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.)