William B. Greene’s “A Priori Autobiography”


Contr’un Revisited:

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1849 was a busy year for William Batchelder Greene. In that year, he published at least six articles, under the pseudonym “Omega,” in The Worcester Palladium, then collected some of that material and some new work in Equality, the first of his major mutual banking works. He published the first pamphlet edition of his Transcendentalism, which had previously appeared as two articles in The American Review, and he also published Remarks on the Science of History, followed by an A priori Autobiography, a work integrating his apparently wide reading in European philosophies of history with a kind of autobiographical self-evaluation. We have every reason to believe that those were not easy years for Greene. He lost two children during his years as the pastor of the Brookfield Congregational Church. Robert Shaw Greene, born May 15, 1849, died only three days later. His relations in Unitarian circles were strained, thanks to conflicts with Theodore Parker. In a letter dated May 28, 1849, John Weiss (later a contributor to the Radical Review) writes:

The a-priori autobiography is by our friend who knocks the wind out of dying ministers after the manner of Mexican nurses, and doubtless with the same humane intention of putting them out of pain. Part of it was read to the Hook-and-Ladder, and created inextinguishable peals of laughter, which he bore so genially that I thought there was something in his essay.Each one can judge for himself. The introduction seems to be a brisk flirtation with Pythagoras and the science (?) of numbers. The autobiography purported to be a genuine experience of Greene’s in Florida, and as such is valuable. . . . Parker does not yet forget his wrongs. That is the worst thing I know about him. He flourishes and has influence; but he begins to complain of his head again. He works too hard. There is no controversy with him now; but the Boston Association does not yet fraternize with him, and the whole matter is in abeyance.

Greene’s biography is still largely a matter of mystery. We know that Parker was attached to Greene’s wife-to-be, Anna Blake Shaw, and that some mix of philosophical differences, incompatibilities of temperment and personal jealousies boiled out into a conflict involving Greene, Parker, Orestes Brownson, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (who had been rather attached to Greene), and others. It’s hard to imagine a more formidable crowd in a controversy that touched both philosophical principles and personal honor.

Greene’s sister Mary, having converted to Catholicism, was living in a convent in Maryland, and her letters (published after her death from cholera, crossing the Isthmus of Panama in 1852) give some glimpses into the everyday difficulties of life in the mid-19th century.

Weiss’ letter refers to Greene’s periodic bouts with illness. In the A Priori Autobiography, Greene marshalls his protrations by remittant fever, his bouts with tropical disease, and the like in the service of a personal narrative which seeks not only to tease out the logical development of his own beliefs, but to show the connections of that development to the development of beliefs in general. Something like the Biogenetic Law finds itself recapitulated in the realm of ideas here, and this seems to have been something of a commonplace in the largely Saint-Simonian philosophy of history in which Greene had obviously immersed himself in the 1840s. But there is also an adaptation of apostolic conversion narratives here: Greene presents himself as struck down on his own personal “road to Damascus.”

It would be simple to speculate further about Greene’s narrative, his illnesses, his controversies, and about the representative nature of the “autobiography.” Greene himself claims he is not to be understood as the “hero” of his story, but it is hard to escape the fact that it is at least based in the details of his experiences. As more biographical details emerge, it will become easier to evaluate the narrative, of course, and it no doubt contains some clues to aid in that discovery process.

For now, though, the work is available at Google Books, and in the Labyrinth, and is worth a look, for those interested in Greene’s deeper philosophical interests, or in a glimpse into his personal development.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.