The genre of autobiography proved be one of the more popular literary forms available to early American writers. As we have seen, this genre reveals many differences between writers, especially those from separate literary traditions. Examine at least three autobiographical narratives, choosing texts from different literary traditions or periods in our history, and outline contrasts in social position and economic class, educational background, audience, or didactic purpose: Edwards’s Personal Narrative,
Franklin’s The Autobiography, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, or Douglass’s Narrative.
It is important to notice, I think, one of the undercurrents upholding the popularity of autobiography as a genre during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like much of the literature of that epoch, autobiography was influenced in no small way by the Enlightenment. An emphasis on rationality; scientific, industrial, and economic development; and the rights and abilities of the individual drove writers and thinkers to express themselves through publishing the details of their own lives. Interestingly, the similarities that motivated writers in the genre are vehicles also that illustrate the dramatic differences in their social status, political and religious beliefs, and moral character.
Perhaps no writer in this genre is more endeared than Benjamin Franklin. His 1771 autobiography is very much an outward lesson in the development of his ideal American citizen. He writes of rejecting his father’s hope to steer him towards a career, and of his exploration as a young man in search of his own path. He seemed defiant, and was quick to reject the demands of authority; but at the same time he was responsible, motivated, and ever-focused on bettering himself in every possible sphere. Thus Franklin directs readers to be independent and assertive, but also prepared to surmount the obstacles of a self-sufficient life.
Fiscal responsibility and the importance of a strong ethic (both in his work and his personal life) are palpable themes in Franklin’s narrative. From his concern to repay money borrowed from a friend, to the remorse he feels for leaving Deborah Reed, to his relentless ingenuity and initiative in the fields of writing and printing, Franklin published his life-story as a blueprint for the American dream. And even in a strict early American atmosphere of Christianity, he was adamant about maintaining “no mark of any of the distinguishing tenets of any particular sect” in his spiritual life (Franklin 307).
But it would be shortsighted to disregard the context from which Franklin wrote. Although still in its infancy, America’s social structure was already quite stratified; it was something of an extension and reaction to the British class structure. Nevertheless, it was a newly forming nation, and there was much political and social fluidity. Being a “self-made man,” as Franklin no doubt was, was perhaps more feasible during this chaotic civic commotion. Furthermore, it is fair to notice that among the prominent writers of autobiography, Franklin’s position as a white male gave him significant opportunities for advancement not afforded to some others. Franklin also had a vested interest in the formation of the nation’s political cast, and therefore purposed to set a particular standard to which the up-and-coming prospects of the ruling class should be held.
Against the light of Franklin’s narrative, Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography is a vivid contrast of style and purpose. Douglass’s Narrative certainly seeks to educate, perhaps even speaking to the same type of ruling class audience that Franklin’s did. But whereas Franklin was pedantic, Douglass moralizes. Douglass’s Narrative appeals primarily to readers’ emotion, and pays less mind to ration. “He who can peruse it,” writes William Lloyd Garrison, “without a tearful eye,” “an unutterable abhorrence of slavery,” “must have a flinty heart” (941). From an abyss of social, political, and economic inexistence, Douglass writes to the entire breadth of the American nation—and beyond—to illustrate the tragic disease of slavery. If Franklin’s is an outgrowth of the Enlightenment, Douglass’s autobiography is a visceral criticism of the often privileged context of Enlightenment thought. Douglass also leans heavily on Christianity’s grip on Americans to appeal to their morality; he frequently quotes and paraphrases scripture. In his appendix, Douglass gives the crux of his religious theme, saying, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, woman-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Douglass 998).
Douglass, like Franklin, ardently extolls the importance of asserting one’s individuality. But his is an assertion that arises from a total negation of individualism. Franklin writes of making oneself in a land of opportunity; Douglass writes of forming a conscience in the midst of a nation that denied he had rights to one. Franklin celebrates fully man’s universal and inalienable rights; Douglass’s Narrative excoriates the nation that gives those rights only to some. His autobiography illustrates an imperative need to develop identity. Douglass rouses his own anger to stir up action in a nation increasingly unsettled by slavery.
Interestingly, Harriet Jacobs writes Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl with the same, albeit somewhat softer, sense of emotion and purpose as Douglass’s Narrative, but her audience and specific aims are distinctly apart from his. Whereas Narrative incites action through anger and rage, Jacobs’s Incidents is strengthened by sorrow and its ability to evoke empathy. Again, it is a piece designed to educate an audience on the horrible tragedies of slavery, but as opposed Douglass’s sometimes sermonizing method, Jacobs masters the use of a strong pathos to convey her message. She addresses readers openly and directly, and reflects on sentiments that prod the emotions of parents more than any other. When writing of her years hiding in her grandmother’s attic, she notes, with sorrow-laden words, the heartfelt satisfaction she received simply by viewing her children through a small hole she had drilled for that purpose: “two little faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there, and were conscious of the joy they imparted. How I longed to tell them I was there” (Jacobs 833).
Of all these writers, Jacobs, perhaps, wrote with the most narrowed audience in mind. It might be hard to imagine that slave traders, plantation owners, and “slave breakers,” could feel much sympathy for a mother being rent from her children; therefore, Jacobs writes to a population of mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, whose moral beliefs likely condemn slavery already, but who perhaps remain indifferent because they are disinterested. Jacobs finds a way to relate her life—which was so distant and different from theirs—in a way that all social and geographic populations could hear and comprehend.
Franklin’s autobiography is an apotheosis of Enlightenment ideals. He masters the rights and opportunities of a burgeoning national ideology; he seems to illustrate the very definition of what it is to be American. Yet, below this beacon of self-reliance, there is a struggle; not one of climbing social ladders, not one for self-sufficiency or personal success, but one to find humanity. Jacobs and Douglass started their assent from a chasm of nonentity. They had no rights or opportunities to exploit—they were the exploits of others’. They write as a voiceless voice. Yet, with the same human ambition that Franklin calls upon, these slaves assert their place as people. They evoke the same Enlightenment-fueled drive to spotlight the iniquities of the political and social structures that that movement created. Franklin speaks to an audience of people with opportunities abound. He suggests ways to best handle those opportunities. Douglass and Jacobs write to an audience of possibly sympathetic, possibly indifferent, and possibly merciless persons. As a result, they had to write with intense emotion, and with appeals to religion and morality. Their narratives needed less pedantic, more admonishing tones. Indeed there are similarities in their purposes, their audiences, and even in their effects, but these similarities also cast a light on the glaringly disparate contexts from which they wrote. The Enlightenment spurred the thoughts and beliefs of all three of these writers; it formed the ground off of which Franklin excelled, but it also laid the foundation under which people like Douglass and Jacobs were oppressed.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 938-1005. Print
Franklin, Benjamin. “The Autobiography.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 248-308. Print.
Jacobs, Harriet. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 819-839. Print