Few genres of political writing are as common in the history of the United States as autobiography. In the early years of the republic, new citizens looked to the published lives of founding figures to navigate a nation with only nascent institutions, just as titans of industry guided readers through the growing inequalities of the Gilded Age at century’s end. During the antebellum, the formerly enslaved bore witness through slave narrative, just as the incarcerated speak from experience in the “neo slave narratives” published today. Immigrants testify on what it means to be American across centuries. Conservatives narrate their conversions to and from communism in the Cold War and after. In the twentieth century nearly every president published a personal narrative, and today we witness a massive proliferation of political memoirs.

My research is motivated by two questions: for what political purpose have so many thinkers and movements in the history of the United States offered their life stories as a platform for action, and what does this reveal of American democracy? As a scholar trained in the history of political thought, democratic theory, and American political development, I draw on methods of textual analysis as well as their historical and institutional contexts to study these political texts as means of bearing witness, educating the public, and even producing political theory. Across the diverse political purposes of life stories, my research reveals how Americans stage greater claims of popular authority or justice through their own personal and shared experiences. Beyond my book and initial articles, I am currently pursuing these questions in a new research project on prison writing. The following works in progress represent my work thus far.

“Jean Genet, Outlaw”

Mumia Abu-Jamal remembers the day that French activist and performer Jean Genet arrived in the United States to defend Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale during his murder trial, a May Day speech to Yale students that would end: “You must now – and you have the physical, material, and intellectual means to do so – you must now face life directly and no longer in comfortable aquariums – I mean the American universities – which raise goldfish capable of no more than blowing bubbles. The life of Bobby Seale depends on you. Your real life depends on the Black Panther Party.” Looking back at the speech and their brief encounter, Abu-Jamal wonders why the white foreigner’s visit struck him: “Several white radicals came by [the Black Panther office], some fairly often, but almost all of them radiated fear and discomfiture in the office. Genet seemed oddly at home and at ease around the office. As a former prisoner, and a homosexual, perhaps he saw himself as the perennial outsider, the consummate outlaw.” It was this sense of trust that most stood out for Abu-Jamal: “Perhaps, as an outsider; he perceived these other outsiders as insiders?”

This research project looks to the political activism and thought of Jean Genet on the “outlaw” as a model of unlikely trust and solidarity. A proliferate author of stage plays and novels, autobiography and essays, Genet was radicalized by the uprisings of May 1968 in France and contemporaneous movements in the U.S.. Like many of era’s American revolutionaries – Huey Newton, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur – Genet’s works were deeply influenced by his incarceration as a young man. As Abu-Jamal recalls, it is perhaps those experiences – as well as Genet’s queerness – that fortified his solidarity with the Black Panthers and solidified within his writings a common focus on the outlaw and outsiders. These experiences characterize a figure whose political and literary writings raise difficult challenges for social movements that require trust across both shared and divided experiences.

“What Is to Be Undone?: Anti-Prison Anarchism from Nikolai Chernyshevsky to Alexander Berkman”

When in 1892 the anarchist Alexander Berkman arrived in Pittsburgh to assassinate the manager of the Carnegie steel works during the Homestead strike, he registered at a hotel as “Rakhmetov”: a character from the Russian radical Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? Written while imprisoned, Chernyshevsky’s book follows a small cast of “new people,” young intellectuals pushing Russian society and the tsarist political system to revolution through their materialist, socialist, and feminist philosophies. Its influence on Russian radicalism was far-reaching, provoking Dostoevsky to write Notes from Underground and providing the namesake for Lenin’s own book. Berkman recalls spirited debate over the novel among nihilists and students in Petersburg before his arrival in America, where he would encounter radically different political obstacles. Whereas Russian reformers and revolutionaries confronted serfdom and outright autocracy, Berkman and his fellow anarchists faced the emerging class stratification of an industrializing United States, complemented by an evolving modern prison system to manage the lower classes. On that latter point Berkman would find further kinship with Chernyshevsky: the latter wrote his novel from Peter-Paul Fortress, and after its completion he would spend the next eighteen years incarcerated and then in exile in eastern Siberia. After his unsuccessful attack on Henry Clay Frick, Berkman would spend thirteen years at a Pennsylvania state penitentiary.

This essay draws upon Berkman’s identification with Chernyshevsky’s fictional revolutionist to illuminate the abolitionist politics of the American Rakhmetov’s anarchism. Readers of Berkman’s 1912 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist have largely focused on its depictions of violence, overlooking its developed account of the prison as an object for anarchist analysis and opposition. In Chernyshevsky’s own prison writing, the “extraordinary man” Rakhmetov appears only briefly to contrast the “ordinary people of the new generation,” those to whom readers might aspire as they seek less violent and yet no less revolutionary action. I propose that Berkman’s Prison Memoirs similarly offers his own violent deed as the means by which to better understand his analysis of prison and the American injustices that sustain it: “the fundamental requirement of art,” as Chernyshevsky wrote of Rakhmetov.

The Cell and the City Square: The Politics of Prison Writing

These works lay the groundwork for a second book. There I look to the numerous claims of experience written by those incarcerated throughout American history, inspired in part by Alexis de Tocqueville’s and Gustave de Beaumont’s formative writings on the relation between American democracy and incarceration. As they and later theorists have argued, institutions of punishment and confinement uniquely control and challenge the personal and civic experiences of those imprisoned.

Based on early research, my working thesis is that many actors turn to prison writing not to seek inclusion in the broader polity but to summon alternative visions of justice. Among the works mentioned above I find a common critique of redemption: these authors’ recorded experiences within and despite incarceration are turned outward to reveal flaws in American principles and procedures of justice. Future research and chapters will engage the prison writings of Austin Reed, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Berkman, Angela Davis and others. This project considers claims of experience in a new context, with prison writing serving as a wedge between state justice and popular conceptions of justice held by readers.