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The center for tomorrow: disciplining Victorian biography.

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. But Amigoni ignores Cockshut, indeed, never mentions him or his work. Now, American scholars are used to being ignored by British critics: Amigoni doesn't cite me either, or virtually any other American student of biographical discourse or Victorian literature and history, and Cockshut evinced a similar case of transatlantic myopia. But we expect the Brits, especially those at the redbrick universities (Amigoni's book began as a dissertation at Liverpool Polytechnic and he's now a lecturer in English Studies at the University of Sunderland), to deal with their anxiety of influence by taking on the established Oxbridge figure in their field (when Truth to Life was published, Cockshut was a Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, and held the University's G. M. Young lectureship in the history of nineteenth-century literature). So why does Amigoni ignore Cockshut?

Although still a Fellow at Hertford, Cockshut is on the verge of retirement now, and his Christian-humanist, non-theoretical, non-Marxist approach to literary study is out of fashion. The real action among the younger generation of British academic critics is in 'cultural materialism,' a school of criticism godfathered by Raymond Williams and midwived by Terry Eagleton, probably the most centrally situated Marxist academic critic in England (Thomas Warton Professor of English and Fellow of St. Catherine's College, Oxford, as well as a regular reviewer for TLS), with whom most aspiring young British academics seem to feel they must ritualistically engage. This is at least one reason why Amigoni's project (to use a favorite term of the British cultural materialists) 'occludes,' closes off from consideration, Cockshut's book, which otherwise might provide it with a perfect foil. Cockshut is not an active participant in the textual politics and professional practices of an interactive group of intellectuals more or less centered in cultural materialism and redbrick universities, a modern-day "fellowship of discourse" (the Foucauldian term with which Amigoni very effectively characterizes the liberal-Comtean intellectuals who, he claims, policed Victorian biography) which, as did its nineteenth-century counterpart, jealously guards access to the privileged academic discourse of literature and history.

Not that Amgigoni's disagreement with Eagleton isn't interesting and informative. It is--and we should pay some attention to it. Amigoni upbraids Eagleton for adopting virtually the same strategy as the liberal-Comtean intellectuals--constructing a "master narrative" of the emergence of the academic discipline of literature in such a way "that an attempt to historicise the literary privileges history" as "the arena of the real source of all power where authentic politics takes shape" (7). Because "Eagleton's narrative is methodologically underdeveloped" about "the relations" among Victorian literature, history, and biography, and about "the forms of authority to which they lay claim" (7), Amigoni contests Eagleton's contention that 'literature' was (or, more nearly, was only) a "substitute religion" that became (in the 1921 government-sponsored Newbolt Report) "a reified, bourgeois grotesque" (5-6), that is, an Arnoldian project of cultural cleansing, through which (as Eagleton, Terence Hawkes, and others have argued) a frightened, capitalist nation hoped to educate its future citizens to eschew socialism. (4)

Rather, Amigoni proposes a counter-narrative, in which 'literature' was (or was also) a resistant, potentially revolutionary discourse that--precisely because it encouraged the rhetorical mixing of high and low styles and forms (and, by implication if not direct statement, the intermingling of classes)--was occluded by 'history,' which the liberal-Comtean fellowship of discourse conceived and practiced as a fact-based capitalist source of cultural and political power, and which Eagleton persists in seeing as the 'authentic,' materialist base for a new socialist authority that will (among other things) replace literary studies with cultural studies.

As I've indicated, this is all interesting and informative, but, except in the sense and to the extent that Amigoni treats texts by Carlyle, Macaulay, Morley, Stephen, et al., as Bites of contestation between 'rhetorical literariness' and 'positivist' (in both the Rankean and Comtean senses) historiography, it doesn't have a lot to do with biography. If Cockshut can be said to reduce Victorian biography to a form of writing in which the strategic manipulation of the "character" (15) of "exceptional men" (18) either conforms with or deviates from the "Evangelical tradition" (86), then Amigoni can be said to reduce it to "a form of writing that played an important pedagogic role in elaborating disciplines that ranked and ordered nineteenth-century cultural discourse" (22). Cockshut's and Amigoni's ideologies, methodologies, and terminologies may be very different, but, curiously, they both end up treating their ostensible subject, Victorian biography, as a temporary site of intra- and inter-generic relations through which they can discuss the subjects they are really interested in--"religious controversies of the nineteenth century" (on which, by 1974, Cockshut had written two other books) and "the current debate about the emergence of the disciplines of 'literature' and 'history' in the nineteenth century" (both these quotations are taken from their books' jacket copy).

