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p. 292. The journeying selffree

  • Laura Marcus


There is a close connection between the rise of autobiography in the late 18th and early 19th century and the growing fascination with travel for its own sake, or for the sake of self-development. ‘The journeying self’ explains that with the rise of European Romanticism, Rousseau’s celebration of walking, Goethe’s Italian Journey, his fiction of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre, and his autobiography, and Wordsworth ‘wandering’ in the Lake District initiate a pattern of links between life-writing and travel, which continued through the American ‘road trip’ and more recent ‘urban walking’ and the literature of landscape. The autobiographical writings of Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, and Alfred Kazin are discussed.

There is a close connection between the rise of autobiography in the late 18th and early 19th century and the growing fascination with travel for its own sake, or for the sake of self-development, and walking as a valued activity rather than just a necessity. With the rise of European Romanticism, Rousseau’s celebration of walking, Goethe’s Italian Journey, his fiction of Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre, and his autobiography, and Wordsworth ‘wandering’ in the Lake District initiate a pattern of links between life-writing and travel which continued through the American ‘road trip’ and more recent ‘urban walking’ (including the movement known as ‘psychogeography’) and the literature of landscape. Often the narrative will present a virtual or real return to places experienced earlier in the writer’s life, with the usual ambivalence accompanying nostalgia. Can or should one ‘go back’? Was the remembered time lost, in the sense of gone for ever, or wasted, temps perdu? This was also the age which saw the birth of the Bildungsroman, the ‘novel of formation’, or ‘novel of education’, which typically traces the youthful development of an individual, and the shaping of his (or, less usually, her) mind and character, as he/she moves towards maturity and the taking up of a place in the world.p. 30

Romantic autobiography

The connections between Romanticism and autobiography are close and complex. Many of the autobiographies which come to define the genre for the modern period are written in these decades, though a number were published some years after their composition. In addition to works by Rousseau and De Quincey, autobiographies of the Romantic period include Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, Wordsworth’s long narrative poem The Prelude, and Stendhal’s The Life of Henry Brulard, written in 1835–6. Memoirs and ‘reminiscences’, often of other contemporary writers, also flourished at this time, sometimes framed as travel narratives or recollections of place. Such ‘records’, ‘recollections’, and ‘reminiscences’ form a bridge between biography and autobiography in the 19th century. They are also part of a burgeoning commercial literary culture, centred upon the personality, and celebrity, of authors, and they have close ties to journalism.

In the 1970s, when literary theorists took up the question of autobiography as a genre, they turned frequently to Romantic writers for explorations of subjectivity and selfhood, as well as for an understanding of the ways in which the autobiographical self is produced, or inscribed, in writing. In these contexts autobiography intersects with classically philosophical concerns about the nature of the self and the possibility of knowing it. The Romantic self was perceived as a divided, self-contradictory being. The link between the naming of autobiography as a genre at the close of the 18th century and the birth of the concept of the Doppelgänger, or ‘double’ (the term first used by Jean Paul in the novel Siebankäs (1796)) is more than accidental. In autobiography, the written self could indeed be said to become a double of, or another to, the self which writes.

The Romantic focus on landscape and nature, including the Sublime (those aspects of the natural world in which we are made p. 31to feel its awe-inspiring force and dimension), is also prominently figured in autobiographies of this time. The autobiographical self of the Romantic period is frequently represented as a journeying, wandering subject, communing with his or her own thoughts, but inspired by the natural world. Introspection—the self’s dialogue with itself—is, in this context, the birthplace of autobiographical writing: Wordsworth writes in The Prelude of ‘turning the mind in upon herself’. The divided self can thus be represented as a self in productive dialogue with itself, while autobiography is often represented as a search for a more harmonious or integrated selfhood.

The Prelude (1799, 1805, 1850) describes the stages of its author’s life and development—‘the growth of the Poet’s mind’—moving through childhood, boyhood, and youth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to whom much of The Prelude is addressed, referred to the poem, sections of which Wordsworth read to him, as a ‘Self-biography’; the term most often employed before ‘autobiography’ became common coinage. Wordsworth expressed some anxieties, in relation to the 1805 version of the poem, about its focus on his own life: it was, he wrote, ‘a thing unprecedented in Literary history that a man should talk so much about himself’. Not unprecedented perhaps; but The Prelude nonetheless marks a new stage in the writing of poetry and of autobiography.

