Approaching the Master: Gender, Genre, and Biographical Tradition
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This chapter begins to examine the gender politics of biography. While feminist biographies play a vital role in redressing an imbalanced cultural history, the very form of biography is constituted by, and complicit with, a patriarchal culture predicated on heroic individualism and fictions of sole achievement and (self-)authorship. In biography’s quest narratives, the quest for mastery (of self, art, and circumstance) shapes the presentation of evidence. Recent groundbreaking studies in metabiography (on Alexander von Humboldt, David Livingstone, and the Brontës) advance the understanding of biography’s generic, rhetorical, and ideological features, but remain caught in its contradictions insofar as they implicitly endorse the very mechanisms of cultural visibility and prominence they set out to interrogate. This chapter disentangles the productive interventions of metabiography from their reliance on established biographical models, bringing them into dialogue with literary explorations of biography (Peter Handke, Christa Wolf, and Colm Tóibín) which probe the tensions between mastery, memory, and obscurity.