The Trouble with Sauling Around

Conversion in Ethnic American Autobiography, 1965–2002

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September 2011
216 pages, 5 3/4 x 9 1/4 inches
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“Starting with Madeline Walker’s writing—which is clear and persuasive and characterized by a compelling personal voice—The Trouble with Sauling Around has much strength. Walker’s writing sounds like a real person expressing opinions, struggling with contradictions, while reasoning and thinking through complex issues. She’s smart, and her main argument is original, based on impressive research, and devoid of cant. Walker’s ability to answer questions rather than just raise them, the clear structure of the work, the overall sense of fairness that emanates from the manuscript, and the courage she demonstrates in writing so openly about delicate and politically charged subjects are exactly what make this book so original and valuable.”—Timothy Dow Adams, author, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography

“Madeline Walker’s The Trouble with Sauling Around is compelling and edifying from start to finish. Building her arguments carefully, drawing on concepts and terms of art from the various fields that intersect around her subject, Walker also writes with a rare fluency and a quiet flair so that, as her study unfolds, we not only understand but also feel ‘the trouble with conversion.’ The scholarship she draws on is prodigious, including studies in autobiography, conversion narratives, the intellectual history of religion, and popular religious history in America, as well as the extensive critical archive on her four major figures and the literary communities they inhabit. This is an engaging, original, and timely work that will be read across a range of fields.”—John McClure, author, Partial Faiths: Postsecular Fiction in the Age of Pynchon and Morrison

“When you’re a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts to trying to be Paul—though you still Sauls around on the side.”—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In The Trouble with Sauling Around, Madeline Walker probes the complex and troubled relationship between ethnicity, society, and religious conversion in late twentieth-century African American and Mexican American autobiography. Religious conversion—the turning away from an old, sinful life toward a new life of salvation—manifests as an intensely personal experience, yet it calls into play a wide variety of social, cultural, economic, racial, political, and psychological forces. Thus, constant change and the negotiation of resistance to and assimilation within the dominant culture have been seminal topics for ethnic Americans, just as the conversion narrative is often a central genre in ethnic writing, particularly autobiographical writing.

Examining autobiographical texts by Malcolm X (The Autobiography of Malcolm X), Oscar Zeta Acosta (The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo and Revolt of the Cockroach People), Amiri Baraka (The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones), and Richard Rodriguez  (Hunger of Memory, Days of Obligation, and Brown), Walker questions the often rosy views and simplistic binary conceptions of religious conversion. Her reading of these texts takes into account the conflict and serial changes the authors experience in a society that marginalizes them, the manner in which religious conversion offers ethnic Americans “salvation” through cultural assimilation or cultural nationalism, and what conversion, anticonversion, and deconversion narratives tell us about the problematic effects of religion that often go unremarked because of a code of “special respect” and political correctness.

Walker asserts that critics have been too willing to praise religion in America as salutary or beyond the ken of criticism because religious belief is seen as belonging to an untouchable arena of cultural identity. The Trouble with Sauling Around goes beyond traditional literary criticism to pay close attention to the social phenomena that underlie religious conversion narratives and considers the potentially negative effects of religious conversion, something that has been likewise neglected by scholars.