As an example of the point I'm making, and of its consequences for the study of biography (which, as my primary interest here, induced John Powell to ask me to contribute an essay to this special issue on "Victorian Biography"), let's take a brief look at how Cockshut and Amigoni handle that vexing Victorian figure, Thomas Carlyle.

Cockshut's Carlyle is the subject of James Anthony Froude's two-volume biography (1882-84), a "dialectical, and, by implication at least, tragic" narrative which defies the traditional "progressive formula" of the "industrious apprentice" who rises from obscurity to become a great man (144-45). Instead, Froude constantly contrasts the public career with the private life: "For him, all Carlyle's vices were domestic, all his virtues effectively operative in the great world" (146). In tracing this strategic contrast, Cockshut stresses three major issues Froude "was called upon to judge" (152): Carlyle's religion, politics, and marriage. I'll focus briefly on the first. "Carlyle was a precursor of the great Victorian enterprise, the attempt to separate the soul of Christianity from its body" (153). Cockshut chastises Froude for not understanding that, according to Cockshut at least, Carlyle failed in this enterprise: "Surely it must be clear, even to those who can accept that dubious set of analogies called the Clothes-Philosophy [in Sartor Resartus], that when the clothes of dogma were stripped away, the naked flesh of Carlyle's belief was something other than Christianity. If Froude understood this he never said so ..." (158).

What's happening here, of course, is that Froude's Carlyle, on the basis of which Cockshut calls its author "the greatest of all our biographers" (152), is being forthrightly evaluated in terms of its awareness and understanding of how Carlyle's 'Christianity' deviates from or conforms to Cockshut's. The key phrase is the extenuating introductory clause, "Surely it must be clear," which seems to appeal (over Carlyle's head and outside or to the side of Cockshut's own religious beliefs and interpretive strategies) to a dominant community of believers and beliefs which shares a 'common-sense' notion of what 'Christianity' includes and excludes. This is Cockshut's characteristic mode of critical practice, whatever or whoever he is discussing in this book. When the biographer's strategic manipulation of his subject's conformity to or deviance from a particular set of religious, political, or personal practices more or less matches that which Cockshut himself would choose to instrumentalize, the biography becomes 'artistic,' that is, it successfully negotiates the "conflict between evidence and interpretation" (13). Thus the concluding two sentences of Cockshut's chapter on Froude's Carlyle." "Froude succeeds as a biographer because he is firm in his strategy and flexible in his tactics. The main lines of interpretation are never obscured by the rush of facts; but exceptional and surprising facts are never suppressed or misrepresented because they might blur the picture's clear outline" (174).

This is hardly a sophisticated approach to the problematic issue of the construction or recognition of a work of art, but it was, until the advent during the last twenty years of various modes of postmodern theory, gender criticism, and cultural materialism, virtually the only approach to the formal study of biography as an aesthetic genre of reading and writing. 1974 was one of the last years when someone could publish a book like Truth to Life and not expect to receive at least some of the kind of response I am adumbrating here. The consensus in critical ideology, methodology, and terminology to which Cockshut was appealing (call it Christian humanism allied with formalist dose reading and non-Marxist historicist scholarship--what I have elsewhere labeled "Cold-War Criticism") (5) has broken down now (to the extent that it is no longer dominant and has been forced to wage a fierce rearguard action). Amigoni's book, to which I shall turn in a moment, is a good example of a contemporary theoretical and materialist approach (influenced directly by M. M. Bakhtin and Michel Foucault and indirectly by Jacques Derrida) which purports to be both more sophisticated in its treatment of aesthetic issues and less consensual about conformation to (established, 'hegemonic') religious, political, and personal beliefs and practices.

