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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 23, 2014: American Autobiographers: William Apess

[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 an American voice I’m very thankful we have the opportunity to hear.
To my mind, one of the most fundamental American voices that has been unfortunately lost, or at least severely limited, in our public conversations over the last couple of decades is that of the progressive and socially critical preacher. Some of the most significant religious voices and perspectives in American life, from John Woolman and Jonathan Edwards all the way up to Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr., have used their deep spirituality and knowledge of scripture to, as the saying goes, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, to challenge the status quo and advance their own visions of the socially radical ideas that are at the heart of the New Testament and Christ’s teachings. It can be difficult, in this era of megachurches on the one hand (with their seeming perfection of televangelist practices and goals) and fundamentalist opposition to gay marriage on the other (with its cooption of Christian beliefs for deeply intolerant ends), to remember in fact just how radical and counter-culture religious voices in America have often been.
No American preacher fits that description better than William Apess. Born to mixed-race parents and into extreme poverty in the last years of the 18th century, Apess’s bio reads like a hyperbolic mashup of Early Republic and Native American issues: he lived (as he narrates it, at least) in the woods near Colrain, Massachusetts until he was five; the next decade or so spent as an indentured servant to various families in the area; enlisting in a New York militia at the age of 16 and fighting in the War of 1812; battling alcoholism throughout that time, and eventually finding hope in both marriage and his baptism and later ordination as an itinerant Methodist preacher during the period that came to be known as the Second Great Awakening; publishing both his own autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829, the first published autobiography by a Native author) and the conversion narratives of “Five Christian Indians of the Pequot Tribe” (1833); helping instigate and lead the peaceful Native American protest known as the Mashpee Revolt (1833), against state and national land and governance policies; becoming increasingly radical and cynical, culminating in his controversial speech and pamphlet Eulogy on King Philip (1836); and descending after that point into a brief final period of obscurity, alcoholism, and poverty, ending with his 1841 death in New York City. Each of those stages and experiences can open up its own complex window into, again, a whole range of local, ethnic, and national issues and identities in the period, making Apess one of the most rich subjects of study of all those American voices rediscovered in the last couple decades of scholarly work.
But if I had to boil that hugely full and complex life and work down to one text, it would have to be the pseudo-sermon “An Indian’s Looking-Glass for the White Man,” a work that Apess appended, almost as an afterthought, to the “Five Christian Indians” collection. The piece’s first sentence alone is I believe sufficient to introduce its striking combination of orality (Apess could and usually did write perfectly grammatical sentences, but doesn’t feel the need to do so consistently in this piece, and all I can say is that it works), strident and impassioned tone, and deeply radical and leveling religious themes: “Having a desire to place a few things before my fellow creatures who are travelling with me to the grave, and to that God who is the maker and preserver both of the white man and the Indian, whose abilities are the same, and who are to be judged by one God, who will show no favor to outward appearances, but will judge righteousness.” Damn straight. Later, Apess hits upon maybe the single most convincing religious rebuttal to racial prejudice ever constructed: “If black or red skins, or any other skin of color is disgraceful to God, it appears that he has disgraced himself a great deal—for he has made fifteen colored people to one white, and placed them here upon this earth.” Say Amen, somebody, as my personal favorite radical revivalist preacher, Bruce Springsteen, has been known to put it.
What Apess does in those moments, and throughout this amazing, provocative, and powerful piece, is exactly what his title promises, and what all of these radical preachers have done so successfully in their own ways: holding a mirror up to the most hypocritical and horrific American attitudes and realities, comparing those attitudes and realities to the spiritual values that so many Americans have professed, and demanding of their audiences that they begin to take responsibility for what they see and what they say and what they do. We could use a few more such voices, I believe, and should be very thankful for the ones we’ve got.
Next autobiographer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other life writings you’d highlight for the weekend post?

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