THE ART OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN 19TH-AND 20TH-CENTURY ENGLAND by A. O. J. Cockshut
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THE ART OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN 19TH-AND 20TH-CENTURY ENGLAND

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A sensitive critical essay so free of psychological-sociological-anthropological baggage it almost seems reactionary--but all the more graceful and readable for that freedom. As with his fine books on biography (Truth to Life and Man and Woman), Cockshut (Hertford College, Oxford) works with a modest number of examples--50 or so here--chosen to reflect a broad but not vast spectrum of character. And the governing principles of his study are clear if not always simple: the key issue in judging an autobiography is whether its ""master-idea"" turns out to be the ""right and inevitable form"" of all the circumstantial details. Great autobiographies, like those of John Henry Newman or Bertrand Russell, are the ones where the master-idea has a certain intrinsic grandeur (Newman's lifelong pilgrimage toward the truth, Russell's perception that truth and feeling are basically incompatible), and where that idea ""is truly felt as working through the contingent and the everyday."" Again, the best autobiographies fuse style and character most perfectly--a fair but almost trite observation. In any case, Cockshut is best when dealing with specifics: noting that both Johnson and Boswell were ""terrified of a void""; that Byron ""explains everything as a consequence of what he cannot or will not say. Either he is afraid or he is kidding"" (and so he is a second-rate observer of himself); that whether among the respectable bourgeois of Hampstead or in the gay brothels of Berlin, Stephen Spender ""was always watching himself in puzzlement, wondering who he was""; that J. C. Powys wanted to escape from the prison of his self but still more fundamentally wanted to stay there. In keeping with his traditional approach to the genre, Cockshut devotes his longest and most sympathetic chapter to religious conversion--ignoring, as usual, the Freudians, structuralists, and other literary troublemakers. This engaging work is scheduled to be published on the same day as Richard Coe's When the Grass Was Taller (below)--a handsome coup for Yale University Press and an intriguing package for readers.

Pub Date: Oct. 17th, 1984
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press