The Center for Tomorrow: Disciplining Victorian Biography

By Epstein, William H. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The Center for Tomorrow: Disciplining Victorian Biography


Epstein, William H., Nineteenth-Century Prose


The first academic conference I attended was also the first at which I gave a paper. This was in 1974, at the annual meeting of the Midwest Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies at Ohio State University. The paper I gave was in a session on biography', it chastised contemporary academic biographers of eighteenth-century literary figures as "erudite ostriches" who were actively ignoring recent theoretical trends in interdisciplinary scholarship and biographical criticism. I had just published my first book, a biography of an eighteenth-century English novelist, and I was beginning to think seriously about the kinds of issues in the 'poetics' of reading and writing biography that would be the topic of my second book. (1) I was an arrogant young man, an assistant professor of English who knew virtually nothing about 'theory' and precious little about the formal study of biographical narrative. But I wasn't that much out of place. Most of the people who attended and participated in the session were contentious older men, associate and full professors of literature and history uninterested in 'theory' and uninformed about the study of biography--neither of which were intellectual enterprises taken very seriously at that time by eighteenth-century scholars or, for that matter, specialists in other periods in most literature and history departments throughout the U.S.A. (2)

The discussion that followed my paper was (as they say) 'spirited and heated,' consisting primarily of angry defenses of entrenched positions and blustering attacks on real and imagined enemies. The session ended when the chair called on the distinguished historian Louis Gottschalk, an eminence grise in eighteenth-century studies, for whom, after his death several years later, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies' annual book prize was to be named. "Ah, let us allow Professor Gottschalk the last word," the chair said, pointing to the back of the room. Professor Gottschalk rose. "As far as I am concerned," he intoned in his most professorial tone and eminent manner, "there are only two kinds of biographies--good ones and bad ones!" And then he sat down. The room exploded in applause and laughter, after which, convinced that Professor Gottschalk had indeed had the last word, it emptied into a nearby cocktail lounge.

I begin with this personal anecdote for several reasons. First, it gives you some idea who I am and what my stake is in discussions of biography, Victorian or otherwise. Second, it reminds you of the prevailing academic attitude toward the study of biography as little as twenty years ago and one that, as we know, has not entirely disappeared). Third, 1974 was also the year in which was published A.O.J. Cockshut's Truth to Life: the art of biography in the nineteenth century, which, until 1993, was the only contemporary book-length study of Victorian biography (to which, despite its title, Cockshut's book is almost exclusively devoted). (3) Fourth, the professional interest in biography shared by the institutionalized intellectuals in literature and history who participated in that conference session, and the manner in which their mutual discussion was (literally and figuratively) 'closed' by a historian's authoritative remark, can be seen as reenactments of how, according to David Amigoni's Victorian Biography: intellectuals and the ordering of Discourse (1993), "Victorian biography assisted in the construction of those academic disciplines which, since the nineteenth century, have come to be demarcated as 'literature' and 'history'" (1), and how, since then, "the field of historiography [has been characteristically] invoked as a means of critically policing" (154) the circulation (in the discourse of and about biography) of "deviant forms of 'literary' rhetoric which threatened to subvert 'the historic idea'" (137).

Amigoni's book is, in at least several ways, a response to Cockshut's. Truth to Life deals with many of the same biographers (for example, Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Babington Macaulay, John Morley, Samuel Smiles, Leslie Stephen, and Charles Kingsley); similarly situates biography at the intersection of literature and history, as it explores how the "conflict between evidence and interpretation is the great strategic difficulty of biography" (13); and also asserts the central importance of the lives of famous men to the spiritual and cultural formation of the national body politic in Victorian England. …

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