(The Secret Lives of Academic Books)
I wrote my second book under a shadow, though that shadow is, by definition, nowhere obviously apparent.*
I’m an English professor who specializes in eighteenth-century British literature, and my most recent book is about eighteenth-century actors who re-enact Shakespeare as a way to counteract their fears of death. It is a book, I came to realize, that charts various responses to loss: how actors responded to the near-erasure of Shakespeare from cultural memory; how spectators and actors responded to fact that the “liveness” of live performance can never be preserved; how audiences responded to the experience of saying goodbye to a beloved actor who had died or left the stage.
And yet at no point within my book did I reflect on the ways that my lived experience ran parallel to my research. Nowhere did I discuss the fantasy that all writers have at some point: that abandoning the project would be easier than forging on. Nowhere did I invoke the fact that I wrote the book while pregnant with my second child; while in the fallout of a postpartum depression; while living through the break-up of my marriage and the various symptoms of a broken heart. Nowhere did I meditate on how those experiences forced me to acknowledge the inevitability of the experience—loss—which the actors I described tried their hardest to resist. Instead, the completed book stands as a testament to epiphanies I had during a time of semi-darkness, and its pages communicate the vitality and sustenance that came from creating them when other things in my life were being stripped away.
I’m not alone in the choices I made about how to hide myself within my work. Many writers keep their writing process in the shadows, as if by acknowledging the false starts and messiness that preceded our final drafts, we will somehow undermine our final success or compromise what success may come. For many writers, too, writing emerges from the shadows of personal experiences that aren’t, in many genres at least, explicitly described. Alexander Pope, eighteenth-century satirical poet, produced comic jibes that jar with his extra-textual depression; afflicted at age twelve with a painful tuberculosis of the spine, he would declare (though not in his poetry) that he suffered forever after from “this long disease, my life.” Laurence Sterne—another author I thought about in my recent book—wrote his comic, often-profane novel Tristram Shandy “under the greatest heaviness of heart” and “to fence against” the evils of his life. Much like Pope, he penned jokes under the shadows of some of life’s greatest trials: a terminal illness, his mother’s death, his wife’s mental break. These experiences lend an urgency and desperation to his novel, even as they remain mostly hidden behind by his playful style.
My book is about another writer famed for both his seamless writing process and his hidden personal life. “His mind and hand went together,” declared Shakespeare’s first editors and fellow actors, John Hemings and Henry Condell. “And what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.” “I REMEMBER,” reflects his contemporary Ben Jonson, “the players have often mentioned…that in his writing…he never blotted out a line.” In this myth, Shakespeare’s genius derives not just from the profundity of his observations on the human condition, or his eloquence in rendering those observations into prose, but the ease with which these observations flowed from him and the idea that there was no struggle involved in transforming experience into expression. Nor, some scholars believe, did Shakespeare likely experience the life struggles he so eloquently describes. Shakespearean authorship controversies emerge from, and are rebutted by, debates about how convincingly he can describe the state of being a king, or a magician, or a shipwrecked maid. If Shakespeare did in fact write all the plays attributed to him (which I believe he did), then autobiography must not have been his goal.
And yet, confronted with the absence of Shakespeare’s biography, fans of Shakespeare nonetheless try to pull the personal back into his work. Might not the tragedy of Hamlet tug at us, as Freud once suggested, because Shakespeare was channeling into his creative work his grief at the death of his own, similarly named son? Might it even pull at us more because this personal grief is hidden and un-invoked?
I had these thoughts frequently as I wrote my own book, especially when this myth of process and the intersection between personal struggle and artistic creation were taken up by other writers I discussed. “I writ it in a few hours,” the seventeenth-century novelist and dramatist Aphra Behn pronounced, describing her tragic and supposedly true account of the murdered slave prince Oroonoko she claimed to have loved without being able to protect. “I never rested my pen a moment for thought.”
A part of me always sympathizes with Behn, since maybe, I think, when the events you want to describe are so painful, you don’t or can’t stop to edit. Another part of me objects—and not merely because the “facts” of her story are debatable, nor because she waited more than twenty years to describe the events that she then ostensibly churned out. The sense that writing flows painlessly from any of us—regardless of the genre we pursue or the genius we possess—seems a little too pat. Those of us who write for a living have experienced the high of having words and ideas come together just so. We’ve also experienced the antithesis: the lack of inspiration, the creeping paralysis of self-doubt. I wrote parts of my book in joyful moments, and at times, like Behn, I felt as if I “never rested my pen a moment in thought.” Other times, however, I would edit my work down to almost nothing at all, or I would look despairingly on my own system of re-numbering drafts as I re-started them (my record, I think, was 25). Something is hiding behind the depiction of Shakespeare’s or Behn’s easy process. So too, I know, is something hiding behind the vitality communicated by my completed book.
