Biography in the Romantic Literature Classroom

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I’ve just now had the chance to read Heather Jackson’s engaging essay “What’s Biography Got to Do With It?” in the June 2011 ERR (this was her plenary at the 2010 NASSR, a conference I sadly had to miss; from the papers in ERR, it looks like it was extraordinary!). I’d been meaning to get to this article since the issue arrived and I’m glad I finally did. Jackson looks back at the world of Romantic-era literary biography in order to think about why our own students (and the general public) often seem so stubbornly invested in talking about writers’ lives when we want them to talk about literary works, and she comes up with some provocative answers—for instance:

What we normally think of as literary biography, the large-scale, original, comprehensive, authored account of a writer’s life, has less to do with the evolution of any writer’s reputation than you might think, but the short, derivative, introductory, often anonymous summary that appears in prefaces and works of reference has more. […] When we ask why readers are not satisfied with the works just as they come and why they turn to biographical sources when they want more — why biography should be the default solution —we have […] the fact that ancient prefatory traditions have always organized information that way and thereby formed a habit that it may be impossible to break. (370)

“Is that a problem?,” Jackson wonders. I’ve been thinking myself a good deal about the role of biography in our (my) teaching of Romanticism, and it’s been a topic particularly on my mind this week: the bookstore’s been nagging me for the booklist for the honors seminar on “Romantic Lives” I’m teaching this spring, and we’ve just been doing The Prelude in my graduate British Romanticism seminar and “Tintern Abbey” in my undergraduate Romantic Poetry survey, so the idea, or problem, of the authorial life has been front and center in our discussions and in my planning for class. Reading Jackson’s essay prompts me to post some of my own thinking on the topic here, and to invite readers of this blog to conversation: what role does the biography of writers—either biography as a literary genre, or the idea of the writer’s life—play in your teaching of Romanticism? How is the writer’s life, or even the writer as personality or character, an element of the way you present the writer’s work to your students, or the interpretative frames you put into play? Do you assign biographies, or teach biography or autobiography as a genre, or talk about how and why the writer’s life became an object of interest? How do you deal with the power of mythic versions of author’s lives? How do you combat the rush to Wikipedia or other internet capsule biography as an answer to anything and everything?

Like many of us I'm sure, I find myself often frustrated by the way students wield as very blunt instruments supposed biographical “facts” they’ve gotten by googling, or heard from friends, or vaguely remembered from high school. What disturbs me is not so much the recourse to biography itself as the eagerness to reduce not only the complexity of the work, but also the complexity of the writer’s life, to a single determining biographical fact or myth. It’s strange, really, that students can imagine anyone’s life in the monodimensional terms in which they sometimes seem to imagine the lives of the authors they read. This retreat from complexity is no doubt partly an anxiousness about the work of interpretation (they're worried they don't know how to do it) but it also has parallels in the media attention given to each latest diagnosis granting a long-dead writer or artist a medical or psychological condition that “explains” his or her “genius”—an impulse to pathologize and explain away creativity that reflects both a lack of imagination and a fear of imagination. Still, I’ve come increasingly to think that in answer to what Jackson calls “our biographical woes in the classroom” (365) we need more biography in the classroom, not less. If students too often rely on reductive biographical readings, it might be because they don’t have enough exposure to more sophisticated, complex versions of biography, nor enough experience with more nuanced understandings of the interactions of life and text. In other words, if students are all too eager to fall back on biographical fallacy or weak biographical criticism, this might be an effect of the institutionalization (at the high school as well as college level) of a pedagogy so hyperanxious about the possibility of biographical contamination that it pretends to rule biography itself out of court. I say pretends because the author’s life persists as an organizing principle of our pedagogy in many often unacknowledged ways, as Jackson argues, and because of course we don’t presume any such strict separation of biography and criticism in our own work as critics. In our effort to convince students not to read everything as directly self-expressive, we give them the confusing message that the author’s life isn’t something to be read.

