Autobiography as Self-Discovery and Affirmation in James Weldon Johnson's Journey, along This Way

By Thompson, Thelma B. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1997 | Go to article overview

Autobiography as Self-Discovery and Affirmation in James Weldon Johnson's Journey, along This Way


Thompson, Thelma B., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Autobiography As Self-Discovery and Affirmation in James Weldon Johnson's Journey, Along This Way

"It is the subject of a biography that commands attention, not the art nor craft that has gone into the writing of it."

(Kramer, "Writing Writers' Lives," 3.)

"There is no history: there is only biography"

(Emerson, Journals VI A, 202.)

The African-American minister, John Marrant, wrote in his Journal about two hundred years ago, that, often, deep experience is "beyond expression" (127.). In regular speech, one hears the cliche, "words cannot adequately express" and speakers grope and complain that "they are at a loss for words". The experience one has in reading autobiography, in general, often leaves one knowing that he or she has not read all, because for the writer, some of his or her experiences seem to be "beyond expression": and this is precisely the effect that James Weldon Johnson's autobiography, Along This Way, has upon the present reader. Yet, one must also realize that in the selection of Johnson's experiences, the lacunae may represent experiences beyond his own expression. He keeps silence on areas of his life that he considers sacred -- his intimate relationships, his family relationships, and his personal problems. Like other life writings, Johnson's autobiography is a literary occasion, as well as an historical act, giving validity to Albert E. Stone's observation that:

[To read] another's life story...is to immerse oneself in human experience in all its interconnections and manifestations.... The autobiographer's whole consciousness remodels the past into a narrative shape which necessarily resembles chronicle, fiction, fable, dream and myth.... Autobiography is also and simultaneously "history" (3).

Along This Way does all the above and speaks not only of its author, James Weldon Johnson, but, also, of his era and satisfies his need for artistic communication. Then, according to Arthur M. Clark, this type of artistic autobiography is based upon self discovery, where the writers objectify their realization and take pride in their artistic discovery. (23). Johnson really becomes the subject of the work, commands the attention that Kramer mentions in the quotation above and, simultaneously, his life also chronicles the history of the era as it relates to his life and interests.

Early in the work, Johnson displays a consciousness about his future and the relationship of past, present, and future time. For example, during his sophomore year at Atlanta University, three of his closest friends were expelled after an incident of improper conduct (smoking and drinking off-campus). Johnson writes:

I sometimes speculate on what might have happened had I not been called for baseball practice that Spring afternoon. Would I have gone with the Big Four? If I had, would I have stood out? Would I have tried to dissuade them, and if so, could I have succeeded? Or would I have followed along and be sent away too? Of course, I cannot answer any one of these questions, but I do know that I have been glad that I did not make myself liable for such punishment (83).

As an emerging adult, Johnson felt no self-satisfaction that he was not one of the "guilty" ones. Indeed, he looked back at the occurrence with honesty, still not knowing himself and still not knowing how he would have reacted in the hour of temptation and peer pressure. Possibly, he could have saved his friends from themselves, but Johnson, recalling how unsure he was of himself then, states that uncertainty.

The idea that in writing the autobiography the writer discovers himself seems particularly true for James Weldon Johnson who, at every stage of his adult life, had to make serious career choices from among equally attractive options. For example, upon his graduation from college, he had awaiting him, a job as the headmaster of his alma mater, the Staunton School, in Jacksonville and a scholarship to the Medical College of Harvard University! …

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