Why have so many actors and movements in the history of American politics turned to autobiography when confronted by great political urgency or issues? In The Claims of Experience: Autobiography and American Democracy (under contract at Oxford University Press), I propose life writing as an understudied and misunderstood platform for political action. I argue that key historical and contemporary authors have made what I call a “claim of experience,” by which they sought to redistribute the authority to speak of themselves from an unjust public institution to a new unity formed around their stories. A claim of experience consists of three moves. The claimant (1) seizes from a higher institution or public voice the authority to make meaning of her life, (2) evaluates the authorities and authority figures within her life that formed her, and (3) extends the authority to readers not only to interpret her life but to reform their own around a political goal. There is great variety in these upward, inward, and outward moves – what the claimant challenges, what sense she makes of her life, what she aims to achieve – yet only when all three converge does autobiography become a claim of experience. Life narratives are political not when they describe elected officials or influential events, but when written or spoken as claims that push back against dominant narratives. Such claims seek new stories by which they and their readers will change and seek change, by which they will see themselves and their political possibilities anew.
I offer five exemplary and diverse claims of experience: Benjamin Franklin amid the revolutionary era and its aftermath, Frederick Douglass in the antebellum and abolitionist movements, Henry Adams in the Gilded Age and its anxieties of industrial change, Emma Goldman among the first Red Scare and state opposition to radical speech, and Whittaker Chambers amid the second Red Scare that initiated the anticommunist turn of modern conservatism. By treating their texts as claims amid rich literary and political contexts, we better understand why each turned to life writing – not to individualize or memorialize their past selves but to summon new popular authority that would live with and outlive them.
This research bridges recent critical approaches to American political thought and autobiography studies, contributing as well to scholarly debates in democratic theory on popular sovereignty and narrative. As I explain in the conclusion, these claims are not guaranteed: yet by reading and responding to them as political theorists and individuals, we better understand how often citizens and non-citizens alike make democratic claims to the people at large from the intimacy of their own life experiences.