The Humanities Crisis: Biography to the Rescue

by David S. Reynolds

It is no secret that the humanities are under siege. Shrinking budgets on all fronts--from the NEA and NEH, to libraries, to department funding in our universities--reflect the crisis. There are many reasons for the decline of the humanities: highly publicized campaigns by politicians against dubious art or film projects; the endless, and seemingly unwinnable, culture wars; society's drift toward pragmatic education; and ever-intensifying disputes about definitions of art and genius.

Perhaps the most powerful threat to the humanities comes from within the academy. Supposedly the upholders of the humanistic tradition, professors in our colleges and universities are often the sharpest attackers of that tradition. Not only do they subvert commonly held assumptions about art, but they feel free to suspend rigorous scholarship and objectivity in jargon-clogged writings that hold little interest for anyone besides their colleagues. In effect, many in the humanities are shooting themselves in the foot by cutting themselves off from the public.

Having recently gone through the challenging experience of writing a literary biography, I have come to respect the values of scholarly rigor and clear writing that biography entails. Indeed, I would argue that the theory and practice of biography could do much toward resolving some of the problems in the humanities today.

Although biography was once considered a second-class citizen in the academy, more and more humanities scholars in various areas, under the banner of cultural studies, have been asking questions similar to those posed by biographers: What is the relationship between literary or historical texts and social and personal life? How can anecdotes from history or biography be interpreted as signs of an entire culture or value system? How does the subjective vision of individuals--especially their ethnic background or sexual orientation--influence both the creation and the reception of literature?

While I applaud this interest in the extrinsic and the personal, it has led to extremes that could be counteracted by a healthy regard for the methodology of the biographer. With all the recent emphasis on subjectivity, what is sometimes lost is a respect for the actual facts of time, place, and person that are the biographer's concerns.

Some recent biographers, participating in the movement toward cultural studies, have branched out into political history, social history, ethnic history, and so on, producing biographies far different from those written when the New Critics suppressed social context. One has only to compare some biographies of the past decade--Robert Richardon's biography of Emerson, Joan Hedrick's of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Arnold Rampersad's of Langston Hughes, David Herbert Donald's of Lincoln, to name a few--with previous biographies of these figures to highlight the marked shift toward the historical. These and many other recent biographies are so far richer in contextual detail than former biographies that a new genre may be said to have emerged: cultural biography.

Just as biography has absorbed much from cultural studies, so cultural studies--and other fields as well--can learn much from biography. The crisis in the humanities results largely from the fact that many humanities scholars, despite their professed interest in culture and history, are loath to engage in the kind of painstaking evidence-gathering that biographers do and that alone can lend credence to any scholarly work. Wide-ranging, hard scholarship is depreciated by some in the humanities who associate it with a misled search for objectivity and a mere accumulation of facts. Recent cultural-studies approaches to Shakespeare, for example, have left out important historical or biographical information about him.

So pervasive is the suspicion of hard research that when the Modern Language Association, the nation's largest humanities organization, recently convened a roundtable on the status of evidence, one of the discussants, Professor W. J. T. Mitchell of the University of Chicago, had this to report:

When I told somebody this afternoon that I was going to a panel on evidence, she said, 'You mean they were still able to find anybody left at the MLA who still believes in evidence?' [Laughter]"

Mistrust of evidence, however, is no laughing matter. Alan Sokal's success in passing off drivel as sober scholarship, by getting his sham article accepted by the cultural studies journal Social Text, shows how insubstantial and meaningless the humanities can become if they lack a firm scholarly backbone.

How can embarrassing hoaxes like Sokal's be avoided? One method, I would argue, is to apply the method and style of cultural biography to the humanities in general. Humanities scholars who want to avoid being exposed as fraudulent, solipsistically subjective, or distant from actual life would be well advised to utilize the research tools of the biographer.

Some say that any attempt at fact-based scholarly objectivity is doomed to failure. My view is that objectivity may be an impossible goal, but it's one we should never lose sight of. What responsible discipline in the world sacrifices objectivity as its main aim? How do we begin to approach objectivity? Through extensive research.

