative can manifest as a democratic phenomenon; although she describes the practices of the 17th century as "reinforc[ing] the individual's limitations," she suggests that "this same act within a more democratic, eighteenth-century secular context inspires individual expression" (Imbarrato xvii). Although 18th century evangelicalism can hardly be considered "secular," Imbarrato traces the phenomenon she describes back at least as far as Jonathan Edwards, whose conversion narrative she finds progressive in the "expression and quality" of the identity it asserts (33). But increased opportunities for self-expression are not opened only to Anglo-American men. Although she is not speaking specifically of the types of narratives in this study, Imbarrato does note that the philosophical atmosphere of the 18th century was relatively congenial to women and otherwise disenfranchised persons; she sites the increased use of diaries during this period well as the rise of the conversion narrative and spiritual autobiography as evidence that introspection (and thus, eventually, self-expression) was encouraged for all individuals, including "'women and dissenters'" (xvi, 9 [citing Felicity Nussbaum]). Thus, despite significant indications to the contrary, conversion narratives and spiritual autobiography should be considered as "providing a platform for declarations of self" (Imbarrato 13).

Following the arguments of Caldwell, Payne, and Imbarrato, I consider these narratives to hold the potential for self-expression, however mediated. Admittedly, in some cases that potential is far more limited than in others: Joseph Quasson's narrative, for instance, quite possibly contains no glimmer of selfhood whatsoever, while it would be difficult to argue that Cotton Mather's was complete fabrication. These limitations are indelibly linked to the subject's social position: while Quasson, a condemned criminal and a Native American, has as little control over his speech as over his life, Mather, an esteemed minister, has all the necessary resources (financial and intellectual) to control his voice. In order to aid the discussion of these narratives, I have placed them on a continuum from journal to biography, suggesting that they all constitute some version of what I see, in these cases, as a hybrid genre: autobiography, as it arises out of the conversion narrative. While journal writing constitutes the medium least retouched for public viewing and biography the medium over which the subject has the least control, autobiography (which, following Payne, I consider all of these narratives to be, due to their focus on the conversion process) can, as we shall see, fall anywhere between the two extremes. By examining these narratives, we can come to a fuller understanding not only of the variety of conversion relations, but of the wide spectrum of possibilities for self-expression (and the considerable limits to those possibilities) during the early 18th century.


Introduction                            Chronology                            Genre                            Summary

"Such a Means of Promoting His Work Amongst Us":
Evangelicalism and Autobiography in Early American Conversion Narratives

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