Literary Couples and 20th-Century Life Writing: Narrative and Intimacy. By Janine Utell. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. 215 pp. $115.00 (cloth).
Reviewed by Jennifer P. Nesbitt, Penn State York
Each of these insightful studies examines the epistemological power of biographical writing as a gatekeeping mode, as a broad narrative genre that defines what a life is or can be, what kinds of lives count, and how a person will be said to exist for future readers. In Literary Couples and 20th-Century Life Writing, Janine Utell, whose prior work engages narrative across multiple genres, examines published forms of “intimate life writing” to probe the boundaries of knowledge surrounding the private lives of mostly modernist literary couples; she considers how autobiographical texts shape the reproduction of life narratives in later biographical projects. In The Passion Projects, Melanie Micir, associate professor of English at Washington University, delves into the archives of queer modernist women as “biographical acts” designed to weather a mid-twentieth-century literary climate inimical to recognizing the women or their contributions to modernist art. Utell restores a radical unknowability to established public (and often politicized) literary biographies; Micir reframes materials considered archival—disorderly, privatized, and unpublished—as political acts of survival and protest. Although neither invokes the Foucauldian concept biopower, or the related term biopolitics, these studies theorize the power of biography to manage the meanings of “life.”
To question received biographical and literary-historical narratives, both Utell and Micir stretch the typical genre limits of auto/biography, but their aims are radically different. Perhaps one way to consider their respective accomplishments is through a rough division based on the feminist slogan, “the personal is political” (a phrase Micir invokes): Utell personalizes that which has been politicized and Micir politicizes that which has been rigorously relegated to the personal. Utell’s subjects are well-known figures like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland are Utell’s least famous subjects. A significant quantity of published personal writing and biographical work extends from these couples, and it is the canonization of their respective “life stories” as knowable at which Utell takes aim. Utell moves away from the term biography to “intimate life writing,” which she defines as “a set of practices, acts, and utterances, emerging from relational life narratives and the ways those narratives enact a subject becoming with and through an other” (3). The texture and detail Utell manages in threading her argument through multiple, often competing, accounts can feel unsettled mid-chapter, but she refuses closure in order to revise received narratives about the artists’ relationships. Throughout, Utell resists the narration of “couplehood as a fixed, finished object with a telos” (12, emphasis original) and instead seeks the instabilities, negotiations, and lacunae that “make intimacy itself” (5, emphasis original). Confronting the notion of biography as telos, an established form with definitive ends, Utell swerves to emphasize unknowability, intersubjectivity, becoming—refusing to foreclose on life as transparently legible and available to be read.
Micir, on the other hand, seeks to make archival materials legible as “life” and to reinsert her subjects into the historical and institutional narratives of modernism; her focus is on unpublished and unfinished work by queer women whose significance in modernism is known because feminist scholars have been raiding the archives. (In a sense, this project is breath-taking in that it demonstrates the success of feminist and queer scholarship, which carved out a space where this project could be envisioned and done.) Among Micir’s subjects, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland are on the more well-known and published end of a group that includes —among others—Una Troubridge, Evguenia Souline, Jane Heap, Margaret Anderson, Hope Mirrlees, and Jane Harrison. Micir examines published works, but she situates the published as a kind of historically contingent art of the possible, given the exclusion of women, particularly gender-nonconforming women, from the modernist narrative. The archival materials, deemed modernist arcana, were left on the shelf or in boxes as biographies of great men shaped the priorities of modernist aesthetics. The conservation of these archival biographical acts looked forward to a future where these expressions of queer life would be received with compassion and delight and interpreted as the political and historical acts that they are. While the title “Passion Projects” acknowledges strong feelings of love, Micir’s objects of study also function in the realm of passion as pain. Micir considers “a wide variety of biographical acts and archives” (6) as “generic activism on behalf of . . . intimate friends, partners, and companions” who “were being slowly but insistently excluded” from modernist literary history (7). The Passion Projects does more, however, than document the endeavors of these women; Micir theorizes multiple modes by which these biographical acts rhetorically, politically, and narratively engage with the patriarchal heterosexist structures that position them as erased, marginalized, and confined to the archive.
