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[Detail] Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Gouge, La. 1888.

Literature: Autobiography

An autobiography is the story of a person’s life, written by that person. According to University of Delaware librarian L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, who created a website on autobiographical writing, people are interested in life stories for several reasons:

Self works often have tremendous popular appeal for the general reader. Readers may enjoy the role of voyeur, but just as often have sympathetic responses to authentic voices found in self works. The serendipity and spontaneity of contemporary life records, inclusion of historically marginal players, confession of personal indiscretions, naïveté of youthful impressions, tedium of the ordinary, suspense of an unfolding drama, realistic suffering in face of life’s hardships, passion of romance, and the fervor of prayer -- all are engaging characteristics of life writing. These works offer subjective but universally familiar accounts of personal experience, of what it was like for an individual to live in a particular time and place. Readers are often led to consider their own lives in comparison with the personal experiences others have described. The self examined is the basis of individual growth, and what is authentically known about others is the basis of human development and understanding.

From “Self Works: Diaries, Scrapbooks, and Other Autobiographical Efforts”

Slave narratives were a unique form of autobiographical writing popular in antebellum America.  These narratives served as moving individual indictments of chattel slavery.  Abolitionists used narratives published before the Civil War to generate support for their cause.  Josiah Henson wrote one such narrative, Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life: Truth Stranger than Fiction. In his book, published in 1858 with a brief preface written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henson describes his life as a slave in Maryland, slave auctions, escape on the Underground Railroad, and his travels abroad promoting the abolition of slavery.

Read several chapters of Henson’s narrative and consider the following questions:

  • What periods of his life were covered in the chapters of the narrative you read?  What were the most notable events that occurred in those periods?
  • Why might Henson’s narrative have appealed to readers in the mid-nineteenth century? Use the quotation above to frame your response.
  • In what way might Henson’s narrative have led readers to “consider their own lives” and enhance their “human development and understanding”? How might these effects have been useful to the abolitionist movement?
  • Henson ends his narrative: “My task is done, if what I have written shall inspire a deeper interest in my race, and shall lead to corresponding activity in their behalf I shall feel amply repaid.”  What does this sentence suggest about Henson’s purpose in writing the narrative? How might that purpose influence his writing?
  • Other slave narratives can be located using “Slaves’ writing, American” in the Subject Index. Compare at least one narrative with Henson’s autobiography. Was it written for the same reasons? Do you think people responded in the same way to the two works? Why or why not?

The collection also includes a number of autobiographies that focus on the influence of Christianity on individual lives.  An Autobiography:  The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith, The Colored Evangelist is typical of such autobiographies in the collection. In the work, Amanda Smith describes her travels in the United States, Western Europe, India, and Africa as an independent missionary.  What was Smith’s reason for writing this autobiography? (Hint: Check the end of the autobiography.) In what ways is this reason similar to and different from Josiah Henson’s reason for writing an autobiography? Develop a strategy for determining whether Smith’s reason is a common rationale for writing about one’s faith. Test your strategy on other works in the collection.