- Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau
Appearing the year after Richard Holmes's epic The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Terror and Beauty of Science, Bernhard Kuhn's study of "autobiography, natural science, and the unexpected yet profound relationship between them during the Romantic period" (1) comes at an opportune time. This short but ambitious book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the close links between literature and science during the later eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century. By employing a comparative and "transatlantic approach that connects Thoreau to his European predecessors," Kuhn argues that "we are able to understand Rousseau, Goethe, and Thoreau as part of a vital tradition uniting the modern self and the natural world" (144). Their writings "reveal a startling unity that forecloses any radical division between scientific and humanistic approaches to the self and the world." These writers "are also accomplished 'men of science'" who "compose their autobiographies during periods in which they are deeply immersed in scientific writing and study" (1). Kuhn reads their autobiographical and scientific writings side by side to pursue "the central question that animates the book: How is it that the inwardly-directed study of the self can be connected so vitally to the outwardly-directed study of nature?" (4).
The answer is that the three are "part of a larger counter-cultural movement that seeks to arrive at a more integrated vision of the world" that can repair the "fault lines" that developed between literature and science in the Romantic period and "the ensuing acrimony between the 'two cultures'" (4). The opening chapter contextualizes "the scientific character of autobiographical writing and the autobiographical nature of natural science" in the "surge of popular interest in both the natural sciences and autobiographical writing" during the period in question (1), and the fact that "both autobiography and natural history" resist "traditional disciplinary and generic boundaries" (8), and thus are able to "span the humanities/science divide" (11). Kuhn also stresses that in "the increasing role of the subject in the perception of nature and the coming together of literary and scientific modes of representation," Kant's philosophy played an important role, because in its wake "Romantic [End Page 380] natural historians situate the perceiving subject . . . at the center of any critical examination of the natural world" (15).
Kuhn presents his title authors as exemplary figures who in their autobiographical and scientific writings embody the "interaction and convergence between the fields of literature and science" (20). In this critical triptych, Goethe appropriately occupies the middle or central position in what is the most fully fleshed out and lucidly argued section of the book. The two chapters on Rousseau's Confessions and Reveries foreground a writer whose interest in botany is not an escape from history and society-the influential interpretation of Jean Starobinski-but a serious scientific pursuit fully engaged with them. Kuhn insists on the analogy between Rousseau's autobiographical and botanical writings: his "botanical enterprise sheds light on the nature of the autobiographical," and "only by viewing the self as an entity developing in time and history can the nature of that self be given expression" (61). In championing a Romantic Rousseau who "notes that which escapes and is obscured by the static grid of classical natural history, namely the living, growing, and evolving plant" (31), Kuhn aligns him with the more fully developed organic views of Goethe and Thoreau. Granting that in his Confessions Rousseau "employs a mechanical-Enlightenment trope ['the chain of feelings']," Kuhn argues that "though we do not yet have in . . . the Confessions a fully organic metaphor or conception of nature or the self, as is so often the case in Rousseau, standard classical or Enlightenment terminology is pressed into the service of ideas that would come to be associated with Romanticism" (32-33).
Because Kuhn pursues the analogy between autobiography and botany in his short chapter on Rousseau's Confessions more...