The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Modern Europe.
The tale of Icarus's efforts to rise above his proper station--a story mentioned in the chronicle of Miquel Parets, a seventeenth-century Barcelonan tanner-- provides James S. Amelang with an appropriate metaphor to launch his fascinating and illuminating study of the practice of artisanal autobiographical writing in early modern Europe. Amelang uses Paret and his chronicle as the narrative thread that links together this careful study of the numerous methodological problems that confront the use and interpretation of these difficult documents. At the center of Amelang's study lies a determined, and successful, challenge to the dominant theme in analyses of autobiographical writing: autobiography as the supreme expression of individualism. Rather, drawing from Paret and many other artisanal writers, Amelang argues that artisanal autobiographers rarely lost sight of the collective. These two categories, individual and collective, "bespoke neighboring, not isolated, dimensions of existence, more overlapping tha n opposing each other" (234). Since the personal and the social overlapped, artisanal autobiography could become a vehicle for personal emancipation, in which autobiographers declared their political (or social) existence, their place in local politics, by translating broad notions of popular political culture and local citizenship into autobiographical narratives of their civic activities and their personal and private experiences.
Amelang balances this emphasis on the personal expression of the social with a recognition of autobiographical writing as a practice--a practice that required the creation of a space distinct in some way from the social. Autobiography, thus, did provide a crucible for the emergence of the modern discourse of the self, but the crucible was larger, and contained more diverse voices, than a narrow, traditional emphasis on St. Augustine, Montaigne, and Rousseau would suggest. Amelang argues that boundaries between public and private were too fluid to mark any rigid distinction between them. The act of authorship for artisan was private and personal and also social and public, a deeply rooted ambivalence that permitted artisan autobiographers "to speak at the same time for themselves and for others" (237).
Throughout this convincing analysis, Amelang carefully qualifies his arguments and begins with an excellent review of the central issues that have guided the study of early modern autobiography. For anyone new to the genre, Amelang's first three chapters would be a fine place to begin. As his analysis develops through the text, however, some choices made along the way leave lingering questions. Most importantly, in order to limit the number of texts to manageable proportions, Amelang excludes certain types of works from his study. Since he is interested in "the voluntary impulses underlying the act of writing," Amelang sets outside his purview what he identifies as "provoked wriring"--"incidental or indirect autobiographies, such as the oral life histories offered as testimony in courts of law" (50). Amelang points to the life testimonies produced for the Inquisition as examples of this genre. Yet by the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries, artisans voluntarily brought their controversies to the courts and, as Michael Sonenscher has shown for France, in large numbers. Artisans, in consultation with their lawyers, had to learn how to construct narratives, at times life narratives, that merged with legal argumentation and form. In the eighteenth century, similar processes also occurred within the state's regulatory administrative networks, networks not as bound by legal frameworks but that required the creation of arguments and narratives by which artisans strove to influence policymakers. Such writings would suggest, perhaps even teach, the malleability of the self into different packages, packages whose broad contours were defined, or at least influenced, by the expectations of state administrators. In addition to being liberating, the confluence of the personal and the social might be confining, and an emphasis on the interplay between emancipatory and binding tendencies within artisanal autobiography would clarify the importance of these fascinating texts and their role in the discourse of the self.
In addition to his illuminating analysis, Amelang provides a nearly one-hundred page appendix that catalogues some 216 early modern artisanal autobiographies. When possible and appropriate, Amelang describes the authors and texts, lists bibliographic information (including English translations), and notes important secondary literature for these autobiographies. While Amelang admits that the catalog of autobiographies (and the information about them) is far from comprehensive, both Amelang and Stanford University Press should be applauded for expending the time and effort to produce a valuable and useful bibliographic tool. Amelang's fine analysis, combined with the catalog of autobiographies, mark this work as an important contribution both to the history of early modern labor and popular politics and to the history of autobiography and the discourse of the self-an insightful combination, held together skillfully with lucid prose, that helps us to see Icarus striving for the heavens.
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|Author:||Smith, David Kammerling|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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