"A Pen in His Hand": A Pen in Her Hand Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in 19th-Century America

Grammer, Elizabeth Elkin, Department of English, University of Virginia
Levin, David, Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Fraiman, Susan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Aron, Millicent, Department of History, University of Virginia

This study concerns the autobiographies of seven American women whose lives were profoundly altered by nineteenth-century evangelicalism. called by God, the itinerant preachers Nancy Towle, Jarena Lee, zilpha Elaw, Lydia Sexton, Laura Haviland, Julia Foote and Amanda smith embraced a life of homelessness and thus wandered outside the ideology of domesticity which defined the lives of most women. Defying categories of gender and race which called them to stay in their places, they became objects of suspicion to others and strangers even to themselves. Literally, psychologically, and ideologically, they were "out of place"; it was in the hope of "placing" themselves that they set about writing their autobiographies.

Thus, these narratives offer a revealing view of the autobiographical process, of the tension between self-creation and the cultural construction of identity. Though they desired to be true to their unprecedented experiences, they needed cultural precedents to make sense of their lives and to identify themselves to their critical audiences. They solved this problem by situating themselves within many of the century's prominent discourses. They borrowed and revised the language of home and family to assure readers--and reassure themselves--of their "place" within domestic ideology; they drew upon the language of competitive individualism, quantifying their life work to prove their worth in the iii marketplace of salvation; they located themselves within the biblical paradigm 'of the suffering servant to demonstrate their status within Judeo-Christian history.

Narratives about place and placelessness, these autobiographies remind us that the desire for freedom does not cancel the need to belong. Wandering their culture in search of a map that would show them where they were--and thus who they were--these women write "itinerant" autobiographies, stories of departures but seldom of arrivals, stories in search of their endings and their meanings. Ultimately, these autobiographies serve not so much to explain the lives they describe as to summon up the interpretive communities capable of understanding them. Theirs are, then, stories about gender and genre, about the particular predicament of woman negotiating her identity with a reader and, more broadly, with a culture.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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