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American Studies Seminar - 2008

"Written by himself... Written by herself" American Life Stories: The Northern United States 1780-1860

In the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, thousands of Americans wrote autobiographies and reminiscences. Successful men wrote their life stories to explain, celebrate, or justify their wealth or prominence. The pious recounted their soul-struggles and spiritual awakenings. Convicted murderers dictated their biographies in the days before they went to the gallows. Prisoners in the state penitentiary accounted for what had brought them there. Other Americans kept detailed diaries that explained their lives to themselves.

Evangelical parents and clergymen wrote the biographies of sanctified children who had been converted early and died young. Men and women wrote to unburden their minds, document their daily experience, explain success or failure, justify their actions, account for the providence of God, or simply to tell a story that they hoped would interest and benefit a later generation.

The collections of the American Antiquarian Society contain hundreds of such accounts, published and unpublished. This seminar will invite students to understand the multiple transformations of American society in the North, 1780-1860, by studying these American life stories in all their extraordinary variety - the trajectories of American lives as described those who lived them.

Framing the seminar will be the broad themes of social change in the America of the early republic and antebellum years . the industrial and market revolutions, the Second Great Awakening, the interwoven transformations of family, community, and work that created new forms of identity, new roles, and new possibilities for choice and experience, as well as for failure, frustration and disaster.

The seminar will examine as wide a social range in American society as possible: ministers and lawyers, farmers, store clerks, artisans and laborers; mill girls, single women, heroic mothers and runaway wives. It will look at the narratives of men and women of color, accounts of performers and prostitutes, the dramatized stories of condemned murders and famous thieves.

Across this diversity the seminar will look at how Americans encountered and remembered — or elided — the inflection points of the life cycle — childhood, coming of age, courtship and marriage, the search for a vocation, migration and dislocation, economic aspiration and struggle, parenthood, encounters with illness and death, and the onset of age.

Seminar discussions will also look as well at the themes that seem to be central to understanding American life in any period, and certainly of this one: expectation and ambition, fulfillment and failure, salvation and damnation, respectability and disgrace. In using diaries and autobiographies as historical sources, the seminar will also examine them as a narrative genres, looking at the relationship between the structure of experience and cultural norms of description.

Students will be guided to find an individual life story, a group of stories, or a genre as the topic for their intensive research in AAS sources. Each week, students will be given a "treasure-hunting" assignment at the end of class — to bring an example of a particular sort of primary source for discussion at the next class- a graphic, a poem, a broadside, a pamphlet — and to be ready to present it briefly at the beginning of our discussions.

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Seminar leader Jack Larkin is Museum Scholar and Chief Historian at Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts.