“Writing a Moravian Memoir: the Intersection of History and Autobiography”

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.19.51 Monday, May 11, 2015, University of Goteborg, Sweden

I delivered this seminar paper via Skype to a group of European scholars interested in ways of reading and analyzing Moravian memoirs.  The two day seminar was entitled “Life-writing and Lebenslauf:  Pillars of an invisible church” and was organized by Dr. Christer Ahlberger, in the faculty of History. In this paper I discuss ways of thinking about autobiography and the Moravian memoir, both as a radical act within the history of the genre and also, when analyzing the memoirs with the methods of DH, as a radical hermeneutic to reveal new voices in the historical record.

Screenshot 2015-05-14 19.24.46The genre of autobiography is a tricky one. Although only recently even acknowledged within the scholarly community as an object worthy of critical scrunity, autobiography has for millenia served the purpose of providing a model of the exemplary life. Whether in the form of saints’ lives, the chronicles of kings and queens, the political autobiography, or Johannes Arndt’s “best seller” the Historie der Wiedergeborenen, all have served the purpose of shaping others’ lives. Through autobiography the author is able to examine memory, shape experience, interrogate the reasons for action and examine conscience. For the reader, the genre provides an opportunity to view this process within another human subject, to witness the relation of authentic (or inauthentic) experience and emotion. Continue reading ““Writing a Moravian Memoir: the Intersection of History and Autobiography””

“We went over the Water A Visiting…”[1]

Repeatedly in the Moravian mission diaries we find entries that read, “We went visiting …” or, “We spent the morning visiting….”  What might on the surface appear to be a casual reference to an extreme sociability of the Moravian missionaries is however a reference to the pastoral practice of the “Besuch” or visit.  An important part of Moravian pastoral care in the towns and in the mission field was to visit both those who were already members of the Gemeine, and also those who were not.  And, as Moravian pastoral care in the colonial period also required that men speak to men and women speak to women, as much as was possible, then both members of couples such as Martin and Anna Mack, missionaries at Shamokin, or Anna Margarethe and Johann Jungmann, missionaries at Shekomeko, NY were active in this practice.   The Moravian sisters were also not just present to speak to the Native American women in German or English.  They were present because they were frequently the ones who possessed the linguistic skills to interpret and translate from German or English into Mohican, Delaware, Oneida, Seneca.   For example, both Anna Mack and Anna  Jungmann spoke the languages of the Native Americans living around the mission settlements.  Anna Mack had learned to speak Mohican from the neighbors to her father’s farm in upstate New York.  Anna Margarethe Jungmann had learned to speak Mohican (and later Delaware/Lenni Lenape) when she had first been sent out into the mission field.

The practice of the “visit” could be seen as laying a foundation for the discursive practice of the “Speaking” that was the subject my my last post (and the lectures at Moravian seminary).  The repeated “bringing into words” of the personal experiences of loss and redemption, despair and hope were linked to the physical or somatic manifestations of spiritual states; and this self-expression (a hallmark of both Pietist and many Native American world-views) was encouraged and practiced in all senses of the word in the Moravian world of the eighteenth century, whether the subject was English, German, Mohican, Delaware, Igbo, or Inuit.

One could ask the question, if this “Speaking” was so practiced, then could it also be authentic?  In what ways can a formulaic genre also be a personal expression of selfhood?  This is kind of question we will be tackling next semester.[2]


[1] From “Brother Martin Mack’s Journal from the 13th September 1745 N.S. of his Journey and Visit to Shamoko.” Papers of Martin Mack, Moravian Archives, Bethlehem, PA.

[2] It is also one that I have grappled with in my essay on the use of “parrhesia” in the Moravian discursive world, “Speaking and Truth-Telling: Parrhesia in the eighteenth century Moravian Church” in Self, Community, World:  Moravian Education in the Transatlantic World, eds. Heikki Lempa and Paul Peucker (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2010), 147-167.

Writing the Self

After a hiatus of six years, next semester I return to teaching autobiography.  The way in 2013-11-17 09.19.33which we make stories of our selves very much constituted my early publishing, whether my first article on the American Lebenslauf (memoir) or the translation of a collection of them for what has been my “best-seller”, Moravian Women’s Memoirs.  Since those early days, I have become fascinated by what I call the other side of memoir, how we reach the point of writing our selves; and in my seminar next semester we will be exploring that question to become not only critics of the genre but also authors.

It is not easy to write the self.  There are uncomfortable questions of authenticity, insight, truth.  So we look for examples of this uncomfortable process in authors whose autobiographical texts are not personal hagiographies or political hero-stories (although we read those too); we examine the making of who we are as being inextricably bound up with how we live in and with history.  In German, this concatenation of narrative and time is conveniently bound together in the one word, Geschichte. Continue reading “Writing the Self”