Within academia, reflections on how we write and how our identities resonate with our scholarship wax and wane. The goal of academic writing seems to be to transcend process, despite the fact that in graduate school, dissertation “boot camps” abound. Advice and strategies for how to write an academic book are hard-to-implement and sparse, and our Ph.D. programs aren’t typically set up to workshop our literary critical work. The one piece of writing advice I remember receiving as a graduate student was that if I wrote one page a day, I’d have a 365-page dissertation by year’s end. Eventually, those of us who finished our degrees just figured out an individual process that worked. How one writes, I realized mid-way through my dissertation, is an absolute expression of who one is.
Yet this question of who one is also often remains in the shadows of academic writing. In some subsets of scholarship, identity remains, quite rightfully, in the forefront. Performance studies, for example—a field of scholarship devoted to studying the nature of the social and theatrical behaviors that, through their repetition, constitute performance—often attracts practitioners and scholars who draw upon their experiences as evidence for what they discuss. One also encounters these scholars within the fields of queer theory, cultural studies, and the various areas of criticism devoted to minority cultures, literature, and art—fields that tend to attract scholars who acknowledge a personal investment in the subjects they peruse. In other areas of academia, however—especially those devoted to the cultural productions of prior historical periods, or to writers who don’t share a demographic with their critic, or both—autobiography can feel misplaced.
In my case, I am a white, straight, forty-one-year-old woman living in Los Angeles, a single soccer mom to two boys and one dog. I’m emphatically not an actor, though I’m a professor who imagines, sometimes, that her best lectures might rival the performances of the actors she admires. My experiences are mostly peripheral to my fascination with the long-dead, childless, male actor David Garrick who emerges as the main character in my research. Even when I identified with Garrick, I wondered: would readers benefit from hearing that my reflections on Garrick, and his anxieties about mortality, helped me put words to my own anxieties about death and loss? Should they know that I almost abandoned Chapter Five, a chapter ironically about another actor’s persistent refusal to retire, at least five different times? Or that I, trapped in an un-air-conditioned garage one summer, stared hopelessly at one ineffectual draft in the unique haze that descends during the final weeks of pregnancy, sweat pooling in crevasses and folds known only to those about to give birth? (My struggles, in this sense, so different from those of the men in my books and life.)
I chose to keep such memories out of my scholarship, in part because they weren’t events that succeeded in overpowering it. Indeed, much of what still draws me to academia and scholarly research is the desire to discover and communicate something beyond myself. Much of what sustains me during times of sadness is the overt disparity between my research and my life. More privately I think, while watching a student struggle during my office hours or a friend despair over ever finishing a piece, that I would, if I could, protect those I love from such pain. As I do with my children, I want to treat my readers to the fruits of my labors and save them the labor in turn. In this regard, a finished academic book, like a highly polished lecture—or, in its own way, like a carefully made school lunch, a mysteriously folded pile of laundry, or a freshly made bed—is a gift.
There can be benefits, both artistic and personal, to keeping the writing process and autobiography in the shadows. Writing directly about personal experience can, when rendered in a certain way, feel self-indulgent and flat.“Nor will it seem to thee, my friend…” writes William Wordsworth to Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the end of the first book of his magnum opus—an autobiographical poem that Wordsworth meant to be but a “Prelude” to his much larger, never-finished, philosophic work—“that I have lengthened out…/ With fond and feeble tongue a tedious tale.” Despite (and because of) his prolixity on the subject of himself, Wordsworth remained hyper-conscious that critics might describe his project as self-absorbed, and he was vigilant to avoid becoming the target of such critique. Exposing the work of writing, which Wordsworth also does by continuing to revise The Prelude throughout his life, is autobiography at its most intense. As I told one of my most-trusted writing friends, sharing writing-in-progress is terrifyingly intimate, like letting someone see you naked, unwashed, unshaven, and under fluorescent lights. No matter how much you love that person, and how impressive her final product is, that image can be hard to forget.
There can also be benefits, however, to illuminating the cracks and flaws that make up who we are and what it is we make. If the idea that writing always came easily for Shakespeare is a fallacy, so too is the idea that every word he wrote should be revered. “Would he had blotted a thousand!” Jonson famously quipped, and Jonson had his own favorite examples of Shakespearean duds. Perhaps the most frequently referenced Shakespearean faux pas (though not by Jonson) is a moment mid-way through The Winter’s Tale when the hapless Antigonus, in accordance with one of Shakespeare’s very few stage directions, is told to “Exit. Pursued by a bear.” (In Shakespeare’s day, a real bear may or may not have appeared onstage.) Another such moment comes at the end of King Lear. “’Tis hot, it smokes!” exclaims a nameless gentleman, trying to describe a bloody knife, “It came even from the heart of —O, she’s dead!”
