Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in Nineteenth-Century America

By Elizabeth Elkin Grammer | Go to book overview

4
A Poetics of Itinerancy
Evangelical Women Writers and the Form of Autobiography

How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?

Psalm 137:4

Like a man lost in woods, more than once she had doubled upon her own track.

Herman Melville, “Benito Cereno”

Well, what design and whose?

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

When, in her seventy-third year, Lydia Sexton came at last to publish her autobiography, she felt compelled to begin with an apology to her readers. The apology was for the relative brevity and incompleteness of her account; the full record of her life was found “too lengthy” by her publisher, who insisted that the manuscript be cut back to a mere seven hundred pages (iii). Her faith in the stamina of these readers is remarkable, though by no means inconsistent with the pattern established by most of the autobiographers studied here. But even more striking is the method Sexton employed to make the required cuts. To another writer the publisher's harsh edict might have necessitated a laborious process of culling, but she was able to make the reductions by the simple expedient of subtracting “ten years of history” from her life story, thus excising from it “much pleasure, much work and success, ” and also the death of Joseph Sexton, her “dear companion for nearly half a century along life's pilgrimage” (iii). There is nothing to indicate that she eliminated these pages because they seemed less important than others; indeed, nothing to suggest that any particular editorial criteria were employed in making this emendation. She cut her manuscript like a deck of cards, shipped the larger portion off to the United Brethren Press, and saved the remainder for a better day.

That Sexton felt able to do this without disturbing the symmetry of her account certainly tells us something about her sense of the autobiographer's craft. Imagine the Confessions breaking off just as Augustine begins to doubt the teachings of the Manicheans, or the Education with Adams contemplating the dynamo, and the point is made: the autobiographies that traditional theorists of the genre think of as “classic” have an apparent narrative shape, tending toward closure. 1 The disappearance of a concluding hundred pages would have been disastrous. But Sexton was right none-

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