Stephen Forsdick (b. 1835): Life Writing, Class and Identity

I offer no words of advise to the youth of today, knowing full well that it would be useless. My experience will do them no good, they must all work out their own destinies.

Regenia Gagnier explains that literary critics often have a ‘lack of interest in working–class autobiographies by claiming that the works are not coherent artworks with literary devices, not revelations of self but of class.’ (Gagnier, p356) After spending nearly four months discovering and delving into the past life of Stephen Forsdick, I strongly disagree with this common opinion among critics. Stephen’s memoirs have included a range of eye–opening themes such as the education system in 19th century England, family life including multiple deaths of his loved ones and emigration to the ‘land of the free’, which has exposed to us a world and a history of the 19th century from a working–class perspective; certainly, a revelation of the self.

Throughout this final themed post on Stephen’s Untitled memoirs, I will give a final brief overview on his writing, the identification that is developed throughout his memoirs and what we discover about the working–class community in this period from his writing.

Stephen writes in a particularly poetic way when he reflects on his long, adventurous life: ‘Into each life some rain must fall. Some days must be dark and dreary.’ (p, 67) By the final pages, he begins to understand and accept what has happened his life and why, and is appreciative of the path he has taken. The final chapter, titled ‘RETROSPECTION’, is a continuous flow of memories line by line that summarises what Stephen has encountered throughout his life: ‘I have seen this great American desert… I have lived to see the ox team with their cumbersome covered wagon…’ (p, 66) In the end, he essentially explains that the purpose of writing about his life was not to teach a lesson to his readers, but to simply share what he has gained out of his time on earth.

As I have stated in my Purpose and Audience post, I believe Stephen intended to form an

Watford in the 19th century.

understanding of the class system that was emerging in Western society as he wrote of his anger towards the upper–class gentleman in England and his endless power struggles with men in a position of authority in the Mormon camps.

Gagnier explains that it is a common theme throughout working–class autobiographies for the writer to provide and account of their first experiences of class: ‘An example is Robert Grave’s account of his first awareness of social class in the 1890s.’ (Gagnier, p343). By writing about his experience of class, Stephen began to form his identity which was amplified by his conversion to the Latter Day Saints.

Stephen’s choice to convert to this new religion that beckoned his emigration to America was also a way that he came to understand his identity. Religion is a huge theme throughout his memoirs, especially as it shaped most of the decisions he made throughout his life, ‘They called themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, and they preached that

Mormon converts on board a ship bound for Boston (Stephen’s second trip to America).

there was no salvation except by becoming a member of the same.’ (p, 4) Again, his conversion, baptism and emigration all led to self–identification and forming ideas of the class system.

Stephen uses his writing to form and understand his identity and to elaborate on life as working–class man in the 19th century. He uses his literary abilities, which are slightly more developed than in some working–class autobiographies, to reflect on his life and memories for his own purpose, in my opinion. But in terms of class and identity, Stephen’s writing can be used as a historical tool to uncover information about working–class life in the 19th century which is why these autobiographies are so useful and illuminating for the purpose of research.

Bibliography: 

  • Forsdick, Stephen. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.242a bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10884
  • Gagnier, Regenia. Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender, Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363

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