Augustine’s Confessions was an important influence on The Prelude, but the figure of the spiritual seeker has been changed into that of the Poet, who makes the search for transcendent truths part of his literary vocation. In the writing of the poem, and the tracing of the roots and development of his creative powers, Wordsworth is attempting to restore them; to write himself back into poetry. He is also seeking a language adequate to his turbulent social and political times—the central books of The Prelude describe Wordsworth’s youthful experiences of London and of revolutionary France—and to the representation of ‘The perturbations of a youthful mind’.

p. 32Wordsworth’s depictions of time and memory anticipate later psychological models of ‘the unconscious’: the recovery of the past in The Prelude is in fact a recreation, in language, of lost time: an observation of ‘the ties | That bind the perishable hours of life | Each to the other, and the curious props | By which the world of memory and thought | Exists and is sustained’. Furthermore, the present self is seen to exist at a great distance, or ‘vacancy’, from the past self, of selves, whose experiences and feelings it has set out to recapture, so that ‘I seem | Two consciousnesses, conscious of myself | And of some other Being’. And the search for origins—the origin of the self, the birth of the self as poet—is put into question by his growing perception that such beginnings are either irrecoverable or illusory. ‘How shall I seek the origin? where find | Faith in the marvellous things which then I felt’, Wordsworth asks, as he attempts to describe the sensations and perceptions of his childhood self, at a time ‘In which I walked with Nature’. ‘Hard task, vain hope, to analyse the mind, | If each most obvious and particular thought, [ … ] Hath no beginning’.

The question of origins—of where the story (of a life) begins—frequently shapes the variants of autobiography’s narrative starting-points, from lengthy accounts of ancestry, genealogies, and family histories (‘this, or these, are what made me’) to representations of the ‘birth’ of the individual’s consciousness and consciousness of self, frequently figured in ‘the first memory’. Such footholds on past time are, nonetheless, often shadowed by the knowledge that such starting-points can, ultimately, only be a species of ‘make-believe’ or necessary fictions.

The transcendental self

Rousseau’s final work, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, represented solitude as a precondition for meditation, enabling the self’s dialogue with itself which was, for Rousseau, the basis of what he described as his ‘painstaking and sincere self-examination’ and p. 33which, more broadly, constitutes what has come to be known as ‘autobiographical consciousness’. At the same time, Rousseau expressed a wish to transcend the personal: ‘My meditations and reveries are never more delightful than when I forget myself. I feel ecstasies and inexpressible delight when I melt, so to speak, into the system of beings and identify myself with the whole of nature.’ This ‘transcendental’ impulse has also informed a highly significant genre of life-writing, in which the authorial self channels the observation of the external, and usually the natural, world. This self escapes biographical particularities in order to become what the 19th-century American Transcendentalist writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called a ‘transparent eyeball’ absorbing reality: ‘all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.’

Many writers and thinkers in 19th-century America, among them Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, produced first-person writings which lay outside the confessional tradition and did not reconstruct the narrative of a whole life. Emerson wrote of Thoreau that ‘he lived for the day, not cumbered and mortified by memory’. While Thoreau does not reach back into the details of his own past in Walden, he creates a significant mode of autobiography; one that has helped shape subsequent memoirs and nature and travel writings. Walden, Thoreau’s account, published some ten years later, of the two years (1845–7) he spent living in a cabin which he built in the woods next to Walden Pond, near Concord in Massachusetts (see Figure 3), brings together his account of the natural world with his philosophy of life. ‘I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody whom I knew as well’, Thoreau writes at the book’s opening. Knowledge of the world is centred in the observing, experiencing self and the work of the highest value which any writer can produce is, he suggests, ‘a simple and sincere account of his own life’.p. 34

3. Title page of Walden, with illustration of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately’, Thoreau writes. His two years at Walden Pond are an ‘experiment’ in living (recalling the ‘self-experiments’ described in Rousseau’s Reveries) and a testing of ‘experience’. The terms ‘experiment’ and ‘experience’, central to Thoreau’s writings as they were to those of Montaigne, Rousseau, and Emerson, share a common root, in the Latin experior, ‘to try’. There is a connection here with the old p. 35French ‘essai’ (trial, attempt, essay), which becomes a term for the informal, often digressive, genre of the ‘essay’ so closely associated with Montaigne and the essayists writing after him. In his essay ‘Walking’ (1862), Thoreau extols the virtues of ‘sauntering’: ‘you must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking’.

Walden is in many ways a more rooted text, as Thoreau focuses on his improvised home and his immediate surroundings. He wishes to stand, in his words, ‘on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment: to toe that line’. The text combines details of everyday life and practical circumstance—Thoreau’s lists of goods and expenditures recall Benjamin Franklin’s ‘book-keeping’ in his autobiography—with philosophical meditations and practical wisdom. Extolling, like his mentor Emerson, the virtues of self-sufficiency, Thoreau writes: ‘the man who goes alone can start to-day; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready, and it may be a long time before they get off’. While there are sections of Walden in which Thoreau describes his enjoyment of company, his greater commitment is to the importance of solitude, in which state (and as for Rousseau) the self becomes another to itself in the process of ‘a certain doubleness’. The splitting Thoreau describes between the experiencing self and a part of the self which stands apart from the self as ‘a spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it’ could also be understood as a definition of the autobiographical act, with its division between the ‘I’ who writes and the ‘I’ who is written.

