Monday, July 21, 2014
July 21, 2014: American Autobiographers: John Woolman
[Some of the most interesting and inspiring Americans have written their own stories, in a variety of genres and forms. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight a handful of such American autobiographers and analyze what their texts and identities reveal. Please share autobiographical writings, memoirs, and voices that have interested and inspired you for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the autobiographer who traced his own wanderings, and so can help guide us on our own.
Maybe this will change as I get older and realize just how much kids today don’t get it and how much they could use a wise older voice and perspective (not unlike my own, mayhaps) to show them the light, but for now, I have to admit that many of the works of American literature most overtly intended to inspire change, to convince an audience of the benefits of following the author’s revolutionary philosophical ideas, leave me pretty cold. From 19th century/American Renaissance classics like Emerson’s “Nature” (1836) and Thoreau’s Walden (1854) to Beat manifestos like Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957)—and each of those four texts is far more complex than I’m giving them credit for here, but all I believe are meant to leave the reader convinced that the author has, if not all of the answers, at least some good starting points toward them—my response has largely been the same: I see the power and brilliance, but I’m ultimately more annoyed than impressed.
If I had to boil the reasons for my annoyance down to one idea, it’d be that all those texts seem to have been written with the answers already in mind, with the author already comfortable in his philosophical position and hoping both to narrate how he got there and convince us to do the same. That might seem to be a necessary condition for the writing of any work, much less a philosophical or persuasive one, yet I think it elides just how much any individual’s perspective and philosophy, like his or her identity and experiences, continue to evolve and (ideally) grow and deepen. For that reason, I find the Emerson who emerges in his journals to be infinitely more interesting and complex and attractive (as a thinker, as a writer, as an inspiration) than the one from whom we hear in the speeches and essays. And likewise, my vote for the most powerful and convincing work of American philosophy would be another journal, and one only published posthumously and so not at all written with immediate publication and persuasion among its goals: the journal of John Woolman (1720-1772), the itinerant Quaker minister who traveled through America for much of the 18th century, developing an impassioned and evolving perspective on religion and faith, community and charity, anti-slavery and Indian rights, pacifism and social activism, and many other complex questions through those journeys and the many people and worlds he encountered on them.
Woolman’s journal is eloquent and beautifully written, a literary masterpiece that has been in print since prior to the Revolution (it was published in 1774, two years after Woolman’s death) and so can lay claim to being one of our most foundational texts. Yet despite that stylistic and formal impressiveness it has an intimate quality, a rawness of perspective, that makes clear just how closely it reflects the open mind and heart of its author. From its first line—“I have often felt a motion of love to leave some hints in writing of my experience of the goodness of God, and now, in the thirty-sixth of my age, I begin this work”—Woolman stresses both that intimacy and the text’s fluidity, its ability to grow and develop alongside him and his identity (and indeed he would write it throughout his final decade and a half of life). And in the book’s twelfth and final chapter, written over the months before Woolman’s death—and in fact in that chapter’s final paragraphs, likely composed just days before that tragic event, with it perhaps in sight—Woolman writes, “I have gone forward, not as one travelling in a road cast up and well prepared, but as a man walking through a miry place in which are stones here and there safe to step on, but so situated that one step being taken, time is necessary to see where to step next.” I don’t know that any single sentence has ever better captured life’s journey than that one—and I do know that few American texts offer a better guide to moving through life than does Woolman’s journal.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?