Here is where the cultural biographer can provide a model for other scholars. Anyone who has written a cultural biography knows what it means to pursue objective truth through research. In working on my Whitman biography, for example, I read just about everything even remotely connected to the poet and his era. This meant reading not only the major poems but the full range of his poetry, from the masterpieces to the botches, along with his journalism, letters, diaries, notebooks, conversations, and fiction. It has long been known that before he became a great poet Whitman had been a popular journalist and literary hack for over a decade: I took it upon myself to read every bit of his hack writing, in order to see how it related to its surrounding culture and to his major poetry. Many of his newspaper writings are available only on microfilm, and I spent countless eye-straining but rewarding hours in microfilm rooms scrolling through the old papers. I traveled to rare book rooms and manuscript collections around the country to study neglected Whitman-related documents. I also read loads of histories of the period and primary texts by writers other than Whitman.

If other current approaches seem to lead away from research, cultural biography depends largely on it. In Walt Whitman's America I use this approach to redefine Whitman's relationship to virtually every aspect American culture. My mission as a cultural biographer is to try to see the whole picture from Whitman's point of view, using the documents of his place and time.

In contrast to previous biographers, who portrayed Whitman as alienated from his contemporary America, I use background research to show that he was totally absorbed by it. Whitman himself called for this kind of appreciation. "In estimating my volumes," he wrote, "the world's current times and deeds, and their spirit, must first be profoundly estimated." The poet failed, he thought, if he did not become, in his words, "the age transfigured." He described himself as a poet "Attracting [the nation] body and soul to himself, hanging on its neck with incomparable love,/Plunging his seminal muscle into its merits and demerits." His work, then, was literally the product of a coupling between himself and the nation. My project as a cultural biographer is to describe both partners of this coupling as fully as possible.

For instance, by investigating Manhattan street life of Whitman's time,I discovered that in his poetry he borrowed much from the real-life figure of the b'hoy (street slang for boy), a figure that fed directly into Whitman's poetic advertisement of himself as "one of the roughs,/...Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking, and breeding." In actuality, Whitman himself was few of these things: he was no breeder, for he had no children; he was only a convivial drinker; and he was turbulent only on those rare occasions when his temper got the best of his generally calm demeanor. But the wild characteristics he brags about were characteristic of the b'hoy, a butcher or other worker whom Whitman viewed as a wonderfully fresh American type. One of his goals as a poet was to capture the vitality and defiance of the b'hoy. His whole persona in Leaves of Grass--wicked rather than conventionally virtuous, free, smart, prone to slang and vigorous outbursts--reflects the b'hoy culture.

The method of cultural biography also dispels misconceptions about Whitman's most controversial theme: sex. Old-style biographers, lacking full knowledge of Whitman's historical context, presented him as a sexual rebel protesting vigorously against an absurdly proper Victorian America Recent cultural-studies critics, focusing on fragments of evidence instead of seeing the whole picture, emphasize Whitman's homoerotic impulse, which they claim alienated him from what they describe as a profoundly homophobic society.

Both portraits miss the mark because they fail to take into account the full reality of Whitman's milieu. To present Whitman as an isolated sexual rebel is to ignore huge bodies of evidence about his society and his attitudes toward it. The old-style approach is epitomized in Gay Wilson Allen's 1955 biography, The Solitary Singer, which presents a sexually explicit Whitman protesting against what Allen calls a "characteristically sentimental and romantic" popular literature of the day, and Paul Zweig's 1984 one, Walt Whitman, The Making of a Poet, which has him railing against a "relentlessly moralistic" society.

True, there was an ice-cap of conventionality Whitman was trying to pierce. But persistent research reveals a seamy underside to Whitman's America that previous generations of biographers have ignored. There was a thriving pornography trade that actually distressed Whitman. In hundreds of pamphlet novels, which are today stashed in the depths rare book rooms, popular writers like George Thompson and Henri Foster dealt with all varieties of sex: incest, sadomasochism, group sex, child sex, mass orgies. In this fiction, sex was unconnected with love. Instead, it was governed by violence, entrapment, manipulation.