For Cockshut, Carlyle is the "overriding authority" (148) who inspires (if not demands) the "sincere discipleship" of "the greatest of all our biographers" (152), a very traditional view of 'the art of biography' that privileges the biographical subject over the biographer and dates back at least to Izaak Walton's Life of Donne (four much revised editions, 1640-75). In Walton's Donne the biographer is (literally and figuratively) his subject's "convert" and "bondman," a "ready and faithful servant" inspired to "duty" and language by the "glorious spirit" and sacred example of his "great Patron." (6) Carlyle is also the crucial figure in Amigoni's book, but not as a biographical subject. Froude and his biography are never mentioned. Rather, it is Carlyle as biographer or mock-biographer who becomes the "hero" (a loaded Carlylean term), indeed, the discursive hero, the rhetorical hero, of Amigoni's (counter-) narrative.

"Re-reading the rhetorical hero in Carlylean biography" is the title of the chapter in which Amigoni establishes "Carlyle's writings," particularly, his historical biography of Cromwell (1845) and Sartor Resartus (first serialized, 1833-34), his mock-biographical exploration of philosophy and religion, as "complex and oppositional rhetorical acts in relation to the emergence of both 'literature' and 'history' as disciplines" (41). In Sartor, Amigoni argues, "Carlyle employs many of the strategies of the German Romantic ironists--fragmentariness, the questioning of authorship, involving the reader as coauthor," and in doing so, effectively "challenge[s] the ordering of early nineteenth-century disciplines [as] described by Raymond Williams" (52). "A deconstructive interrogation of Boswellian biographical conventions" (56), Sartor's famous Clothes-Philosophy, which Cockshut, we remember, found to be a "dubious set of analogies" (158), "undress[ed] historicism" (157) and "exposed" it as "a discursive positive unconscious which occluded the culturally constitutive power of rhetoric" (61). Similarly, "the 'literariness' of Carlyle's Cromwell repudiated the practices of historiographical writing" (62) by (re)presenting Cromwell as a "discursive hero" (65) whose articulation of "the popular' has been rendered inarticulate by the knowledge-producing techniques of elite culture" (65). "Cromwell, emblem of the dumb English [Carlyle writes], is interesting to me by the very inadequacy of his speech'" (66). Thus, for Carlyle, Amigoni contends, Cromwell becomes a much contested discursive hero whose few, gnomic "utterances" are, obviously and powerfully, not self-evident, that is, they must be interpreted if they are to be understood at all (67).

Moreover, this act of interpretation cannot be taken for granted. It must also be defended--against other, more or less reflexively encoded interpretive practices, all of which (including the 'original' interpretation) are thus exposed as "present-tense explication[s]" that have no privileged relationship to the past (69). Consequently, "Interpretive conflict is woven inter the form and content of Carlyle's biography of Cromwell" (67), a discursive dynamic that unleashes rhetorical 'literariness' as an "agitation." Amigoni carefully and convincingly tracks this trope from Carlyle's derivation of "agitator" as a misspelling of the Civil-War term "Adjutator"--one of a group of "legitimate functionaries who sought to secure what was 'strictly their just right'"--to Carlyle's "wareness of the way in which a conservative [mid-nineteenth-century] middle-class audience would encode the word 'agitator': it would resonate with the readings of Chartist 'agitation' derived from contemporary accounts fearful for middle-class property and privilege" (70). Thus it became possible for socialist agitators "selectively to appropriate and mobilize discourse from Carlyle's contradictory rhetoric" (72), and for "a later generation of biographer-intellectuals" J.R. Seeley, Morley, Frederic Harrison, and Stephen) to treat Carlylean literary rhetoric and the "utopian, visionary impulse" for which (in the hands of others) this rhetoric seemed to agitate as a threat to the social order. Accordingly, this potentially subversive rhetorical agitation "needed to be framed by disciplinary protocols," through which "'History' was to be restored to a position of authority in a reordering of discourse" (73-74). The rest of Amigoni's book is a description of how this "fellowship of discourse" used the secular positivism of Auguste Comte, the institutional authority of Oxbridge, various multi-volume prosopographical projects, and the discourse of biography to police the reappearance of 'rhetorical deviance' and to install a master-narrative of progressive political economy, the two 'disciplinary' projects through which this liberal, intellectual elite sought to guide an emerging, democratic, capitalist mass culture.

