Biography 26.3 (2003) 479-481
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Creative writing placed in the service of any scholarly treatment of creative writing, whether fiction or autobiography, has a tendency to be somewhat problematic. So too the postulation of direct influence as a defining premise for the treatment of an author's work where no such direct influence can be reasonably demonstrated. Unfortunately such missing information lies at the heart of Eugene Stelzig's study, which postulates and then speculates extensively on significant links between Rousseau's Confessions and Goethe's Poetry and Truth. In my view this gap creates an ongoing problem for the realization of the author's aims. What we do know of Goethe's reaction to Rousseau is that he utterly rejected the latter's extreme subjectivity, and presented an altogether different account of his own early life in Poetry and Truth, the difference in his approach being already clearly signaled in the title itself. Stelzig acknowledges this of course, but claims early on as a support for his enterprise that "although Goethe never says so directly, Poetry and Truth [was] indeed written against the grain of The Confessions, as an autobiographical counter or corrective to the self-destructive pull of a solipsistic subjectivity that Goethe saw at work in Rousseau" (20). Was it? How can we [End Page 479] tell? And even if this were manifestly so, what conclusions could usefully be drawn either for the deeper appreciation of Goethe's self-writing, or for a deeper insight into the development of Romantic autobiography? No such conclusions are attempted, and yet these would surely be the chief validation for the approach taken here. While there is much to admire in this book in terms of depth and breadth of literary awareness, as well as an enviably felicitous style, a central difficulty lies in its failure to establish a persuasive link between the two autobiographers in question.
Originally planned as a study of three writers (Rousseau, Goethe, and Wordsworth), in the opening paragraph of the Acknowledgments we are told that the last of these has not been included in order to avoid unwieldiness in a book that has taken ten years to write. This being so, it comes as something of a surprise to find Wordsworth then given a prominent place in the introductory chapter—surely a remnant of the earlier project that would have been better written out.
The Introduction as a whole introduces the concept of Romantic autobiography as the domain of Rousseau, Goethe, and Wordsworth. Both of the terms "Romantic" and "autobiography" are problematic, as Stelzig readily admits, but the inherent problems are not stringently addressed. (A whole literature exists, for example, on the question of Goethe and Romanticism, while the same can be said on the matter of autobiography itself.) Rather, the study seems to be based primarily on the deep-seated conviction of the author that the texts he means to deal with are "the classic and constitutive exemplars of Romantic autobiography" (12).
In the next six chapters, devoted equally to a consideration of Rousseau and Goethe as autobiographers, Stelzig illustrates his earlier observation that the former wrote his Confessions as an act of self-justification, while Goethe wrote Poetry and Truth as a means to self-completion (4). Rousseau sought to reveal his inner core and to defend himself against his many enemies, moving from megalomania to paranoia as he moved from writing Part One to Part Two, but never quite able to escape his own extreme subjectivity right from the outset. Goethe was altogether different in his subtle, discreet, and poetic approach to the story of his own life. Though this is not mentioned here, he attempted through Poetry and Truth an apologia pro vita sua by creating it above all as a "guide" to his fictional works, in and through which he believed he had already revealed himself to the full, albeit in a concealed form.