Passions of memory: The religious theme in American women writers' autobiographies since 1945

Susan Neunzig Cahill, Fordham University


Like women writers and the genre of autobiography itself, the spiritual content of contemporary autobiographical writing by women claims a lively presence within American literary history. Spirituality as a mix of background and foreground perceptions shapes the matrix of the writers' consciousness and conscience--how they come to selfhood in relation to the world--just as it contributes to the fundamental character of their communities. Specific religious backgrounds define significant themes of five culturally diverse autobiographies by American women writers: Shirley Abbott (Womenfolks: Growing Up Down South, 1983, and The Bookmaker's Daughter: A Memory Unbound, 1991) comes out of white Baptist Arkansas; Barbara Grizzuti Harrison (Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses, 1978, and Italian Days, 1989) knows first-hand the Witnesses and a Brooklyn Italian-American convert's Roman Catholicism; Vivian Gornick (Fierce Attachments, 1987), bred in the Bronx, blends Judaism and Marxism and feminism; after an education in a Christian boarding school on a reservation in the West, Mary Crow Dog (Lakota Women, 1990) discovers her native religion among the Sioux Indians; Lorene Cary (Black Ice, 1991) has her religious roots in a Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal home and church as well as in the Protestant theology of Paul Tillich, American Anglican liturgy, and West Indian folk belief. In each life story, an ethos of spirituality, experienced especially but not exclusively in oral and written religious/political narratives, functions as a force of awakening, transformation, and empowerment within a spirituality/politics of justice and compassion. Many overlooked thematic pieces implicit in these formative scriptures mark the American cultural patchwork and frame a wider perspective on women's autobiography. These include a theory of identity as social selfhood--otherness as constitutive of selfhood as such; a refusal of the representation of religion as a mode of passivity and of American religious history as monochromatic Protestant; and, finally, the conceptual connection between the pragmatism of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and the ethical feminism enacted in the autobiographies. As polyphonic plots of resistance of morally constricting boundaries and of serial conversions through the particularities and pilgrimages of the real, these life histories--narratives of a processive freedom--rather than theories of contemporaneity as a time of despair, provide a complex sense of the spiritual climate of late twentieth-century America.

Subject Area

American literature|Biographies

Recommended Citation

Cahill, Susan Neunzig, "Passions of memory: The religious theme in American women writers' autobiographies since 1945" (1995). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9530021.