Cold Print: Professing Authorship in Anthony Trollope's an Autobiography.(Critical Essay)
Aguirre, Robert D., Biography
Trollope's An Autobiography is an anomaly, a work of self-representation best known for its frank view of the literary marketplace: "Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much" (107). (1) Such disquieting candor has led critics to posit not one autobiography but two-the real thing and a poor relation. The first tells a familiar Victorian story of a sensitive and self-conscious child's journey through poverty and social exclusion. Like Dickens, whose biography he had read (Trollope, Letters 2: 557), Trollope here succumbs to the "famous Victorian novelist hysteria syndrome," in which authors "rewrite the past with themselves as lonely victims" (Sutherland, "Unhappy" 20). The second turns to the idols of the marketplace: profits, markets, and relations with publishers. At points, the narrative yields to mere calculation: pages per day, novels per year, and profits per novel.2 Famously, this autobiography includes a table listing all Trollope's works and their profits down to the pence, a wry turn on publishers' advertisements that featured the prices for each novel in an author's oeuvre. (3) (Such an advertisement and the table are reproduced on page 614-15.) Early reviewers were appalled. One complained that in the author's "needless crudity of phrase" the "literary ideal is brutalized indeed" ("Anthony" 47), and Henry James wrote that Trollope, lacking an aesthetic system, "never troubled his head . . . with theories about the nature of his business" (1332). More recently, Mary Hamer remarks that "the scrupulous arithmetical detail in which his output is planned and recorded owes something to a foible of personality" (189), and Peter Allen observes that Trollope seems "obsessed with the issue of his own social advancement, and delighted to describe the mechanical stratagems he has employed to obtain it" (4). (4)
Trollope's accounting, however, does not signal the failure of autobiography, but a recognition of its inseparability from the material conditions of authorship itself. For Victorian writers, these conditions included the system of copyright, beginning with the Copyright Amendment Act of 1842, which extended the period of protection to forty-two years from publication or seven years from the death of the author, whichever was longer; the development of a "star-system" guaranteeing certain writers a commanding market share; (5) and the formation of literary societies that helped authors establish a collective identity as literary professionals. An Autobiography explores these and other issues to demystify the economic milieu in which authors lived and moved as professionals. Moreover, the text's focus on the self as a figure of writing and the owner of writing constitutes an important revision of dominant Victorian middle-class autobiographical practice, with its emphasis on autonomy, interiority, and conversi on tropes--as much as, though in a different key, the working-class autobiographies examined by critics such as Regenia Gagnier. The critique focuses on the dilemma of newly professionalized authors--free to create fictional worlds, yet also contingent, forced to submit to economic forces beyond their control. Its embodiment in a work of autobiography also raises important questions about the genre's status as a record of the writer's life, questions that go to the heart of the author's relation to the work. (6)
Post-structuralist work on the status of the author has its origin in two now famous essays: Roland Barthes's "The Death of the Author" (1968) and Michel Foucault's "What is an Author?" (1969). In a flash of bravado, Barthes declares writing to be "the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin . . . that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing" (142). Questioning the author's status as an autonomous genius, Barthes overturns a series of hierarchical oppositions, privileging "writing" over "voice," "text" over "work,'' "destination" over "origin," "scriptor" over "author." Only language speaks, not the author (143), and when narration begins, "the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death" (142). Foucault, by contrast, argues that we must nor cancel out the author, but rather "seize its functions, its intervention in discourse, and its system of dependencies" (138). Foucault traces the relationship between author and discourse to eighteenth-century economic and legal shifts that, along with the legal codification of discourse as intellectual property, led to the regulation of writing itself. "Speeches and books," he writes, "were assigned real authors . . . only when the author became subject to punishment and to the extent that his discourse was considered transgressive" (124). Foucault thus focuses attention on the legal and economic conditions for authorship, and on "the transgressive properties always intrinsic to the act of writing" (125).
Foucault looms over recent attempts to situate the author in economics and law. Mark Rose, for example, suggests that the author is at bottom a "proprietor... the originator and therefore the owner of a special kind of commodity, the 'work"' (54). Like Foucault, Rose traces the emergence of the modern author to the eighteenth century, when a combination of philosophical and legal developments led to the recognition of an author's words as property. The idea that authors might "own" their words is already latent in Locke's axiom, in the Two Treatises on Government (1690), that "every Man has a Property in his own Person" (305). In his analysis of the landmark copyright case of Donaldson v. Becket (1774), Rose argues that the nineteenth-century understanding of the author emerged from a fusion of enlightenment concepts of individual particularity with "the romantic elaboration of such notions as originality, organic form, and the work of art as the expression of the unique personality of the artist." Philosophi cal and aesthetic ideas of originality constituted "the necessary completion of the legal and economic transformation that occurred during the copyright struggle" (76). Similarly, Martha Woodmansee writes that it is in the "interplay between legal, economic, and social questions on the one hand and philosophical and esthetic ones on the other" that "critical concepts and principles as fundamental as that of authorship achieved their modern form" (440). (7)
The nineteenth century also witnessed "the crystallization of the professional ideal as a separate entity" (Perkin, Origins 428), as throughout the period, an array of professions were codified and regulated.8 In 1828 the Institution of Civil Engineers was formed, later splintering into the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (1847), of Naval Architects (1860), and of Electrical Engineers (1871). The Society of Accountants was created in Edinburgh in 1854; by 1880, five English associations combined to form the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (Burn 285). In 1858, the Medical Act created basic standards for the profession of medicine. And in 1884, Walter Besant established the Society of Authors, which sought to advance the profession of authorship through "(1) the maintenance, definition, and defence of literary property; (2) the consolidation and amendment of the laws of domestic copyright; (3) the promotion of international copyright" (216). As Besant put it, no one calls that "barri ster unworthy of the Bar who expects large fees in proportion to his name and his ability; nor does any one call that painter a tradesman whose price advances with his reputation" (226). For along with the legal protections of copyright, professionalization helped transform authors into proprietors who are free to sell their intellectual property--their writing--to the highest bidder. Indeed, what binds professions together is an ideology about work, "the degree to which they, as occupations rather than classes, have gained the organized power to control themselves the terms, conditions and content of their work in the settings where they perform their work" (Friedson 22).
Yet, protecting the "terms, conditions and content" of labor is only necessary in a society that threatens the control over production. In a defensive strategy designed to secure the value of their specialized knowledge, the professions organized themselves into disciplines, defining their own identities, discursive strategies, and internal practices against both the general public and other disciplines. For "based on human capital," professional society is "enhanced by strategies of closure" (Perkin, Rise 2). According to Edward Said, this means that within the context of the professions, "You have to pass through certain rules of accreditation, you must learn the rules, you must speak the language, you must master the idioms and you must accept the authorities of the field . . . to which you want to contribute" (141). If disciplines control what is said and who says it, the huddling behavior of the professions is therefore a strategy for preserving the right to speak.
In the post-Enlightenment period particularly, autobiography plays an essential role in producing professional subjectivities. Both Wordsworth and Carlyle, for example, wrote at a moment in cultural history when literature had become "an exchange of texts for money between parties with no extra-textual knowledge of each other" (Corbett 40). As the number of writers increased, and the relations between readers and authors became more impersonal, authors sought to establish their uniqueness through writing autobiographical accounts. But autobiography, of course, produces the very individuality it purports only to …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Cold Print: Professing Authorship in Anthony Trollope's an Autobiography.(Critical Essay). Contributors: Aguirre, Robert D. - Author. Journal title: Biography. Volume: 25. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 569+. © 2008 University of Hawaii Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.