Madeline Ruth Walker. The Trouble with Sauling Around: Conversion in Ethnic American Autobiography, 1965-2002. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011. 216 pp. $35.
The conversion narrative, which broadly speaking follows a tripartite structure of fall, conversion, and redemption, is a master narrative in American culture. (1) Seventeenth-century Puritans framed their experiences in early America according to tropes of conversion: the new world was a testing ground, a "howling wilderness," where a select few would be "elected" for a heavenly afterlife. Conversion narratives have since permeated American literature and culture. Many captivity narratives, slave narratives, prison life writings, coming-out stories, and addiction recovery narratives (like the personal stories collected in the Alcoholics Anonymous' "Big Book"), for example, follow the conversion narrative paradigm. The ongoing importance of the conversion narrative to American culture can also be seen in its omnipresence in American electoral politics. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter, as well as former house speaker and recent presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, all employ the conversion narrative in their official autobiographies. While the conversion narrative has been important to mainstream American culture, the conversion narrative has been vital to ethnic American life writing. From the aforementioned slave narratives to immigrant stories, which often articulate experiences of socio-cultural assimilation into or disaffiliation from mainstream American life, the conversion narrative has provided ethnic Americans with a template for experiencing and representing life in a polity that has historically sought their exclusion, whether it be through slavery or Jim Crow segregation or through Nativist immigration policies like the 1921 Emergency Quota Act or its offspring, the Immigration Act of 1924.
Since conversion plays such an integral role in American political, literary, and cultural life, the dearth of critical studies of the conversion narrative in America is surprising. In Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative (1993), Peter Stromberg observes that, with few exceptions, there are no "detailed studies of the conversion narrative as a genre" in the United States (5). (Peter Dorsey's Sacred Estrangements: The Rhetoric of Conversion in Modern American Autobiography, which was published the same year as Stromberg's book, is certainly an outlier, particularly since Dorsey extends his study of religious conversion narratives to more secular expressions of the genre in American life writing.) Similarly, although ethnic American life writings frequently employ the conversion narrative, the archive of ethnic American conversion narratives have rarely been plumbed by academics interested in conversion per se.
The shortage of critical work on American conversion narratives in general, and on ethnic American conversion narratives in particular, makes Madeline Ruth Walker's The Trouble with Sauling Around: Conversion in Ethnic American Autobiography, 1965-2002 timely indeed. Walker explores the conversion narratives of four ethnic American authors--Malcolm X (and his amanuensis, Alex Haley), Oscar Zeta Acosta, Amiri Baraka, and Richard Rodriguez--in order to complicate the presumption that conversions are wholly benign, epiphanic experiences between converts and their God. Instead, suggests Walker, conversion needs to be understood as articulating a matrix of often competing religious, social, and political interests. As a result, conversions can be coerced or they can be opportunistic inasmuch as they can result from divine intervention.
In chapter 1, "Conversion and the Intractable Saul," Walker uses her book's "controlling terms," "Sauling around" and "Pauling around," to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) (6). She gleans these two analytical categories from Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man: " 'You start Saul, and end up Paul,' " explains the unnamed protagonist's grandfather. …