Whitman feared that such popular literature was contributing to what he regarded as America's alarming moral decline. Shortly after Leaves of Grass first appeared in 1855, he was walking around with a friend in Manhattan when he spotted a teenager selling pornographic books. "That's a New York reptile," he snarled. "There's poison around his fangs, I think." He once wrote in his notebook: "In the plentiful feast of romance presented to us, all the novels, all the poems really dish up only one...plot, namely, a sickly, scrofulous, crude, amorousness."

This love plot, Whitman believed, was at the very root of the problem of popular culture, because it was fully of unhealthy distortions. In opposition to this sensational popular literature, he wanted to treat sex as natural and genuine, free of hypocrisy and gamesmanship. To counteract what he saw as the corruptions and inhumanity of the love plot, Whitman borrowed sanitizing images from modern sciences, particularly physiology and phrenology. In his poetry he tried to supplant the grotesque distortions of the love plot with the frank freedoms of physiology. As he puts it in "Song of Myself":

        Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man
                hearty and clean,
        Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be
                less familiar than the rest.
When in his poetry he sings praise to the naturalness of copulation, to jetting sperm or cohering wombs, or when he lovingly records the private parts of men and women, he displays his prevailing interest in ushering sex from the coarsely sensational to the honestly physiological. "Of physiology from top to toe I sing," he writes.

Of equal use to Whitman in combating the luridness of popular romances was phrenology, the pseudoscience that attributed human impulses to distinct organs of the brain. Leading phrenological theorists, such as Whitman's friends Orson and Lorenzo Fowler, had underscored the naturalness of sexuality when they had argued that the two most powerful brain organs were amativeness (sexual love between men and women) and adhesiveness (comradely affection between people of the same sex). For Whitman, phrenology provided another means of dealing with sex with combined candor and tact. He wrote He wrote that the underlying qualities of his poetry were "a powerful sense of physical perfection, strength and beauty, with great amativeness, adhesiveness." He justified his most openly sexual poetry sequences, "Children of Adam" and "Calamus," by specifying that the former was designed to illustrate "amativeness," or heterosexual love, and that the latter focused on "adhesiveness," or comradely fellowship.

Current critics, especially those espousing what is called queer theory, like to present Whitman as a lonely, defiant spokesperson for homosexuality crying out in a wilderness of homophobia. Historical research reveals that this interpretation is a false imposition of today's views on the past. The word "homosexuality" was not used in English until 1892, the year of Whitman's death. There is no evidence that he ever heard of the word or even its precursor, "sexual inversion," which gained currency only late in his life. Before that time, now-familiar sexual categories (homo-, hetero-, bi-) did not exist. Passionate intimacy between people of the same sex was unself-conscious and widespread, expressed through kissing, hugging, and sharing the same bed, though almost never through sex. Just as the phrenologists recommended adhesiveness, or same-sex affection, as an important ingredient of psychic health, so Whitman wrote, "O adhesiveness! O pulse of my life!" and "I announce adhesiveness--I say it shall be limitless, unloosened."

Men of Whitman's day often made strikingly ardent confessions of love to each other, as did women. Notable examples of male pairings were Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed, Daniel Webster and James Hervey Bingham, Emerson and Martin Gay, Henry Ward Beecher and Theodore Tilton. Usually, such relationships developed between young men who later had heterosexual relationships that led to marriage and children. Although Whitman never married and was a romantic comrade who had intense relationships with young men, there is also evidence that had affairs with women, and he constantly extolled marriage and parenthood in his writings.

Because his views on comradeship were not out of keeping with then-current views of same-sex love, poems which strike some critics today as blatantly homosexual raised few eyebrows in his own time, even in the most moralistic circles. When Leaves of Grass was banned in 1881 by the Boston district attorney, Whitman was ordered to delete or revise his poems about heterosexual passion (including, amazingly enough, the innocent "Dalliance of the Eagles," about the mating of birds), whereas all but one of the 45 "Calamus" poems, about same-sex affection, were allowed to stand. Similarly, when Whitman's poems were selected for mainstream anthologies, the heterosexual poems were often left out, while the "Calamus" ones weredeemed conventional enough to remain in these scrubbed, polite volumes.

