The Day I Became an Autodidact

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Day I Became an Autodidact: And the Advice, Adventures, and Acrimonies that Befell Me Thereafter consists of excerpts from a young woman’s diary covering a period of about four years. The thread that ties the entries together is the theme of self-education. This potentially tedious topic, however, is constantly interrupted by the ebullient author’s precocious remarks about a variety of other subjects. She can only be serious for a short time, and then her naturally optimistic and irreverent personality breaks through.

If her book resembles any other well-known work, it is not the journals of professionals such as Anaïs Nin or André Gide but the diary of the ill-fated Anne Frank. Although Anne Frank was living in daily terror while Kendall Hailey has always enjoyed comfort and security, there is nevertheless a striking resemblance. Both books are mosaics of youthful feminine dreams and aspirations. Both record the frustrations of loving spirits cooped up too long with people who get on their nerves. Both authors became autodidacts at approximately the same age, though for different reasons. Both books offer the reader the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking into a young woman’s diary.

Het Achterhnis (1947; The Diary of Anne Frank, 1953) is important as a record of the Holocaust. What importance, however, can be attributed to the diary of this privileged Californian? It would have to be found in the element of autodidacticism. According to many authorities, society is witnessing a revolution in education which is part of the overall social revolution that futurist Alvin Toffler has called “The Third Wave.” The old-style school, which was shaped by the needs of the factory system, no longer fits the needs for adaptability and creativity of a post-industrial society. Many bright young people, as if unconsciously responding, are dropping out of school or rebelling in self-destructive ways. The Day I Became an Autodidact may be read as a record of an experiment in an alternative mode of education and as such may be one of the more significant books to appear in recent years.

Hailey has been fortunate in having two highly literate parents. Her father is a well-known playwright, her mother a best-selling novelist. Both have not only permitted but also encouraged their daughter to be a nonconformist. Seemingly as a reaction to this permissiveness, Kendall is in many ways more conservative than the majority of her peers. She has no interest in drugs and only a minimal interest in sex. Although well-meaning friends have advised her to get out on her own and experience life, she has so far been content to remain in the family bosom, sharing the kind of relationship with them that seems to be rapidly disappearing from American life.

When she announced at the age of fifteen that she was going to finish high school early and wanted to stay home for the next five years while she educated herself, her parents said, “Why not take ten?” Her family will remind the reader of the characters in Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s You Can’t Take It With You (1936). There is even a crochety uncle, confined to a wheelchair since childhood, who could pass for Lionel Barrymore in the film version of that famous play.

The list of illustrious autodidacts includes Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Alva Edison, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and George Bernard Shaw. Hailey is the kind of omnivorous young bibliophile who reads under the blankets with a flashlight after the elders have ordered lights out. Her goal at the outset of her self-education was nothing less than to read everything ever published.

She is not intimidated by venerable names such as Aristotle or Sophocles. She dives into the lengthy À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) by Marcel Proust with the insouciance of a surfer paddling into a twenty-foot breaker. Her opinions of prestigious authors are refreshingly original and...

(The entire section is 1687 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When fifteen-year-old Kendall Hailey received a mandatory summer reading list from her private high school, she realized that she did not like an impartial list dictating her reading habits. She decided that day to become an autodidact, or “self-taught person,” allowing her own interests to dictate what she studied. The Day I Became an Autodidact: And the Advice, Adventures, and Acrimonies That Befell Me Thereafter is Hailey’s very personal and amusing diary of the ensuing four years.

Her parents, playwright Oliver Hailey and acclaimed novelist Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, had always encouraged Kendall to pursue her intellectual and cultural interests without limitations. When she proposed that she graduate a year early from high school and take a sabbatical from formal education before contemplating college, they encouraged her to take ten years if she so desired. Thus began Hailey’s exploration of the world through a variety of literary forms—fiction, biography, history, poetry, stageplays, and even films (primarily those from the 1930’s and 1940’s).

Since this sabbatical occurred in the 1980’s, an era of transition for women in general, young women such as Hailey were still in the process of developing their own voices and points of view. Her diary provides a clear perspective of what it was like to grow up during this period and offers an interesting approach to one woman’s attempt to take control of her present...

(The entire section is 598 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Hailey’s diary reflects what it was like for a young woman to grow up in a talented household in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. Pubishers Weekly likened Hailey to Holden Caulfield, predicting that she “is a phenomenon worth watching.” Yet, unlike J. D. Salinger’s character in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Hailey’s approach to life is decidedly feminine, and her concerns and descriptions reflect this strongly. While her situation is nonpolitical, it deals with issues close to home for women and focuses on relationships both internal and external. Its main drawbacks are that Hailey’s perspective is somewhat limited, and readers do not know how her life evolved based on the insights and experience that she gained as an autodidact.

Although the book was not a best-seller, it was recommended by reviewers of books for young adults soon after its publication. It did not spawn a league of autodidacts, possibly because its approach reflects a personal and individual experience rather than spearheading the cause with evidence of beneficial results. As it does not describe how to become an autodidact, but merely Kendall Hailey’s experience when she approached her life in this way with her family’s support, it educates other autodidacts by example rather than by instruction.

How I Became an Autodidact deserves a place in collections of women’s diaries as an example of one young woman’s attempt to take control of her destiny. Hopefully, it will inspire others to pursue learning for its own sake rather than merely to earn college degrees, to dive into an exploration of the world’s culture rather than merely to postpone the transition from sheltered academia into the pains and pleasures of contemporary life.