In this ambitious work, Susan Clair Imbarrato examines the changes in the American autobiographical voice as it speaks through the transition from a colonial society to an independent republic.
Imbarrato charts the development of early American autobiography from the self-examination mode of the Puritan journal and diary to the self-inventive modes of eighteenth-century writings, which in turn anticipate the more romantic voices of nineteenth-century American literature. She focuses especially on the ways in which first-person narrative displayed an ever-stronger awareness of its own subjectivity. The eighteenth century, she notes, remained closer in temper to its Puritan communal foundations than to its Romantic progeny, but there emerged, nevertheless, a sense of the individual voice that anticipated the democratic celebration of the self. Through acts of self-examination, this study shows, self-construction became possible.
In tracing this development, the author focuses on six writers in three literary genres. She begins with the spiritual autobiographies of Jonathan Edwards and Elizabeth Ashbridge and then considers the travel narratives of Dr. Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth House Trist. She concludes with an examination of political autobiography as exemplified in the writings of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. These authors, Imbarrato finds, were invigorated by their choices in a social-political climate that revered the individual in proper relationship to the republic. Their writings expressed a revolutionary spirit that was neither cynical nor despairing but one that evinced a shared conviction about the bond between self and community.
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