Now, this is a clever and compelling argument, to which my synopsis here hardly does justice, and I am willing to accept both its premises and its conclusions. But, as a student of biography, especially of the generic poetics of English biographical narrative, I am, nevertheless, uneasy with it. Why? Not only because Amigoni's book ignores Cockshut's, against which it (seemingly unwittingly) presents such an obvious and powerful counterargument, but also because, in at least one crucial instance of occlusion, Amigoni's monograph is so much like Cockshut's. Neither book even mentions, much less discusses, what is (especially in today's academic environment) one of the most important and influential Victorian biographies--Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857, three editions in one year, third edition significantly revises first). Gaskell's Bronte is almost certainly the best biography of a woman and by a woman in English cultural history. Furthermore, as a work by a very good novelist about the life of a great novelist, it is a remarkably well-written, intricately conceived and executed text that not only engages many of the religious, political, cultural, social, and familial issues that Cockshut and Amigoni mutually identify and explore, but that also reinscribes what Amigoni (after Bakhtin) dubs the "novelistic discourse" of Carlylean biography, a "transgressive mingling" of 'high' and 'law' styles that disrupts disciplinary protocols and exposes "the primacy of rhetorical energy" (31).

Cockshut does briefly mention biographies by wives or relatives of famous men, who are identified in his main text (in the conventional Victorian manner) only as Mrs. Kingsley and Mrs. Oliphant (the latter, of course, also a prolific and accomplished novelist). Now, Cockshut is, after all, writing just on the cusp of the emergence of contemporary feminism. When he says that, "In any age, it is the exceptional men who are considered worthy to have their lives written" (18), and that, during the Victorian period, "the assumption remained that the fundamental reason for writing a man's life was that he was admirable" (16), the words to which I have added the stress, we can be fairly sure, are nominally ungendered collective nouns that are always already being regendered by his unchallenged, unexamined patriarchal perspective. But Amigoni should know better--and, indeed, some of his rhetoric indicates that he does. For example, he writes of "the extent to which the liberal-Comtean fellowship of discourse was premised on gendered values in which masculinity was the privileged guardian of true knowledge" and in which certain "forms of literariness" (as in Carlyle's and Macaulay's biographical writings) were treated as "devious 'feminine' rhetoric" demanding the disciplining of history's "'manliness and straightforwardness'" (138-39). This is all very good--as rhetoric. But, in practice, Amigoni never discusses, cites, or even mentions a female biographer or biographical subject, and only cites

briefly (once each) four female scholar-critics, none of whom has established a reputation as a feminist theorist or critic. Despite what he says, Amigoni's practice in this book is as committed to and enveloped by a masculine fellowship of discourse as that of Cockshut, writing twenty years before him, or that of the liberal Comteans, writing more than one hundred years ago. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.

Moreover, it's not as if Amigoni doesn't have some interesting and pertinent feminist criticism on Gaskell's Bronte or on the role of biography in the late-nineteenth-century ordering of the disciplines to which he can (at least) gesture--assuming, for the moment, that a longer 'digression' into either of these topics would not disrupt the monographic integrity of his argument. For example, in a 1992 book that uses a variety of contemporary "critical methods to answer biographical questions, [and thus] to 'read' Elizabeth Gaskell as though she were a poetic text" (11)--a very Carlylean 'rhetorical' methodology, as Amigoni understands it--Felicia Bonaparte claims that Gaskell's Bronte presents its biographical subject as "a typical daemonic heroine" of a Gaskell novel. The biographer transforms a "fierce," "wild," "coarse," "independent," and "ambitious" artist, who wrote under the pen-name Currer Bell, into a "true and tender woman," the 'Charlotte Bronte' who must "discharge her household and filial duties" before she can take the "leisure to sit down and write." In her own life, her fiction, and her Life of Bronte, Gaskell compulsively re-encounters and reproduces the "critical question" for all Victorian women artists: "To what extent and in what way must the artist yield to the woman?" Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, Bonaparte contends, Gaskell transformed Charlotte Bronte into a "domestic angel" more or less in her (Gaskell's) own image and in that of her (Gaskell's) fictional characters, all of whom, like the biographical subject of Gaskell's Charlotte Bronte, ultimately silence their daemons by marrying and thus forsaking the passionate and ambitious danger of feminist independence (232-53).

