Eugene L. Stelzig. The Romantic Subject in Autobiography: Rousseau and Goethe. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2000. ISBN: 0813919754. Price: US$45.00.[Record]

  • Steve Bourdeau

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  • Steve Bourdeau
    Université de Montréal

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 …