The locus and focus of Thoreau’s ‘experiment’ in living is Walden Pond itself, which alters so dramatically with the seasons, marking, in particular, the change from winter to spring. Thoreau observes the ‘depth and purity’ of the pond (or lake) and its ‘remarkable transparency’. A lake is, he writes, ‘earth’s eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature’; the depth of human character and the imagining of the infinite p. 36are, Thoreau suggests, made possible by the depth and purity of the natural world. An observer may also reflect upon the passage of his or her life, by contrast with the changeless waters: modernity has brought the railroad to the pond’s shores but ‘it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me’.

As significant to Thoreau as biographical time (his own lifetime), or the times in which he lives, is deep time (natural time, prehistory), into which he seems to look as he sounds the depths of the pond. Of Walden and its neighbouring ponds Thoreau writes: ‘How much more beautiful than our lives, how much more transparent than our characters are they!’ ‘Transparency’ is a key term for Romantic autobiographers: in addition to Emerson’s image of the ego-less self as a ‘transparent eyeball’, we find Dorothy Wordsworth, in her Journals, repeatedly recording the effects of ‘transparency’, as perceived in the lakes by her home, as a measure of her own emotions. For Rousseau, whose detractors have seen him as the epitome of egotism, it is in fact ‘transparency’ which he claims as his ideal state as autobiographer: the merging of the individual self with the natural worlds of water and air. The ego is dispersed into the broader nature of being.

Yet it was also possible to make a virtue of autobiographical self-celebration. Benjamin Franklin wrote at the beginning of his autobiography that vanity ‘is often productive of Good to the Possessor and to others that are within his sphere of Action’. The American poet Walt Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’, in his Leaves of Grass (like The Prelude, an autobiographical poem revised over many decades), is an unashamed expression of delight in his own human form and energies and in those of others. He is, he writes, a being both complete and at one with all other human beings: ‘I resist anything better than my own diversity [ … ] I am large [ … ] I contain multitudes.’ In Leaves of Grass, Whitman does not so much explore personal experience as celebrate life, p. 37including the life of the body, depicting each and every life as extraordinary.

Leaves of Grass has been described as a ‘vicarious national autobiography’, and the question of national autobiography became particularly charged as the ‘New World’ sought to forge a cultural and historical identity. Walt Whitman also adds to the pastoralism of earlier Romantic autobiography a celebration of urban landscape and experience, in particular that of New York. His vision would have a profound influence on many American writers of the 20th century. In A Walker in the City (1951), the first volume in an autobiographical trilogy, the literary critic Alfred Kazin recaptured his boyhood as the son of East European Jewish immigrants growing up in Brownville, a then-impoverished Jewish suburb of Brooklyn. ‘To be a Jew’, he writes, ‘meant that one’s very right to existence was always being brought into question.’ The autobiography begins with the author’s return (which is both literal and an act of memory) to the streets of his childhood, and the re-encounter with their sharp smells: ‘an instant rage comes over me, mixed with dread and some tenderness’. Ambivalence is indeed the keynote of Kazin’s relationship with the culture from which a life in literature has detached him but which still inhabits him: ‘I am back where I began’.

Kazin recalls the intensity of his parents’ ambition that he ‘redeem the constant anxiety of their existence. I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God.’ His escape from the pressures of family, the school whose values rest on ‘Americanism—the word itself accusing us of apparently everything that we were not’—and his own stammering self lies in walking the streets: ‘It troubled me that I could speak in the fullness of my own voice only when I was alone in the streets, walking about’. Books, reading, literary characters become one with this ‘walking about’: ‘I learned so well to live with them that I could not always tell whether it was they or I thinking in me’.

p. 38A Walker in the City exists in a tradition of Romantic autobiography, taking up the legacies of Emerson and Whitman (lines from whose poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry—‘on the walk in the street, and passage over the river’—are its epigraph). It also explicitly invokes the language and sensibility of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Kazin’s could be defined as an ‘aesthetic autobiography’, both in its representation of the redemptive force of literature (as in Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son, among many other autobiographical works) and (like Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory) in its intensely lyrical, imagistic prose. Yet Kazin does not allow us to forget that this is a language created both to recapture and to leave behind the ‘tormented heart’ of the world in which he grew up.

‘Most stories are travel stories’, writes the American cultural critic Rebecca Solnit in her ‘cultural autobiography’ A Book of Migrations (1997), her account of travelling in Ireland, birthplace of her maternal great-grandparents, ‘and in traveling our lives begin to assume the shape of a story. It may be because a journey is so often a metaphor for life itself that journeying is satisfying … Perhaps if we didn’t imagine life as a journey rather than some other metamorphosis—the growth of a tree, for example—roads would not seem like destiny itself, but we do and they do.’ Migrations is concerned with, in Solnit’s words, ‘this play between memory, identity, movement, and landscape’, using the ‘subjective and personal not to glorify my mundane autobiography but as a case study in how one can explore the remoter regions of the psyche by wandering across literal terrain’. As in much modern travel writing (including the work of Jonathan Raban, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, and V. S. Naipaul) the story is both that of a journey to place and into the self.