Amigoni's argument could have benefited from a consideration of Bonaparte's, if only because she demonstrates another mode of "transgressive mingling," more or less contemporaneous with Carlyle's, that deploys "novelistic discourse" in order to disrupt disciplinary protocols, generic conventions, and gender constructions, and that participates in yet another alternative tradition of oppositional rhetoric--a feminist tradition that we can trace through, for example, Virginia Woolf's essays in biographical theory and criticism as well as her mock-biographical narratives Orlando (1928) and Flush (1933). Indeed, Woolf is an especially interesting figure in the context of both Cockshut's and Amigoni's books, each of which gives substantial attention to her father, Leslie Stephen, as the first editor of the Dictionary of National Biography or as a contributor to the English Men of Letters series. Cockshut treats Woolf only in passing, as her father's daughter and a source of information about his life. Amigoni never mentions her. Yet, in certain ways, Woolf felt and responded to the liberal Comteans' appropriation of Victorian biography more personally and powerfully than any other person in English cultural history. For example, she wrote in her diary (3 December 1923) that her father's involvement in "the DNB crushed [her brother Adrian's] life out before he was born. It gave me a twist of the head too. I shouldn't have been so clever, but I should have been more stable, without that contribution to the history of England" (171). Moreover, in Orlando her protean, unstable biographical narrator speculates that, "The truth length of a person's life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter, of dispute. Indeed it is a difficult business--this time-keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts" (305-06, stress added). As these (and many other) passages in her writing suggest, the biographical and mock-biographical enterprises in which Woolf was almost constantly engaged throughout her career can be approached as an alternative dictionary of national biography, that is, as an oppositional lexicon of life-writing that rhetorically and artistically "disorders" the abusive structures of traditional cultural and generic authority, such as "the history of England" and "the true length of a person's life" or Evangelical Christianity and (various) masculine fellowships of discourse.

Amigoni could also have learned something about a feminist approach to the transatlantic role that biography played in the late-nineteenth-century academic ordering of the disciplines from a 1991 article by Valerie Ross. Ross contends that "the repression of biography in literary studies" since "the formation of departments of literature [in the American university] during the third quarter of the nineteenth century" has been "both generic and gendered, expressing a condensation of institutional anxieties about women, class, popular culture, affect, social and domestic existence, and other 'outside' challenges to institutional literary authority" (137). Ross also posits that the postmodern expression of the biographical in academic discourse can be remapped as "historiographies of the individual subject," marking "a path to the ways in which these 'othered' subjects [traditionally, "prodigious, monstrous, deviant, or marginalized"] negotiated, embraced, rejected, created, and transformed the rules and behaviors prescribed for them and us" (158). Ross is suggesting here how a contemporary student of biography can move from merely gesturing toward "the popular and gendered constructions of feminine desire" (Amigoni, 140) to actually enacting, in one's own critical practice, what Amigoni seems to be calling for but does not himself produce--an "'interpretive rhetoric' [that] is held to be the Other of [a] 'criticism'" dominated by a male-gendered, centrally situated fellowship of discourse (Amigoni, 140). (7)

Amigoni's book induces yet another occlusion, an especially ironic one which is also, I think, symptomatic of his approach. He never mentions James Field Stanfield's An Essay on the Study Composition of Biography (1813), which, Richard Altick claims, is "the only considerable study of biography as an art that the [nineteenth] century produced" (184), and which was, it is generally believed, the first published book-length study of biographical narrative in the English language. (8) This occlusion is ironic because Stanfield's book was published in, of all places, Sunderland, "the Durham sea-coast town" (Altick, 184) where Amigoni now teaches. Furthermore, Stanfield was just the kind of marginalized, uninstitutionalized British intellectual Amigoni hankers after: "an Irishman who was educated for the priesthood in France, went to sea in a slave ship, and returned to England--one of three survivors of the voyage--as a dedicated abolitionist," and "later ... became an actor and the manager of a traveling theatrical company in Yorkshire" (Altick, 184).

