Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Periodical Auto-Biography: Theories and Representations

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Periodical Auto-Biography: Theories and Representations

Article excerpt

Complaining about James Hogg's excessive life-writing, John Wilson, as "an Old Friend with a New Face," writes to "Christopher North," the pseudonymous editor of Blackwood's (who is also John Wilson), asking "how many lives of himself does the swine-herd [actually shepherd] intend to put forth?" Cataloging Hogg's series of "lives" according to the periodicals in which they appeared, the Old Friend notes a "good many lives of him in the Scots Magazine--a considerable number even in your own work, my good sir--the Clydesdale Miscellany was a perfect stye with him--his grunt is in Waugh--he has a bristle in Baldwin" (Blackwood's 10:54, 43). The Old Friend represents this propagation of lives as an effort to transform "a very ordinary common-place animal" into a record of enduring fame: "his death will be remembered like a total eclipse of the sun" (44). He claims that these autobiographical attempts are disseminated through and inadequately regulated by the periodical industry. Lamenting that neither Captain Brown, of the Edinburgh police force, nor Francis Jeffrey, of the Edinburgh Review, will "interfere" in this self-aggrandizement, the Old Friend resolves to bring Hogg to justice with his own counter-life, in which he dismantles Hogg's claims to accomplishment, including several that are not actually in the autobiographies. In response, Wilson, as "Christopher North," intimates the Old Friend might be Hogg himself, or certainly his close friend; he glosses this letter as "banter and good humour" meant to "tick[le]" the public sympathy" for Hogg and thereby "put a few cool hundreds in his pocket" (52).

The Old Friend's indignation is in part about the very textual ambiguity he is exploiting: the recognition that the word "life" had come to mean not just the collective experiences of an individual but the written account, and accounting, of those experiences. His letter insists that the representation of a person, its narration within public discourse, was a defining component of that person's own existence, and North's note underscores the financial implications of that claim. The Old Friend emphasizes this formative function of life-writing in a parodic moment, in which Hogg's multiplying lives drive him to claim credit for the notorious 1806 murder of William Begbie as an aesthetic counter-balance to his own textual instability. The salience of textual lives applied to celebrities of the Romantic period, as Tom Mole has demonstrated, using Byron's own dialectical relation to his print-culture avatar as his prime example. And, indeed, the Old Friend (mis)accuses Hogg of publishing his own two "imitations of Wordsworth" written by Byron, and imagines Hogg physically trying to impersonate Byron: "Does Hogg believe, that if he were to steal Lord Byron's breeches and coat, and so forth, and walk along the Rialto, that the Venetian ladies would mistake him for his lordship?" By contrast, the Old Friend avers with irony, when Hogg attempts an "imitation" of "himself' (not just writing as himself), he achieves a "true specimen of the stye-school of poetry" (49).

Building on Mole's analysis, I contend that periodicals, as a locus of the ideology of possessive individualism, required that this paradigm of celebrity infiltrated the space of the ordinary. In this way, the periodical industry joins with the early nineteenth-century novel in commitments both to individualism and to ordinariness. Nancy Armstrong has demonstrated that "Austen's novels mark the simultaneous modernization of the individual and maturation of the novel (7). Reviewing Austen's Emma, Walter Scott defends and theorizes the novel in the Quarterly Review (1816), as an act of "pleading our own cause" making the "our" ambiguously stand in for readers, novelist, reviewer, and editorial consciousness. Scott uses the adjective "ordinary" eight times in the review, to modify "novelists," "life" (three times), the reader's "experience."; the "probabilities of life,"; "walks of life," and the male reader's "business of life," emphasizing the ordinary life as amenable to literary scripting (Quarterly 14:27, 188-201). …

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