On One Hand

February 2, 2007

No Text is an Island

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:19 pm
Tags: ,

I’m taking five classes that involve literary analysis of some sort. It’s overwhelming. Yet, in each class, the instructors approach the texts entirely differently.

As analysts of literature, what is our task? Are we psychoanalyzing writers to find the conscious and subconscious intent of the author, or are we treating the text as if it is something that can stand and have life of its own – to possibly say something completely outside the author’s imagination?

I know the reality of literary analysis tends to follow the latter course, simply because there are so many possibilities in each rich story or poem and it’s hard to avoid pursuing the ones that were installed by accident. But that’s sort of a dirty secret in the literary world. I think that we, in English, like to suggest that most of the devices or meanings we find in text were intended by the author to be there.

Thus comes the question: is it useful to look up the author’s biography to give clues about the meaning of a text? In a Literary Theory class we are looking at The Great Gatsby (Which is sooooo esoteric, right?) to determine which plot is dominant. There is a clear class conflict there, and a gender conflict as well – both may be intended elements. But which one is the book is supposed to be about? Which is the theme and which is auxiliary? Or are they co-thematic? Another interpretation we are pursuing that you probably did NOT get in your high school English studies on the novel is that The Great Gatsby is largely about gay and bisexual men. We were able to gloss over it then, in high school, because of the subtlety of homoeroticism and the limited lens through which we viewed the topic then – and some printing omissions in some versions of the book intended for high schools – but upon a closer look it seems undeniable now as an element in the book.

So, then, is it useful upon reading The Great Gatsby to delve into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s personal biography, to uncover whether or not he was involved in the Communist party at the time, whether he was a known women’s suffragist, or if he himself was in transgressive sexual relationships with men?

It is nearly impossible to read dated literature without noting historical context, and similarly difficult to read cultural literature without acknowledging the writer’s personal background in relationship to written characters. This happens consciously and subconsciously by the reader even in perspectives as subjective as reader-response analysis. It is part of the very definition of a resistant-reading analysis to acknowledge the cultural environment the piece was written from, and draw conclusions or responses within those bounds.

Let me offer an extreme example of the way biographical information can change the nature of a reading:

You read a hypothetical text that seems racist, so much so that you consider it to come from a white supremacist perspective. You are grossly offended, finding suggestions embedded within the text that seem downright absurd, utterly unacceptable into rational thought, from your own cultural perspective as an enlightened 21st century reader. Then comes the rub: you learn in a biography about the author that she is actually a black woman. It would seem that your analysis switches here to considering the piece satirical and ironic, absurd on purpose to debunk such claims. Or maybe its a critique on whether African-Americans themselves can be racist or a criticism that whites deny them the ability to themselves be racist against themselves, thus the whites are taking a more or less racist position. There are countless possibilities, and since this text doesn’t actually exist we can’t go into any kind of detail. But surely, the playing-field of possible responses is utterly different from before the biographical information was read, and your first conclusion is now impossible.

It would also seem that the reader who didn’t get the biographical information about the author, who is still resisting the text as “morally reprehensible” and “racist,” is clearly “wrong” on that reading of the text. Thus, is it indictable that the text cannot stand on its own?

Some other, real-life examples:

Native American poet Sherman Alexie has a seeming obsession with homes burning down in his writing. His poetry and fiction are riddled with it. This may be glossed over initially, but when the reader learns that the poet lived in a community where to have friends and families die in trailer fires is tragically common, and that some of his own family members were killed in such a fire, it becomes the focal point of the author’s psyche.

A somewhat obvious example: “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, a piece from the late 18th century suggesting that the English should deal with the Irish overpopulation problem by eating their babies, that the Irish parents can benefit from the income of selling their children off, is clearly satire. It harshly criticizes the English indifference to the suffering in Ireland that they themselves are partially responsible for, and the piece is so well-known now that I’m sure you read it in high school. But in his own time, Swift was accused of advocating cannibalism. Others who did catch the satire might ask, is Swift criticizing the Irish for being poor and overpopulated, or the English as conspirators or selfishly indifferent in that situation? Swift’s status as a social progressive makes it clear he’s probably criticizing the English, but if we didn’t know that about him, and came upon this piece utterly out of context, who knows what we might have thought of it.

There are limits to the usefulness of biographical information to determine the finer details of meaning, since all good writing will be riddled with qualifications and nuances. It’s usually capturing a human emotion or inclination which is more or less abstract, and elevating it to a universalized scale. But it seems that reading the biography can’t hurt, and would indeed be excessively useful, taking into account the demographic, personal, and historical contextualizing facts about the author before, during, or after reading a text.



  1. I think you mean F. Scott Fitzgerald, not J. D. Salinger.

    Comment by erinya — February 2, 2007 @ 8:11 pm | Reply

    • AHHHHHHHHHH! Yes. DUh. Thank you. OK I’ll fix it.

      Comment by ononehand — February 2, 2007 @ 8:47 pm | Reply

  2. Mr. Gatsby? Gay? What?

    My senior year of high school english has betrayed me.

    Comment by octoberxswimmer — February 4, 2007 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

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