This irony is compounded by another. Stanfield's attempt to posit an "inductive table" of "comprehensive principles" through which he can "generalize the spirit of biography" (322-23) is premised to a large extent on what he calls "professional biography," a particular "species of biography" designed "to describe, not only the professional reputation of the character [of the biographical subject], but also, the means by which that reputation was attained" (18-19). This "professional biography," based on what Stanfield terms "the doctrine of PURSUITS" (311-12), was precisely the kind of biographical narrative which mid-Victorian life-writing was to develop in response to the hero worship of the emergent professional middle class and which Amigoni's liberal-Comtean fellowship of discourse was to co-opt as the primary discursive site for its ordering of the academic disciplines. Because Amigoni treats biography as a discourse more or less released from its moorings in the (contestatory) history and poetics of its generic "remarks" (a Derridean term invoking the theoretically "edgeless" but nevertheless culturally constructed conventions temporarily and indeterminately demarcating the boundaries between and among generic formations), (9) he is not alert to the ways in which his approach occludes a more richly textured description of the discursive situatedness of biographical narrative, a description that would include, among other things, a consideration of the formal study of English biography, especially by more or less contemporaneous critics whose work contributed significantly to the generic and cultural environment in which Victorian biography was produced and consumed.

Another opportunity Amigoni misses (and then I'll give him some rest and move on to my conclusion) is to contextualize this "professional biography" and its professional, middle-class readership in terms of what Foucault (one of Amigoni's main theoretical sources) calls "bio-power," which was, if we can extrapolate from Foucault's argument, the motive force of this professional biography. Briefly, Foucault uses the term "bio-power to designate what [from the middle of the eighteenth century] brought life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations and made knowledge-power an agent of the transformation of human life." In the nineteenth century, as the body politic became increasingly middle-class, "political power ... assigned itself the task of administering life," and thus induced--through its stress on "the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing, and migration"--"an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations." Foucault continues: "This bio-power was without question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism," which "would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production" (125-26, 159-43).

Foucault's notion of "bio-power" helps us see why (in addition to its location at the intersection of 'literature' and 'history') biography became a privileged site for the liberal-Comtean ordering of the academic disciplines. Appropriated by the nation-state of industrial capitalism as an articulation of its knowledge-power and as a highly visible reinscription of its bio-power, Victorian biography explicitly calculates the birth, longevity, health, housing, migration, and occupation of "representative men and women" (to demasculinize the title of Froude's famous mid-century essay calling for a whole series of morally heroic lives depicted in 'professional biography,' as Stanfield meant the phrase)--and in so doing specifically seeks "to ensure the strength, endurance, and secular proliferation" of the middle-class body (Foucault, 125). This is perhaps the main reason why, I would contend, the liberal Comteans tried to police the body politic through biography: because the motive force of bio-power, expressed as the preservation of the middleclass body within its disciplinary institutions, was driving their individual and collective intellectual projects, and, not merely coincidentally, propelling those projects with and toward the conceptual practice of 'embodiment,' perhaps the most ancient and persistent theme in English biography. (10)

I began this essay with a personal anecdote about an annual meeting of a learned society, an anecdote that illustrated how, twenty years ago, the study of biography was an underdeveloped, interdisciplinary subfield in which, characteristically, anti-theoretical historians dominated discussions with anti-theoretical literary critics. In a moment, I'll close with another little autobiographical narrative dealing with that same academic conference. But, first, I want to say what a pleasure it has been for me to pick on Amigoni--not because I enjoy being a bully or because I believe he has written a bad book, but because, as recently as a decade ago, I would have been pleased to welcome anyone writing as intelligently and interestingly about biography as Amigoni has done. Yet, as I have tried to show throughout this essay, and as (I trust) the other contributions to this special issue on "Victorian Biography" will reveal, Amigoni is not now the only interesting new arrival in the house of biographical study. Consequently, I can indulge in the luxury of extenuating and recontextualizing his provocative approach without fear (well, without too much fear) that I will be seen as an inhospitable host. Amigoni really has written a fine book and I take much that is valuable away from it, including some quite useful and insightful arguments I have not discussed here--for example, his use of Bakhtin's concept of "double-voiced rhetoric" to characterize all biographical narratives as discursive formations in which one 'voice,' that of the biographical subject, 'speaks' through another, that of the biographer (22-23), an enunciative transaction which, I might add, is always also reversing direction. Indeed, for this and other reasons, I am delighted to have had the opportunity to use Amigoni's work as the 'motive force' of this essay.