Curiosity about writers' lives isn't a bad thing for students to have if they know how to research those lives capably, if they can understand that writers were real people—and so not fully "knowable"—living in real historical circumstances different from their own, and if they can recognize that the authorial personality they imagine they encounter or the authorial voice they imagine they hear is a fiction, a product of specific reception histories and of particular desires and needs (their own, the writer's, a culture's). So how then to help students become more savvy about the uses of biography, and how to make curiosity about the author’s life work for us, as teachers of literature?  Here, we have an advantage as Romanticists, since so many Romantic literary works blur the boundaries between life and text in ways we can use to get students asking better questions about how life and work connect. For example: Frankenstein refuses straightforwardly autobiographical readings yet on so many levels seems to refract or transpose aspects of Mary Shelley’s own experience as writer, mother, daughter, and wife—and then reflects in such complicated ways on the problem of telling, or hearing, a life story—that it can lead marvelously into rich discussions of the complexity of the competing pressures Shelley experienced and the complicated nature of the way autobiography is woven, along with many other strands of meaning, into the web of the novel. Don Juan’s extraordinary along these lines as well. Conversely, explicitly autobiographical texts such as The Prelude or “Lines...Tintern Abbey” gain in significance for students when they think about the choices (of genre, of emphasis or omission, of language) the poet makes in presenting experience in a particular, public form, and when they come to see the poem as an argument about what that experience has been and what it means. This helps them shake their biographical literalism. In teaching “Tintern Abbey,” I usually foreground the dialogue with “Frost at Midnight,” and we consider Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal writing alongside these poems to help students think about public and private modes of writing the self.

I agree with Heather Jackson’s suggestion that students would benefit from a greater familiarity with biography as a literary genre, and I think full-length biographies of writers can be a useful contextualizing tool. In some smaller seminars, I’ve experimented with asking students to choose from among a list of modern biographies of writers we’re reading; in the assignments I give them for reports on these biographies, I ask them to pay attention to formal and rhetorical aspects of the biography, and we compare how different biographers represent the same episodes from a subject’s life. The goal is to have the students understand biography as representation, interpretation, and argument, rather than something simply to be mined for facts. The better biographies also gave students a vivid sense of the historical and intellectual contexts of the writers we were studying, and a sense of their existence in a particular time and place.  In larger classes, I’ve found myself using more biographical anecdotes about writers—which can feel kind of donnish, but which works both to help situate the writers in a historical context and as a lure for students, who might then feel engaged by the idea of the writer as a person who works through, in his or her writing, particular sets of more or less urgent personal and political and philosophical concerns, even if not necessarily in the mode of self-expression.

However, I still find all of this kind of tricky. There’s a part of me that’s very uneasy about giving authorial personality too much presence in the classroom, even if it’s in a more deconstructive mode emphasizing the textualization of the life. There’s the recognition that neither as an undergrad nor in grad school was I ever actually assigned even an excerpt from a biography as far as I can recall, so now I feel a bit on shaky ground when I try to do it. There’s the problem of time on the syllabus and in class discussion: how can we squeeze it all in? There’s the risk that students will still reach for biography as reductive explanation, or that they’ll want to turn class discussion into a debate, daytime-talk-show-style, on whether the writers we’re studying were good or appealing people, or that we’ll be reinforcing mythologies of the author or of genius. Then there’s what I’ve come to think of as the “five summers with the length of five long winters” problem—if you're teaching, say, "Tintern Abbey," practically speaking, in the limited discussion time you have, what do you do to describe that five-year gap? Do you talk about the gap between WW’s first visit and his return solely in terms given by the poem itself (entirely possible and effective)? Do you talk about the gap by discussing his evolving philosophical or political thinking in biographical terms, or do you place the poem in wider intellectual or cultural contexts? Do you talk about what he did and where he was specifically in those five years—how literal do you get about the “lonely rooms” or the “fretful stir/unprofitable” (in my experience, students often ask for more detail here)? Do you emphasize the historical resonances of the date (e.g., Corday/Marat)? Ideally, one pulls together these various registers, so that students can think about how Wordsworth negotiates a relationship between his life and broader sweeps of history. When that works, it’s great, but it’s hard not to feel like either the individual life or the historical sweep gets the short end of the stick. And I haven’t yet taken on a class where we talk substantially about the history of literary biography—though that will come in the spring, with the “Romantic Lives” class, and I'm wondering how it will work. More on that upcoming class--and on this topic--soon, I hope.

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