Orestes Brownson's autobiography and autobiographical novels: self-narrative as negotiation between facts and fiction

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Date: Annual 2009
Publisher: Institute of American and Canadian Studies, Sophia University
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,361 words

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Introduction

Orestes Brownson wrote an autobiography and two autobiographical novels. But it must be said that these have been completely ignored by scholars of American autobiography. Autobiography was the genre New England Puritans particularly inculcated to exhibit their lives as exemplary types of religious lives (Bercovitch, Puritan Self23-24). If this is due to the fact that the field is overshadowed by the fame of Benjamin Franklin's classic Autobiography, it is nevertheless rather strange that his later sympathetic interpreters (Thomas R. Ryan, Americo D. Lapati, and Patrick W. Carey) have not especially dealt with Charles Elwood, or, the Infidel Converted, written in 1834 but published six years later, and The Spirit-Rapper; An Autobiography has never been the subject of scholarly investigation, though most of them use The Convert: or, Leaves from My Experience (1857) as their source in reconstructing Brownson's "passage to Rome." Carey is more interested in Brownson's political philosophy, while Ryan and Lapati take up only his literary criticism in their respective books, the former referring to The Convert and Charles Elwood several times, but Lapati almost never.

I. Myself and Nothing But Facts

The last of these three works is an autobiography, though the author never mentions the word "autobiography" but insists it contains no fiction--nothing but truth. Published thirteen years after Brownson's conversion--he must have felt a need to stress this point after having written two autobiographical novels-it is an account of his life presented to Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston, who accepted him into the Catholic Church. Brownson remarks at the outset of his "Preface":

The volume here offered to the reading public is no work of fiction, and the person who gives an account is no imaginary person around whom I have chosen to weave passages from my own experience. The person who tells his story is myself, and I have aimed to tell my story, so far as it bears on my religious convictions and experience, with simplicity, frankness, and truthfulness. (5:1)

In a short space of three pages, Brownson speaks of "my book" and "the book," and declares: "Though I am the hero of my book, and speak in the first person, I trust the reader will not find me immoderately egoistic. Nearly all that is contained in the volume derives whatever value or importance it may have from sources of my personality" (5: 1). He sets up "truth" as an objective criterion independent of errors deriving from the limitations of his own cognition and judgment: "Truth is not mine, nor my reader's, and is the same whatever may be his or my opinions. It is above us both, and independent of us, and all that either of us should aim at is to conform to it" (5: 2). Truth is thus a common value Brownson and his readers Catholic or Protestant share, and he tries to show through his account some "connecting link" between his past and present life, which he enlarges to the connecting link between nature and grace, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A227281569