But, now, to occlude myself. Some weeks before I gave my "Erudite Ostrich" paper at the 1974 Ohio State conference (which was, I remind you, the first academic meeting I ever attended), I took a nap late one afternoon. I awoke to uncertain twilight shadows coming in the window and a ringing telephone on my night table. I picked up the phone. The speaker identified himself as the organizer of the conference, calling to discuss housing for the meeting. "Can I make you a reservation," he asked, "at the Center for tomorrow?" I broke into a sweat. My God, I remember thinking, I'm actually living out the classic academic nightmare, the one where you're not prepared for the class or the public talk because you haven't read the book or written the paper. What happened? When I went to sleep, I still had weeks to finish the thing, and I know I'm not dreaming. "I-I'm sorry," I said, "I can't possibly have the paper done by tomorrow." The organizer laughed. "No, no," he said, "that's the name of the conference facility here at Ohio State--the Center for tomorrow. It's funny," he added, "how many people get that confused."

Besides instancing the simultaneous necessity and instability of context for interpretive understanding, a basic premise of postmodern theoretical inquiry which was anticipated (as Amigoni shows) by Carlyle's 'agitating' rhetoric, this anecdote also illustrates how unprepared I was, both at the time of the phone call and weeks later at the conference session, to write a paper that occluded the historian's conclusive statement before he could make it. I believe I'm readier now, except, of course, he has evaded my long-delayed response by doing what all life-writing subjects inevitably do. Nevertheless, I can (to use a Waltonian word) "reanimate" him here, in the sense and to the extent that he can be said to 'live again" in the language of this article, to be a ghostly presence/absence haunting still land probably always) my study of biography. In this respect, at least, the historian and I continue to share an intellectually institutionalized concern for the future of biographical study--a Center for Tomorrow, if you will, which is, after all, not very different from that other, earlier Center for Tomorrow Amigoni calls the liberal-Comtean fellowship of discourse. For the historian and I are also trying to discipline Victorian biography--"to regulate the production of new statements relating to the formation and direction of public opinion" (Amigoni, 94)--and we still share with Matthew Arnold, as did the liberal Comteans, the recognition "that biography, as the centre of an intertextual network, can authoritatively shape reading relations" (Amigoni, 140). This is not because students of biography are especially avaricious, but because, as disciplinary intellectuals practicing our profession in academic (and other culturally privileged) institutions, we cannot work and dream in any other way. It's as if we are always just waking from a twilight sleep, hoping the phone will ring, and the Organizer will ask us, "Can I make you a reservation at the Center for Tomorrow?"


(1) John Cleland: images of a life (1974), and Recognizing Biography (1987).

(2) In preparation for From Puzzles to Portraits (1970), James L. Clifford interviewed a number of distinguished British biographers in order "to find out how aware they were of what they were doing." He discovered that "they recognized no general rules and thought very little about critical theories." His experience led him to conclude tentatively: "As one friend later remarked to me, apparently life-writing is the last major discipline uncorrupted by criticism" (100-02). Clifford was my dissertation director at Columbia.

(3) I am aware that Cockshut is also contributing an article to this special issue of Victorian Prose. Our appearance in the same venue more or less reproduces the situation at the Ohio State conference, where one of the "erudite ostriches" whom I discussed was also one of the session's speakers. I take an ambiguous (dis)comfort in this coincidence.

(4) Amigoni builds on the arguments in Eagleton's Literary Theory and Ian Small's Conditions fir Criticism. Hawkes also discusses the rise of English Studies and the Newbolt Report in the context of the rise of socialism and the Russian Revolution, in That Shakespeherian Rag pp. 11-16. See also Brian Doyle, English and Englishness, pp. 41-67.

(5) Counter-Intelligence: Cold-War Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies, ELH, 57 (1990), 63-99.

(6) See Walton, Lives, passim, but esp. pp. 21, 81, 85, 89, and Epstein, Recognizing Biography pp. 13-33.

