In the spring of 2000, Yale University Press, in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, will publish the autobiography of the artist, naturalist, and museum proprietor Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827). This work, nearly one thousand manuscript pages long and spanning Peale's life from the 1760s to the 1820s, has been utilized by only a handful of scholars. Its availability will be a significant event for students of American history and literature. Peale's lucid narrative of his life; his discussions about early American art, society, and politics; and his personal involvement in so many of the young republic's cultural and scientific episodes and movements, will make this autobiography required reading for all those interested in American studies, literature, and history.
An obvious comparison will be made between Charles Willson Peale's and Benjamin Franklin's autobiographies. The men were nearly contemporary. Franklin, thirty-five years older, had known Peale's father. On that tenuous connection, Charles Willson Peale took what for that period was considered the bold step of introducing himself to Franklin while the two were in London in the late 1760s. In the 1780s, when Peale had established himself as a portrait painter in Philadelphia, he served with Franklin in the American Philosophical Society. Peale's autobiography by no means approaches the complexity, in both fabrication and motivation, of Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography; it is, however, far richer in the detail and narrative of life in the early republic. Franklin's character was so much more complicated--not to say sly and evasive--than Peale's that their respective autobiographies are almost polar opposites in terms of style, organization, and intent. But in writing his text Peale was not above making events serve his purposes. Peale's intentions for his autobiography always wavered between a commitment to faithful narrative and his desire to construct his legacy; his desire to instruct and provide "rational amusement," and his intention to keep family conflicts out of his "history." It is significant that, besides referring to his text as a history, he also called it a novel, which in the eighteenth century was defined as being shorter than a romance but closer to real life. He also used the term, biography (and wrote in the third person as if he were objectifying another subject) and never used the term autobiography itself. Although coined by 1797, autobiography was not in accepted or wide usage until the second half of the nineteenth century. The title on his first page is ""The Life of Charles Willson Peale," but we have called it his autobiography for convenience and because that is what it is; indeed, as the author of one of the first American autobiographies, Peale might have been influential in creating the genre if his work had been published in the early nineteenth century.
Peale debated publishing his manuscript throughout his writing of it. He clearly envisioned a wider audience than family and selected friends. But he was frustrated by compositional and organizational problems. Large portions of the autobiography duplicate his journals, and he also simply inserted primary documents without any attempt at editing or integration into his new text. Although he admitted that his technical skills as a writer were probably too limited for him to publish the manuscript, he maintained that "my facts might in the hands of a good penman" be made interesting enough to tap the burgeoning market for novels. It should be noted, however, that Peale gave himself only about six months to actually write a work of 992 manuscript pages. He ended it in April 1826, becoming preoccupied with other activities. He died abruptly in early 1827 before he could rewrite, hire a ghostwriter, or consider publication. Flaws and all, however, Peale's autobiography remains the product of one man: a tribute to an energetic, productive, and significant life. That Peale did not produce a highly stylized self-portrait like Franklin's Autobiography should not obscure Peale's achievement in creating a full and informative account of his life and times. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur's great question, ""What then is the American, this new man?" will never be answered, but in approaching an answer Charles Willson Peale's Autobiography is an essential text on the making of Americans.
Above left: The Peale Family (detail)/ Charles Willson Peale/ Oil on canvas, c.1770-1773/ Image courtesy New-York Historical Society, NYC
Above: Charles Willson Peale/ Self-portrait/ Oil on canvas, c. 1791/ National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution