The genre of autobiography has become a scene of constant questioning and debating ever since critics began to try to define it, and analyze it seriously in the late fifties. Autobiography remains today an elusive term that every critic needs to define for himself before he can start doing critical work in that field. Eugene L. Stelzig in his latest book The Romantic Subject of Autobiography: Rousseau and Goethe approaches these issues by focusing on two literary giants that left an immense legacy for the development of Romanticism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and by analyzing the formation of subjectivity and the rise of the modern self in their works.
Stelzig is a well-established scholar in both fields of Romanticism and autobiography studies (he appears regularly in such journals as A/B Auto/Biography Studies, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, European Romantic Review, and The Wordsworth Circle), and the book’s comprehensiveness in terms of autobiography theory certainly attests to that. Indeed, all the familiar names one would expect to find between the covers of a book focusing on autobiography criticism—James Olney, Paul John Eakin, Susanna Egan, Philippe Lejeune, to name only those that first come to my mind—are mentioned in Stelzig’s book, though sometimes only in passing. As a result, a reader already familiar with Rousseau, Goethe, or Romanticism who picks up the book and finds that further research is required in the field of autobiography will find in the Works Cited a quasi-exhaustive “who’s who” of autobiography studies, spanning the whole gamut from Roy Pascal and George Gusdorf’s works in the late fifties and early sixties to the latest theoretical insights by Eakin (up to 1999).
In the introduction, the book’s scope is clearly defined as limited to the genre of Romantic autobiography, thus avoiding the usual pitfalls associated with more general discussions of autobiography. This genre Stelzig defines as “a type of confessional narrative of the self in the later eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries that, as a retrospective account and interpretation of how the writer’s identity and personality were formed, artfully merges reality and imagination, the historiographic and the poetic poles of narrative” (8). Drawing partly on Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self, Stelzig sets up his overarching argument on the understanding that the rise of autobiography towards the end of the eighteenth century coincided with the rise of the modern self. He explains in the introduction that the following six chapters—three on Rousseau and three on Goethe—are built around the assumption that “Rousseau and Goethe are foundational figures of Romantic and modern autobiography whose life narratives are instrumental and paradigmatic for the emergence of modern subjectivity in European literature and culture in the later eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries” (20). The introduction not only positions Rousseau and Goethe’s autobiographies as foremost examples of the Romantic self in writing, but also includes Wordsworth’s Prelude in the same category, affording it the same importance. And that is perhaps the biggest downfall of the book. It is deplorable that after establishing Rousseau, Goethe, and Wordsworth as the holy trinity of Romantic autobiography in a very convincing manner, even creating a sense of anticipation in the reader for further links to be drawn between this trio, Stelzig chooses to forego completely a thorough analysis of Wordsworth, ruling that because The Prelude was published much later and only acquired recognition in the Victorian era, his work “played no significant historical role, unlike Rousseau’s and Goethe’s influential life narratives, in the development of modern autobiography” (15). This may well be, and it would be justification enough if Stelzig’s sole endeavor was to analyze the historical development of modern autobiography, but such is not the case. Stelzig’s aim, which he fulfills well, is also to trace the rise and development of the Romantic subject in the autobiographical works of two major authors, Rousseau and Goethe, and show how these life narratives are “paradigmatic for the emergence of modern subjectivity.” Such a project would definitely have afforded, at the very least, a chapter on Wordsworth’s Prelude, with perhaps mention of relevant limitations as to the immediate influence of the work, even if it would have meant cutting material from other chapters, cuts which, in certain lengthy instances, would have been welcome.