These lines risk eliciting laughter at moments of insupportable grief, and yet despite Jonson’s push for more editing, there are advantages to keeping them intact. “His flawed heart,” mourns Edgar of his father’s demise, in Lear, “‘twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, burst smilingly” (5.3.199-202). Any emotion, when experienced unstintingly, can feel fatal to its possessor—and not just joy or grief, but so too with adulation. Finding moments of inconsistency within a poet, or a critic, or a parent, humanizes the role-models we are apt to adore and renders them, and ourselves, more open to being loved. Just so, the pull and poignancy of art can reside in its cracks and imperfections, as offset by its achievements, and the cracks in our own creations can be reminders of our dedication to our craft. Like our children, the books we write matter to us not because they have been easy or because they are perfect, but because the experience of shepherding them through to adulthood is painful and takes so long.
This analogy between books and children comes to mind as my book is finally, almost, between its covers—a turn of phrase that conjures up the security I feel when tucking my children into bed. I can reflect now, as I do in those brief moments between my children’s descent into unconsciousness and my own, on all that has come before: on the fact that I finished my book during a time of personal struggle, and also during a research sabbatical that kept me out of the classroom and that coincided with the inauguration of our new President and the global feelings of fear and isolation still emerging in response. Back in the classroom, I’ve watched these feelings play out, as my students reflect for me the daily uncertainties that our news, and the experience of college, can produce. And yet, as I told my crying six-year old one night, I don’t always know how to help.
I think about their struggles in my teaching too, as I guide students once more through The Odyssey and the trials and tribulations that Odysseus craves. Pain stands in for experience in this epic, as the oblivion offered by the Lotus Eaters, or Calypso, or even Helen, as she attempts to drug her husband’s wine, are risks to be avoided at all costs. Odysseus’s very name, according to some translators, means “Son of Pain,” and Telemachus arrives at Menelaus’s palace just in time to celebrate the wedding of his son Megapenthes, a name that similarly means “the great sorrow.” No shadows, here; pain and personality in this work are intertwined. Most scholarship, by contrast, seems designed to disguise the struggle that proceeds epiphany or conclusion. In our worst moments in academia, we can seem to bury our humanity beneath the appearance of being certain or of being right.
Yet, as I also reflect while teaching, such an assessment of academia threatens to overlook that exposing our humanity can take on many different forms. “Milton loved me in childhood,” the poet William Blake wrote, describing his experience reading John Milton’s epic account of the fall of man, “and shewed me his face.” Describing a text that is autobiographical only in the sense that it narrates the prehistory of the human condition,Blake reminds us that we can share our struggles with writing, or with life, in sometimes shadowed ways. The writers I thought about in my most recent book knew this, too. “Who shall give us Mrs. Siddons again,” the nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt lamented on losing one of the greatest Shakespearean actresses of the late eighteenth-century stage:
who shall in our time (or can ever to the eye of fancy) fill the stage, like her, with the dignity of their persons, and the emanations of their minds?…Who shall walk in sleepless ecstasy of soul, and haunt the mind’s eye ever after with the dread pageantry of suffering and guilt? Who shall make tragedy once more stand with its feet upon the earth, and with its head raised above the skies, weeping tears and blood? That loss is not to be repaired.
Hazlitt’s lament for a beloved actress—so impassioned and so out-of-keeping with his other criticisms of the theater—is also a recognition of all the kinds of losses that life will bring. “The life of a favourite performer,” Hazlitt admits elsewhere, “glances a mortifying reflection on the shortness of human life.” I don’t begrudge Hazlitt the chance to mourn his own mortality through the theater and criticism. If he needs to look askance at tragedy, or to channel his deeper sadness through some smaller loss, that is no more than we all need from time to time. Such moments can teach us how better to read the personal revelations that we all, constantly and indirectly, share. The folded laundry, the freshly made lunch, the retroactive clarity of thought: they are gifts, and they contain, within them, the secrets of their making, too.
*I’d like to thank Bonnie Nadzam for the phrase I’ve used for my title and the prompt to write this piece.
Emily Hodgson Anderson is Associate Professor of English at the University of Southern California, where she teaches classes on a range of topics related to eighteenth-century literature and culture. Her most recent book, Shakespeare and the Legacy of Loss, is forthcoming July 2018 with the University of Michigan Press.