Cultural biography, then, builds upon historical evidence instead of dismissing it altogether, as did the New Critics, or minimizing it, as do some current commentators. Moreover, cultural biography offers a means of bridging humanities fields that were once distant from each other, such as biography, criticism, and history.

Besides suggesting avenues toward integrative research, cultural biography can give clues about accessible language. Many humanities professors nowadays are in the ironic position of demanding stylistic clarity of their students while using turgid jargon in their own published writings. A main reason that a nonsense piece like Alan Sokals's could be accepted for publication by a supposedly respectable humanities journal is that Sokal cloaked his phony argument--that physical laws like gravitation are purely relative, not objective--in fashionably obscure jargon. His article is a string of pretentiously foggy sentences loaded with the familiar buzzwords of cultural studies: he writes that physical and social "'reality'" (a word he puts in quotation marks) is "at bottom a social and linguistic construct"; scientific knowledge, he tells us, "far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it"; the physical laws established by Euclid and Newton, "formerly thought to be constant and universal, are now perceived in their ineluctable historicity, and the putative observer becomes fatally de-centered, disconnected from any epistemic link to a space-time point."

Such language characterizes the style of countless current books and journal articles in the humanities. By adopting the language of the critical trend of the moment, humanities scholars are trying to impress their peers and get ahead professionally. But in impressing their peers they often leave others behind.

The humanities in general are under fire partly because they have come to seem insular, cut off from the everyday concerns of most readers. We are compelled by the current state of things to do everything we can to make our writings relevant to others beside our colleagues in humanities departments. Although we've made strides in the past decade toward crossing boundaries between academic disciplines, we now face the even greater challenge of saving the humanities by crossing the boundary between ourselves and the outside world, the world which provides the funding for the projects, jobs, and library collections we cherish.

Stylistically, the biographer builds pathways to the general reader, using a style that is typically accessible and jargon-free. Is the biographer's clarity of language accompanied by a diminution of complexity or sophistication? In my view, the opposite is closer to the truth: it is relatively easy to achieve a bogus sophistication by using trendy jargon, whereas the biographer is constantly forced to communicate subtle, complex facts or arguments in clear prose.

Were the biographer's style to be generally adopted throughout the profession, humanities scholars might regain something they are losing at an alarming rate: readers. The bottom has dropped out of the academic book market, threatening university presses and specialized bookstores. Although part of the decline in book sales is attributable to evaporating library budgets, there is obviously little interest among general readers to pull up the slack.

But this does not have to be. Writers of cultural biography have had success in gaining readers. I've had the pleasure of seeing my Whitman book selected by the major book clubs, go through four printings in the Knopf hardback edition, and appear as a trade paperback with Vintage. My book has managed to appeal not only to readers in my own field, American literature, but to historians and general readers as well. Although scholarly biographies rarely make the best-seller lists, they commonly sell tens of thousands of copies, and sometimes go much higher.

Humanities scholars who want to rebuild the crumbling bridge to the public would do well to follow the lead of cultural biographers. If they are interested in anecdotes that illuminate the past, let them tell these anecdotes with the biographer's narrative flair. If they want to give quantitative data to illuminate history, let them enliven this data with real-life examples. If they want to discuss theory, let them dispense with jargon and espouse the biographer's directness and specificity. If race, class, and gender are their chosen focus, let them aim toward historical objectivity in discussing these themes, instead of idiosyncratically imposing today's views on the past. In all areas of the humanities, let scholars substantiate their findings with solid evidence presented so clearly that the average reader can make sense of it.

As a preparatory exercise, I would recommend all who are seriously interested in reversing the current decline of the humanities to espouse the scholarly methods demanded by biography, particularly the cultural biography of recent years. If they did, they would emerge with a renewed respect for rigorous research and clear prose. If the latter became general throughout the profession, we might plant the humanities on a solid foundation and make our work meaningful to the world at large.

Other Pieces by David Reynolds:

Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography

Politics and Poetry: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the Social Crisis of the 1850s