Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reading Romantic Autobiography

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Reading Romantic Autobiography

Article excerpt

The flourishing of autobiographical writing in something like its modern form--a continuous narrative of individual self-representation - has often been linked, chronologically and thematically (or ideologically), with "Romanticism." Looking closely at the intersection of a genre with a literary environment suggests that the relation between them is never one of equation, as some influential histories of autobiography have claimed. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century accounts of autobiography's place in the world of letters (such as the essays by Isaac D'Israeli and John Foster, along with the remarks in the review periodicals) indicate that "Romantic autobiography" is not to do with aligning specific texts with Romantic ideologies of self-presence and individualism; rather, the term describes a tension in the literary field between the idea of the private individual and the processes of publication and circulation. Rouseau's Confessions are a prominent site for the negotiation of these tensions, as is the characteristic Romantic-period accusation that autobiographical writing is "egotistical." Understanding Romantic Autobiography is ultimately a matter of considering how texts appear and circulate in the literary domain, the world of readers, writers, and commentators.


What reasons might there be for looking at the early nineteenth century as a moment when autobiographical writing exerted a significant pressure on the world of letters? For that matter, what would it mean to speak in such terms? The latter question recognizes the problems shadowing any attempt to talk about Romantic-period literature in terms of genre, a concept that tends to stratify the messiness of a burgeoning print culture in the interests of producing legible literary histories-the historical novel, the greater Romantic lyric. One set of answers to the former question worked very much on that model: narrating the history of autobiography as a genre, they located its decisive evolutionary stage-its declaration of independence, as it were-around the turn of the nineteenth century. In Rousseau's Confessions, Wordsworth's Prelude, and Goethe's Poetry and Truth [Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit], says one of the best of these histories, "autobiography becomes a conscious genre ... in the sense that it serves a purpose all its own of self-discovery and reconciliation with self." (1) That is, it simultaneously declares its own autonomy and the autonomy of its author-subject. In versions like this one the story of Romantic autobiography is founded on an inviting congruence between Romanticism's persistent thematizing of individual consciousness and the genre's formal preoccupation with self-expression. Wordsworth presides over this marriage of theme and literary form--

      Anon I rose
   As if on wings, and saw beneath me stretched
   Vast prospect of the world which I had been,
   And was; and hence this song, which like a lark
   I have protracted.... (2)

-just as he rules over the most powerful of all the theories of Romanticism in which the story of the self plays a governing role, M.H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism. (3) The growth of a poet's mind happens concurrently with the development of a literary career largely dedicated to autobiography. In the light of the Prelude-a light hidden from all but a few contemporaries, but nevertheless pervading Romantic literature, Godlike in its invisible ubiquity-the character of early nineteenth-century literature could easily look markedly or even essentially autobiographical.

Needless to say, this approach to answering our first question has been severely complicated by a series of theoretical and scholarly developments. (It's unnecessary to rehearse these in any detail here, but the most important ones have probably been a thorough problematizing of "autobiography" as a distinct and usable category; philosophical, political and rhetorical challenges to the idea of autonomous individuality and textual self-construction; and suspicions about the representativeness of canonical but atypical documents like The Prelude, along with a hugely expanded sense of what "Romantic" literature actually consisted of. …

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