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Making the Wires Touch

September-October 2004

"When you read literary works or see them on the stage, as in the case of Shakespeare," says Stephen Greenblatt, "you are intuitively encountering another human being. It is a legitimate and valid and even necessary part of your experience to ask, 'Who is this person, who is this life?'"

During the last few decades, academics have nevertheless been "understandably allergic" to literary biography. That's because the mid-twentieth-century professionalization of literary analysis centered on developing a set of critical tools for studying the rhetorical effects being produced in a text, rather than on life studies. This formal method of literary criticism has the advantage of being highly accessible: the page is right in front of you. On the other hand, it eschews anything that looks like an extraneous or reductivist explanation, so it precludes looking out of a work to a life, a practice formalist critics dubbed "the biographical fallacy."

Yet the readership for formal literary criticism has been steadily shrinking, says Greenblatt, so that "certain presses, like the University of California Press, have said they are not going to publish any more of these monographs—they can't sell them." Such works are important for scholarly training, says Greenblatt, but "we're demanding that our assistant professors publish these things" even as academics themselves read fewer of them. "That signals that something is wrong with this enterprise. It runs the risk of becoming bloodless."

Greenblatt's own critical approach, a reaction to text-centered formal analysis, uses history, sociology, and anthropology to probe the cultural milieu in which works of art were produced. Dubbed "New Historicism," this approach allows a scholar to "amass a mountain of evidence" about the culture. But it, too, runs the risk of obscuring the artist by elevating the culture itself to the level of an allegorical abstraction. "You talk about 'The culture did this' and 'The culture did that,'" says Greenblatt, "but what is the culture?" In the case of his own interests, "What is the mechanism by which a particular culture is expressed in a person named Shakespeare?"

Literary biography, "the only writing about literature for which there is a serious, large audience," he notes, may prove a cure for such critical shortcomings. Ironically, it is the one genre "for which most academics feel a sort of fastidious distaste." The result is that literary biographies are written mainly by non-academics and "on the whole...are very reluctant to grapple in any serious way with why the works have taken a particular form," Greenblatt says. When literary biographies alternate chapters on the life with chapters of literary analysis, as they often do, "what this shows is that the wires aren't touching."

In bringing the artist and art together, the task is not to reduce the works to the life, for example by ignoring Macbeth and King Lear in order to understand what happened to Shakespeare. That is a "stupid and uninteresting project," says Greenblatt, because it forgets that Shakespeare would be of absolutely no interest to us were it not for the plays. Instead, "the question is, how is it possible to get dialectically from the life to the works and the work to the life? In the case of Shakespeare," says Greenblatt, "that's absolutely necessary because we have so little that is actually full-blooded in terms of the life record."