(7) We could elaborate at great length, of course, on the many books and article in feminist, postmodern, postcolonialist, and New-Historicist theory and criticism bearing directly or indirectly on Amigoni's argument about biography and the ordering of the disciplines. But I'll confine myself (briefly) to one more example, a 1986 article entitled "Professing Gibbon: The Autobiographical Profession of Literary Study," which intersects various fife-writing projects with the emergence of English study in the late-nineteenth century and which devotes several pages to Frederic Harrison, one of Amigoni's subjects, as a man of letters who brought Comtean positivism to bear upon the task of textual editing and "whose work (on Gibbon in particular and eighteenth-century studies in general) can be considered constitutive and symbolic of the professionalization of literary study" (128-32, esp. 131). You'll find this article under my name in the list of Works Cited below.

(8) But see Cafarelli, Prose in the Age Poets (203n74): "Stanfield's Essay ... is sometimes erroneously cited as the earliest full-length treatise on biography; probably that distinction belongs to Isaac D'Israeli's A Dissertation on Anecdotes (London: Kearsley and Murray, 1793)." Actually, both Stanfield and D'Israeli were preceded by Roger North's General Preface to his Lives of his brothers, written between 1718 and 1722, which remained in manuscript until 1984, when Peter Millard introduced and edited a reliable text. Stanfield's Essay is excerpted in Biography as an Art, ed. Clifford, pp. 60-71, and discussed in Altick, passim, Hart, Lockhart as Romantic Biographer, passim, Cafarelli, pp. 23, 41, 200, 203, and 221, and Epstein, Recognizing Biography, pp. 143-52.

(9) Derrida, "Law of Genre," 212-13, 221, 227-28.

(10) See Epstein, Recognizing Biography, passim, but esp. chaps. 2 and 6, for a fuller exploration of the theme of 'embodiment' in the generic poetics of English biography.

Works Cited

Altick, Richard D. Lives and Letters: a history of literary biography in England and America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Amigoni, David. Victorian Biography: intellectuals and the ordering of discourse. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Biography as an Art: selected criticism 1560-1960. Ed. James L. Clifford. Galaxy pb. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Bonaparte, Felicia. The Gypsy-Bachelor of Manchester: the life of Mrs. Gaskell's demon. Victorian Literature and Culture Series. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

Cafarelli, Annette Wheeler. Prose in the Age of Poets: Romanticism and biographical narrative from Johnson to DeQuincey. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.

Clifford, James L. From Puzzles to Portraits: problems of a literary biographer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970.

Cockshut, A.O.J. Truth to Life: the art of biography in the nineteenth century London: Collins, 1974.

Derrida, Jacques. "The Law of Genre." Trans. Avital Ronell. Glyph, 7(1980), 208-32.

Doyle, Brian. English and Englishness. New Accents Series. London and New York: Routledge, 1989.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: an introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

Epstein, William H. "Counter-Intelligence: Cold-War Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies." ELH, 57(1990), 63-99.

--. John Cleland: images of a Life. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1974.

--. "Professing Gibbon: The Autobiographical Profession of Literary Study." The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, 27:2(1986), 115-40.

--. Recognizing Biography Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. 1976; 1978; New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Froude, James Anthony. "Representative Men" (1850). In Short Studies on Great Subjects. New York: Charles Scribner, 1869. Pp. 465-85.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Ed. Alan Shelston. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

Hart, Francis R. Lockhart as Romantic Biographer. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Hawkes, Terence. That Shakespeherian Rag: essays on a critical process. London and New York: Methuen, 1986.

North, Roger. General Preface & Life of Dr John North. Ed. Peter Millard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Ross, Valerie. "Too Close to Home: Repressing Biography, Instituting Authority." In Contesting the Subject: essays in the postmodern theory and practice of biography and biographical criticism. Ed. William H. Epstein. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991. Pp. 135-65.

Small, Ian. Conditions for Criticism: authority, knowledge, and literature in the late nineteenth century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Stanfield, James Field. An Essay on the Study and Composition of Biography. Sunderland: George Garbutt, 1813.

Walton, Izaak. The Lives of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, Robert Sanderson. World's Classics. London: Humphry Milford and Oxford, 1927.

Woolf, Virginia. A Moment's Liberty: the shorter diary. Ed. Anne Olivier Bell. London: Hogarth, 1990.

--. Flush: a biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933.

--. Orlando: a biography. A Harvest Book. 1928; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, n.d.
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Author:Epstein, William H.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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