Current Research

Book, Claims of Experience: Autobiography and American Political Thought

In my current book project I investigate autobiography as a means through which historical actors have addressed injustice and as a medium through which we can understand the claims of experience in democratic politics today. The American autobiography was born in the boom of antiauthoritarian politics: in the decades following the Declaration of Independence, authors developed forms of writing to declare their own independence in the eyes of the American people. These innovations followed and led developing ideas on the authority of the people, the relevance of history for politics, or debates over the Constitution as a representative document. Personal narrative has played a key role in American politics from Puritan journals to Barack Obama, providing social movements like women’s suffrage or abolitionism the means to represent those groups when political institutions do not. Although several political theorists have recently studied individual thinkers’ use of personal narrative, there have been few attempts to address the genre as a diverse political practice across American history.[1]

In Claims of Experience, I examine five authors writing across diverse contexts: Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Henry Adams, Emma Goldman, and Whittaker Chambers. In each chapter I discover the political reason for which these authors turned to autobiography in lieu of other forms of political action. As a result, each chapter focuses on both the argument articulated throughout the text as well as the historical context in which the book would be read by a popular audience. The goal of each chapter is to investigate not only why authors write autobiography for politics ranging from civic education to anti-communism, but how each claim provides a different conception of experience and the authority it produces. Experience can be shared to set an example or model of behavior or identity, to reveal hidden injustice, or to offer public self-appraisal. The authority that emerges from these experiences shared also differs based on the problem they address. Autobiographies can summon a sense of solidarity among or across experiences, redefine a national image and readers’ attachment to it, or encourage empathy among groups of people beyond borders. While the goal of the book is to argue for the normative value of experience in democratic politics with emphasis on the genre of autobiography, the chapters mean to capture a wide variety of historical contexts and ideological positions in and from which autobiography has been a valuable form of politics.

I argue that through autobiography we see the value of grounding liberal democratic claims in personal experience: not only can these claims reveal injustice or champion individual dignity, but they represent individual and collective voices when national identity and institutions do not. When “the people” are uncertain, autobiography offers means of defining it anew from personal experience. In light of this argument, my work builds on several areas of scholarship, notably from scholars who advocate for the value of narrative in democracy,[2] scholars interested in depictions of “the people” in democratic politics,[3] and scholars who study the political use of literature in the United States.[4]

The first chapter examines The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Although we typically read Franklin’s life as the archetypal rags-to-riches story, Franklin began writing his memoirs at a time when he still hoped to restore the British Empire and justify colonial obedience to the crown. Franklin’s narrative is less the story of independence it would come to represent and more a search for what conditions legitimize authority. Continuing his memoirs after the revolution, the later parts of the book act on this view of authority by offering readers an ethical guide to life. Franklin’s autobiography represents a leader whose authority is justified by his personal experiences and their value for readers: after his death, citizens will look to Franklin’s story as they seek stable forms of citizenship past the disorderly revolutionary years.

The second chapter studies Frederick Douglass’s two antebellum narratives: his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, and his 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom. He composed each at the opposite ends of his transition from the politics of William Lloyd Garrison to a defense of political action and the Constitution as anti-slavery. Placing the two texts alongside his distinction “to narrate wrongs” and “denouncing them,” I argue that Douglass writes My Bondage as a form of denunciation. Although Douglass’s first narrative recounts his enslavement and escape, abolitionist use of slave narrative and “slavery on trial” rhetoric framed Narrative within a racial hierarchy of black testimony and white advocacy. Whereas to narrate wrongs encouraged readers to judge Douglass’s story alongside moral criteria of justice, to denounce wrongs in My Bondage is to implicate readers within the structures that create antebellum subjects on and off the plantation.

The third chapter looks at 1907’s The Education of Henry Adams as a critique of American modernity and what Adams analyzed as the end of republican politics. According to Adams, developments in capitalism, the physical and biological sciences, and “machine politics” rendered obsolete the representative authority through which statesmen once educated citizens as heroes and great men. Defining education as the appeal to and identification with an ultimate authority, Adams frames his story as a persistent attempt to find education in Washington politics, journalism and teaching, and discoveries in thermodynamics. Adams’s solution to the loss of education in modernity is science: whereas confessions like Augustine’s championed God’s authority, Adams looks to technology as a new unifying force for Americans.

The fourth chapter examines Emma Goldman’s 1931 Living My Life as an evaluation of antiauthoritarian politics in American radicalism. Goldman draws on experiences in the family, factory, anarchist circles, prison, and in nursing to move from what I call an adversarial to an empathetic critique of authority. Whereas adversarial politics seeks to emancipate the people through targeting and removing agents of the state and market, empathy seeks to research and raise awareness of the people that suffer structural oppression. This shift influences Goldman’s participation in two attacks: the attempted murder of Henry Clay Frick in 1892, and the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. Living not only reveals Goldman’s developing views, but builds her authority as an actor and author by representing the masses.

The final chapter investigates Whittaker Chambers’s Witness, published in 1952 after the ex-communist author testified against Alger Hiss as a fellow member of the Soviet Underground. A “witness,” Chambers explains, is not an informer: an individual does not witness against but for something. Chambers saw himself a witness for Christianity and the nation as it faced the threat of communist espionage and war, and his autobiography argues for a return to the authority of God and fathers, an idea central to the modern conservative movement and resonant of earlier attempts in Franklin and Adams.

In the conclusion, I briefly assess the role of autobiography in 1960s radical politics, focusing in particular on Black Power; I conclude by looking at political memoirs today and their popularity as a modern form of apologia. Overall, I restate my claim that autobiography remains not only useful for political theorists looking to better understand popular authority in America but for political actors today who seek to build political solidarity from personal experience.

[1] See Katharine Lawrence Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W.E.B. Du Bois (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Cristina Beltrán, “Undocumented, Unafraid, and Unapologetic: DREAM Activists, Cyber-Testimonio, and the Queering of Democracy,” in Transforming Citizens: Youth, New Media, and Political Participation, ed. Danielle S. Allen and Jennifer Light (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); Christopher S. McClure, “Learning from Franklin’s Mistakes: Self-Interest Rightly Understood in the Autobiography,” The Review of Politics 76, no. 1 (2014): 69–92.

[2] Iris Marion Young, Inclusion and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); John Beverley, Testimonio : On the Politics of Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); María Pía Lara, Moral Textures : Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998); Danielle S. Allen, Talking to Strangers : Anxieties of Citizenship after Brown v. Board of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[3] Sofia Näsström, “The Legitimacy of the People,” Political Theory 35, no. 5 (2007): 624–58; Jason A. Frank, Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); Melvin L. Rogers, “The People, Rhetoric, and Affect: On the Political Force of Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk,” American Political Science Review 106, no. 1 (2012): 188–203.

[4] Catherine H. Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Savage: Rowan & Littlefield, 1990); George M. Shulman, American Prophecy: Race and Redemption in American Political Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008); Balfour, Democracy’s Reconstruction.