In my first book, The Claims of Experience: Autobiography and American Political Thought, I propose a new reading of autobiography as both democratic theory and politics. Personal narratives have long followed and led the development of American political thought from Jonathan Edwards to Barack Obama, yet political theorists typically consider them a mere documentary source. In chapters spanning from postrevolutionary politics to the Red Scares of last century, I examine the works and contexts of five actors who turned to autobiography to solve a political problem: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Henry Adams, Emma Goldman, and Whittaker Chambers. I argue that by publishing their life stories each actor made a “claim of experience,” a term that captures the politics of autobiography as written, published, and read. Through writing, authors seize authority over their experiences and ideas in contesting narratives of the state or competing publics. When published, autobiography represents authors and others beyond political institutions, most crucial when law or public discourse does not recognize such identities. Finally, a claim of experience engages readers in diverse projects of empathy. Some authors promise a life told to exemplify morals or practice for others; some seek new solidarity by revealing unknown experiences. Overall, these claims provide alternatives to the practices of law and reason that typically settle democratic problems: when “the people” are uncertain, autobiography offers means of defining it anew from personal experience.
This book builds from a flourishing of new approaches to the history and contemporary relevance of American political thought, seen in the move beyond debates over the “liberal consensus” and “republican synthesis” to a critical focus on race and the recovery of understudied political thinkers. Autobiography connects the challenging concept of experience to new areas of scholarship: to scholars on the use of narrative in a multicultural democracy such as Iris Marion Young and Danielle Allen, those writing on depictions of “the people” such as Melvin Rogers and Sofia Näsström, and studies on the politics of American literature like those of Catherine Zuckert and George Shulman. Reading autobiography as practice and theory incorporates new voices into the history of political thought while better articulating others. Above all, it prompts new understandings of how and why electoral and social movement politics today so frequently appeal to personal testimony.