In his readings and analyses of Rousseau’s works, Stelzig often attempts to go against the grain of the most conventional and popular interpretations of Rousseau. He explains how limiting oneself to the most obvious approach to The Confessions will result in a reading that is “incomplete, partial, and misleading if pursued too exclusively and in isolation from other approaches” (32). The reader finds that this makes for more enlightening and entertaining reading than one would usually expect from yet another take on, for example, the spanking episode. In the first chapter Stelzig discusses the different motives behind Rousseau’s Confessions. He makes clear that though The Confessions can be read effortlessly as a self-justifying, reputation-saving apology, there are also many philosophical and anthropological motivations underlying the text. Stelzig does an excellent job of pointing out the philosophical assumptions that inform The Confessions and draws a clear link between The Confessions and Rousseau’s more doctrinal writings such as The Discourses and Emile. In the second chapter Stelzig offers the reader an extended treatment of the infamous part 1 of The Confessions. Though I found the chapter somewhat longish, and at times leaving too much space to psycho-biographical descriptive readings of Rousseau’s personality, I also found Stelzig’s analysis of the famous episodes surprisingly refreshing. Surprising because, as Stelzig notes, part 1 has already seen much traffic from critics of autobiography, Philippe Lejeune and Jean Starobinsky foremost among them. What Stelzig does best in this chapter is to read Rousseau’s Confessions through Rousseau’s other writings. In other words, the master theorist of Stelzig’s reading is Rousseau himself. In the third and last chapter focusing on Rousseau Stelzig turns to Rousseau’s Dialogues in what almost reads as a salvage operation. How successful that operation is remains debatable, but the chapter is nonetheless well worth the read in that it shows clearly the broader motives and purposes that Rousseau entertained throughout the writing of his autobiographical texts. As Stelzig concludes, “the essence of [Rousseau’s] being was a function of how others looked at him, and his three autobiographies are a thoroughly calculated attempt to control and manipulate their views” (125).
In the following chapters Stelzig turns to Goethe and his major autobiography Poetry and Truth. It seems that Stelzig tries to do more than offer a new analysis and interpretation of Goethe’s autobiography. Indeed, the fourth chapter, which I found to be the most satisfying of the three focusing on Goethe, reads as an overview of Goethe’s motives, goals, and genesis for writing Poetry and Truth. It is necessary scholarship for as Stelzig mentions: “even contemporary students and theorists of autobiography seem to know the book more by reputation than through actual reading” (129). Stelzig points to Goethe’s interest in history and his “growing awareness of his own life as historical” (130) as important elements in Goethe’s motivation to write an autobiography. More debatable is Stelzig’s claim that Goethe was essentially writing Poetry and Truth against the grain of Rousseau’s Confessions. He suggests that “if one reads Goethe’s silence about Rousseau’s Confessions aright, it is not a matter of an unacknowledged anxiety of influence, but rather his tact in not directly criticizing the most influential autobiographer, whose essential weakness or limitation, as Goethe came to see it, his own approach to autobiography was intended to overcome” (138).
Though Stelzig’s argumentation comes across forcefully and effectively, as it does mostly throughout the book, the reader is still left with the impression that Stelzig lacks the factual evidence that would be required to make such a strong connection. The two remaining chapters, though interesting for the reader not familiar with Goethe’s life and works, suffer from a somewhat overwhelming descriptive focus on specific episodes and specific characters in Goethe’s life. It seems as if the psycho-biographical aspect of Stelzig’s study engulfs and drowns the much more interesting argument he is trying to make about romantic subjectivity and autobiography. When that point does come across, it is well taken. Where Stelzig is successful is in showing how Goethe, by allowing himself to fictionalize episodes and characters in his autobiography, became the progenitor of Romantic autobiography and made Poetry and Truth paradigmatic of that genre.
With that claim Stelzig is attempting to make his overarching argument come full circle. And it does, to a certain extent. In the epilogue he once again characterizes Romantic autobiography as a genre that “merges the truth and the poetry of a life” (250). That is very well, and both Rousseau and Goethe are excellent examples, having written much in that direction. So much Stelzig argues soundly. But he also states in the epilogue that “if not all Romantic writing is autobiography, much of it is certainly confessional and autobiographical” (251), a statement perhaps a bit too facile and noncommittal that everyone will easily agree with, but that does not represent a significant step forward either in Romantic or autobiography studies. And that is the overall impression one is left with at the end. The Romantic Subject in Autobiography is on the whole a very informative, at times enlightening, and sometimes less-than-convincing book that should remain required reading for anyone interested in the life and works of Rousseau, and Goethe, while remaining on the “suggested reading” list of those interested in the broader fields of autobiography and Romantic studies.