Gender Politics and the Study of Nineteenth-Century Autobiography

By Machann, Clinton | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Gender Politics and the Study of Nineteenth-Century Autobiography


Machann, Clinton, The Journal of Men's Studies


This article discusses ideologically-slanted reactions to the study of British Victorian autobiography, a "male-dominated" literary genre, as an example of the "social agendas" currently operative in the study of the humanities. It focuses on the publication and reception of the book The Genre of Autobiography in Victorian Literature (1994a). Literary autobiography for the Victorians was a referential, non-fiction genre, which, with conventional pressures applied through historicity and verifiability, required the conflation of mental or spiritual (inner) development and the (outer) development of career and reputation based on publications (along with other public works). The field of men's studies opens up a space within which male writers like, the Victorian autobiographers can be studied unapologetically from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

Since the beginning of my academic career as a college teacher of English about a quarter of a century ago, one of my chief research interests has been nineteenth-century British autobiography.(1) Over the years I have published studies of canonical works of recognized literary value, including John Henry Newman's Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864/1968), John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (1873/1969), John Ruskin's Praeterita (1885-1889/1904), and Edmund Gosse's Father and Son (1907/1963); works that have been valued less for their artistic merit than for the insights they provide into the lives of their famous authors, including Harriet Martineau's Autobiography (1877/1983), Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography (1883/1950), and Charles Darwin's Autobiography (1887/1969); and works that have been relatively neglected by modem scholars but that I have found to be interesting for various reasons, including Robert Dale Owen's Threading My Way: An Autobiography (1874/1967), Walter Besant's Autobiography (1902), Herbert Spencer's An Autobiography (1904), Francis Galton's Memories of My Life (1908), and John Addington Symonds' Memoirs (1984). (It is not unusual for autobiographies to be published posthumously, but Symonds', which he himself suppressed because it deals frankly with his homosexuality, remained unpublished for nearly a century after his death.)

My overall goal has been to analyze the Victorian autobiography as a literary genre--constructed by Victorian writers and readers--while fully recognizing the inherent ambiguities involved. A genre may be relatively precisely or imprecisely defined by various linguistic and discursive codes, may be more or less inclusive, may vary even among Western cultures, and may change through the course of time so that old texts are categorized in recently defined genres. Nevertheless, the most productive literary study is often concerned in some way with the tension between the individuality of a text and its formal genre. The most comprehensive discussion of my project is found in The Genre of Autobiography in Victorian Literature (1994a), where I consider all of the works mentioned above with the exception of Symonds' Memoirs, which I discussed in a subsequent article.

Although I was finally able to place the book with a major university press, my experience with its reception, from the first in-house reviews by potential publishers to the post-publication reviews in several scholarly journals, has made me acutely aware of what has been referred to as the "social agendas" currently operative in the study of the humanities in American academic circles (Ellis, 1997). Because these social agendas are most intimately connected with issues of gender, interactions with critics of my work have led me to continually reexamine and more sharply define my own views toward the emerging field of men's studies. In describing my own experience with the autobiography project in this essay, I will engage what I take to be some crucial issues concerning the position of gender studies in general and men's studies or the study of "masculinities" in particular within the humanities.

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