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.

Storytelling today: J.K. Rowling gives a reading to children at the White House. From Wikimedia Commons.

What it does for Ashbridge, Knight, Apess, and Talbot is allow them to recount and reimagine their lives as journeys, as progressions from a point A to a point B. Their autobiographies and diaries, like all life writing, operate by uniting events that, as they were being lived, were not cohesive at all. What they offer is not a record of life lived, but a selective representation of episodes in a life. Apess, for example, structures his autobiography as a spiritual journey, following a well-established Protestant literary tradition. In telling the story of his life, he envisions himself as a sinful youth, born into abuse and instability, who discovers Christianity and struggles with temptation before eventually reaching his higher purpose: to live a pious life preaching the word of God.

The gift of reimagining our lives cohesively is that doing so allows us to derive meaning from our own experiences, to understand that our struggles are lessons, that our mistakes can be forgivable, that our actions have motives clear only in hindsight (which is 20/20, as they say). But defining life-meaning for ourselves is not the only benefit of the constructed life narrative, as it also serves to define our lives for potential readers. So at the same time that Apess reflects on and reconstructs his own life narrative, it is clear he does so with an audience in mind. He cautions his reader not to view his abusive, native grandparents as “savages . . . to treat unoffending, helpless children in this cruel manner” . Instead, he attributes their abuse “in great measure to the whites, inasmuch as they introduced to my countrymen that bane of comfort and happiness, ardent spirits.” Apess, like so many autobiographers, recounts select events in his life with a purpose – in this case to defend his fellow “sons of the forest,” as well as to describe the merits of Methodism over other branches of Christianity. Autobiographies, then, are a public and purposeful rendition (and reconstruction) of one’s own personal life.

As literary scholars and historians, though, we take life writing and turn it on its head. This semester, we are tasked with finding and digitizing a collection of archival documents around which we can build a cohesive narrative – or that we can fit within a larger narrative. Letters, diaries, and manuscripts are among the materials we might work with, and these are the raw materials of autobiography. But how can we, as scholars, faithfully represent the life writings of people who lived two centuries into the past? How can we do for others what they may not have had the tools, time, or capital to do for themselves?

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little healthy anxiety about the whole process. There is something intimidating and profound, to me, about the idea of “recovery,” of recovering the lives of people whom history and society say never mattered. Maybe it’s because in the larger scheme of things we’re all so easily forgettable that this work feels so important.

In the coming weeks, we’ll all be making some choices and guesses that will help us construct narratives around the documents we find, and all of those decisions are going to generate an entirely NEW text: a digitized, visual and textual story, of sorts. We’ve learned about all places in the research and recovery process that our work impacts the “meaning” of an original document. Through digitization, you lose qualities like texture and shading, blotches and blemishes and smell. Context and provenance seem less clear. The experience of reading, as we’ve learned in Dr. Hughes’ class, is not passive – and digitization changes that reading experience, too. So along with all of the choices we make regarding how we describe, represent, and contextualize the documents, the physical experience of encountering digital documents will impact how they are interpreted. Our job is not to eliminate these challenges, but to mitigate them.

In doing this we, too, are storytellers, but our subjects are real people. I loved what the UTA special collections librarian told us, that behind each individual document is a person, who lived and breathed and felt. It’s easy to forget that, when you’re locked up in an archive or spending your day immersed in computer code. But it matters, because what we say about these people matters. I think the mere fact that we can read Apess’s autobiography or Knight’s travel journal today is a testament to the reality that we never know where our words and our work may end up. After all, in two hundred years, will some archivist stumble upon my own, personal diary? What will they say about me? And in two hundred years, will remnants of the digitized collection I create be the only remaining record of that person’s life and thoughts?

These are big, uncomfortably long-term questions, but I think they’re worth considering, because in our work digitizing archives, we look backward and forward, patching together stories from the past for an audience of the future.

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