William Apess, Digitization, Storytelling, and the Passage of Time

Storytelling then: “Storytelling” by Albert Grossvater, 1884

We are all storytellers.

In the last month, our focus in Dr. May’s Early Minority Literature course has shifted to life writing, with three autobiographies and a travel diary. We followed the spiritual transformation of an indentured servant and Quaker, Elizabeth Ashbridge; we shadowed William Apess, a Native American, as he overcame abuse and other challenges to become a devoted Methodist preacher. We trailed intrepid businesswoman Sarah Kemble Knight as she journeyed solo through Connecticut, and we traveled with cross-dressing female soldier Mary Ann Talbot across the Atlantic (and back).

As different as these four works are, they have two things in common: first, that they represent “forgotten” voices of literary history. As the work of minorities, their writings have been overshadowed by canonical white, male voices of early America. Second, all four of these pieces construct a cohesive narrative out of many life experiences -– a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with obstacles and triumphs, with lessons learned and experience gained.

What’s so extraordinary about “constructing a narrative”? In the most straightforward sense, “constructing a narrative” is simply “telling a story” – and is there anything that groundbreaking about storytelling in itself? Maybe not, but as a literary scholar, it’s hard not to believe wholeheartedly in the power of storytelling. Storytelling – among other things – makes us human. (And I’d be willing to bet there are some psychologists who would back me up on that.) The ability to tell stories – to take a series of events and give them meaning by shaping them into, say, Acts One, Two, and Three (along with many other storytelling traditions) – that ability is all but universal, and over time it has given us the ability to do everything from tell jokes to feel compassion to disseminate world religions.
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