James Whitehead »

James Whitehead is currently a Wellcome Research Fellow in the English department and the Centre for Humanities and Health at King’s College London. His PhD was also undertaken in the English department at KCL, and examined the idea of the ‘mad poet’ in nineteenth-century writing, especially in relation to Romanticism and Romantic poets, drawing on poetry, journalism, early literary criticism, biographical writing, and medical literature. His monograph (Madness and the Romantic Poet) is forthcoming with OUP. James is currently working on a project concerning autobiographical writing about mental illness from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

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Referring to this Article

J. WHITEHEAD. Review of Bernhard Kuhn, Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism (Ashgate, 2009), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 21 (Winter 2013).

Online: Internet (date accessed): https://www.romtext.org.uk/reviews/rt21_r09/

Bernhard Kuhn, Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 171pp. ISBN 978-0-7546-6166-5; £55 / $99.95 (hb).

It is striking that the turn of the nineteenth century saw the earliest use—and swift adoption—of both autobiography and biology and their cognates in European languages. [1] Two very different disciplines of ‘life-writing’ that took βίος as their common object were named, if not born, together. Over a period in which ontogeny, or individual history, was often thought to recapitulate phylogeny, or natural history, Bernhard Kuhn’s book suggests there was considerable interaction between these disciplines, across French, German, British and American literature. Kuhn argues that autobiography was for Romantic writers ‘a fundamentally interdisciplinary enterprise existing on a continuum with psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and other human sciences’ (p. 142). He goes so far as to claim, indeed, that writing produced under this enterprise ‘refutes the still entrenched thesis of “the two cultures” ’ (p. 1).

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentThis is a bold and laudable claim. Unfortunately, it is not one that this book can substantiate. Its argument rests on a thin account of the history and philosophy of natural science, and a fragile model of interaction between scientific theory or practice and autobiographical texts. Given Kuhn’s famous namesake, there is surprisingly little discussion of paradigms in the former at all, apart from some gesturing at the ‘inductive approach to nature’ and that familiar straw man, ‘rigorously-detached’, ‘Baconian’ scientific objectivity, set against either the weak constructivism of natural science as a ‘discursive practice that foregrounds the experiential and perspectival dimensions of the naturalist’s observations’ (p. 2), or an ‘organic and holistic view of the world’ (p. 3)—terms like ‘organic’ and ‘holistic’ being the kind of glittering generalities that critical discussions of Romanticism really should have learnt to avoid, but which nevertheless float aromatically through this book without ever quite succumbing to the indignity of definition. The book needed rather to put terms like ‘organic’ under the critical microscope, to discover how and why they became central to the arts and sciences of life over the period. A more rigorous dose of Foucault than the smattering evident here, or his mentor Georges Canguilhem, whose extensive writings on la connaissance de la vie are finally beginning to appear in English, would have helped.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIn terms of cultural interactions, Kuhn argues that writers such as Rousseau and Goethe had a ‘deep interest in the natural sciences precisely during the period of their most autobiographical activity’ (p. 142); while this is undoubtedly true, ‘precisely’ only draws attention to how weak a link contemporaneity (‘during the period’) can be. So it often proves for the book’s key analyses. In the introductory chapter, the main parallel Kuhn draws between autobiographical writing and natural history in the Romantic period is that both were popular (pp. 5­–6), but this does not make them inevitably ‘coextensive’ (p. 8). When he moves on to the three authors discussed at length—Rousseau, Goethe and Thoreau—Kuhn does find specific and convincing connections. Very much the best part of the book is that on Rousseau’s Confessions and Reveries read in relation to his botanical writings. Here Kuhn shows how Rousseau’s ‘fantastical image of the autobiographer as auto-botanising plant’ drew, from his sense of a ‘temporalized natural world’, not a ‘single narrative model of development but […] endless lines of correspondence and difference that can be traced from one episode to another’ (pp. 31–38). As Kuhn emphasises, this does Rousseau the great service of overturning a widely held view, propagated by Jean Starobinski, that his later botanising was a self-indulgent retreat from the social world; instead we gain a richer sense of Rousseau’s explorations of the tangled bank of human personality. Chapters on Goethe’s ‘morphological approach’, in which autobiographical selves and the forms of nature are both seen as ‘dynamically-evolving entities’ (pp. 112–13), also work well enough, and there are some interesting sections on that author’s writings on the aesthetics and science of colour and music, and Dichtung und Wahrheit. The final part of the triad on Thoreau and Walden (which unaccountably switches tense into an irritating historical present) sometimes loses sight of its author’s naturalistic interests chasing down his debt to Goethe, and though it quotes Thoreau’s interesting statement that ‘the purest science is still biographical’ several times, never manages to fully gloss it satisfyingly, although it has some good material and conclusions on Thoreau’s ‘proto-ecological’ (p. 124) moments.

IndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentIndentPerorating, Kuhn praises Thoreau’s ‘sustained vision of the unity of the self’ (p. 140), deploying a formula—unity of self—that recurs throughout the book, alongside abstractions such as ‘higher unity’, ‘structural unity’, ‘the true nature of the self’ and so on. Once again, the lure of pleasant words in place of carefully examined or advisedly used terms is not very helpful. It is also revealing of Kuhn’s approach to the study of autobiography. The book is ultimately strikingly old-fashioned in its grandiose emphasis on ‘unity’ and its sense that Rousseau and other great men forged ‘the modern self’ in a select canon of literary autobiographies. It is almost entirely uninterested or incurious about popular traditions and genres of autobiographical and natural–historical writing, or indeed the autobiographical writings of scientists and naturalists themselves. It is probably enough to note here that passing reference is made to Gilbert White’s Natural History of Shelbourne [sic]. Selborne, the most widely read and influential work of natural history for English Romanticism, at least, is exactly the kind of text that could have helped Kuhn to answer his question ‘where precisely does one draw the line between natural observation and personal narrative?’ (p. 2), as could any number of other collections of scientific letters, journals and travel writing from the period. This is a not a long book: it needed more time to be spent among more varied primary material to give a full picture of the interactions it begins to suggest.


1. Kuhn credits the latter neologism to Lamarck in 1802, although it was used earlier in English by that quintessential figure of Romantic natural science, Thomas Beddoes, in 1799. Another suggestive overlap is that biology has an earlier history in the lexicon as a rare synonym for biography (OED).