States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and American Political Thought

By Philip Abbott | Go to book overview

PREFACE

If America is different and each individual is different, then we can learn about ourselves by telling about ourself. Such a syllogism may not be perfect but it expresses some of the hopes we entertain when we read autobiography. The autobiography celebrates our dual conception of uniqueness by affirming our self-consciousness. The entrees offered over coffee or a cocktail -- "Let me tell you about my marriage..."; "When I was a child..."; "in those days..." -- are presented in the same spirit of Thoreau, who explained that he talked so much about himself because there was no one else he knew so well. We learn from the telling and we learn from what others tell us. Out of this discreteness comes generalization. "That happened in my marriage too" is one response and the story telling becomes an act of sharing. The autobiographer knows intimately the phenomenology of this discourse. He or she tells a life story so that others may see themselves as characters. If we do not match up (and here lies a central function of the autobiography), we can. The uniqueness of a single life, once examined, becomes a model for imitation.

Autobiographers then tell us a story about how we ought to live. Their lives are the evidence; we learn how to be happy, rich, healthy. All this story telling produces an instruction-manual kind of political thought. "How to" political thought may appear pathetically naive, but it does have a complex architecture all its own, one not generally examined by students of American political thought. For the beliefs that like America itself we can always start over and be "new" again, that "How shall I live?" is a practical question, suggest a depth and a range of discourse that has startling implications. That Benjamin Franklin became an international figure from beginnings so modest tells a story that still captures the imagination of Americans. Present-day Franklins are still telling us the same story. Could anyone change more than Whittaker Chambers, who left a life of atheistic communism to witness

-xi-

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States of Perfect Freedom: Autobiography and American Political Thought
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents ix
  • Preface xi
  • Chapter One - Introduction 3
  • Chapter Two - Hustling 25
  • Chapter Three - Redeeming Henry David Thoreau 59
  • Chapter Four - Judging 91
  • Chapter Five - Remembering 125
  • Chapter Six - Reforming 157
  • Chapter Seven - Conclusion 183
  • Notes 197
  • Index 209
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