Both Utell and Micir examine how their subjects balance private experience and public assertion to claim intimacy—sometimes in competition with other claimants. Their respective handling of source materials related to Virginia Woolf offers another window into these related, yet distinct, projects. Micir argues that it is insufficient to imagine the lost lives of A Room of One’s Own’s Chloe and Olivia; critics must locate the forms of writing agency available to women who are necessarily “both author and subject of Life’s Adventures” (3). Circling back to Woolf’s Orlando in her penultimate chapter, Micir positions the familiar argument that the novel fictionally unites Sackville-West with her lost patrimony as the tip of an iceberg “other women, then and now,” should view with excitement and trepidation (130). Orlando’s singular success demonstrates, according to Micir, the ease with which the stories of Chloe and Olivia are effaced without constant vigilance and repetitive labor. In the analysis of Orlando, Micir invokes Woolf’s essay “The New Biography,” ending where Utell’s study of “art of living intensely, with others” begins (182). For Utell, “The New Biography” authorizes an intense textual analysis that moves dexterously through and among texts to capture the uncertainties and fluidity of couple biography. Utell opens Literary Couples by examining a trio of texts from Woolf’s circle: Leslie Stephens’s Mausoleum Book, Sackville-West’s Portrait of a Marriage as a Nicolson family project, and Woolf’s biographical novel Flush. This trio of texts allows Utell to demonstrate how writers navigate two conflicting desires, the first to claim intimacy through exclusive knowledge of the loved one and the second to preserve that intimacy by limiting access to that knowledge.
A strength of each volume is the engagement with ergography, a term Utell introduces to discuss the ways autobiographical writing by and biographical writing about literary couples has its own history. Not only do subjects and biographers contend with this genealogy as texts are produced, but the contours of prior narrations can produce a stock narrative and mask ethical complexity. Utell’s chapter on Warner and Ackland demonstrates, for example, how Warner’s interpretation of their first night together differs from Ackland’s, but Warner’s version remains dominant as auto/biographical writing about their lives accretes around their relationship. (The first biography of Ackland, by Francis Bingham, published by Handheld Press in 2021, offers an opportunity to revisit the questions Utell raises.) While Utell emphasizes how more traditional biographers coalesce around such received narratives, she—like Micir—suggests the fruitfulness of alternative storytelling modes in disturbing settled plots. Utell’s analysis of the comic strip Gertrude’s Follies (1978-1982), drawn and written by Tom Hachtman, functions similarly to Micir’s analysis of alternative biographical modes in the work of Kate Zambreno, Lisa Cohen, and Monique Truong. Collectively, these authors create empathetic and ironic revisions of the lives of queer women that also satirize the histories that have absented and pathologized them. Utell claims that Hachtman’s comic ends by “privileging the private, thus reinscribing—and reaffirming—the worlding of the two” women (84). His celebratory, campy portrait of Stein and Toklas skewers the voyeuristic male modernist gaze, here represented by Ernest Hemingway’s known discomfort with their relationship. Micir suggests the richness contemporary writers offer as they revise modernist and queer feminist modernist history. Of note is her analysis of Truong’s The Book of Salt, which imagines the life of Bình, the Stein and Toklas’s Vietnamese cook, because this reading constellates queerness within structures of racial and class privilege. Micir concludes that “there are fates worse than being an exile of the modernist memory project,” signaling a need to remain aware of that the queer feminist modernist archive practices its own exclusions (136).
At the end of The Passion Projects, Melanie Micir homes in on “the unfinished aesthetic of queer feminist modernism” to illustrate how her project can foster new lines of research (110). Janine Utell similarly promotes “an ethics of reading through the recognition of unknowability” (181) that highlights the promise her work in Literary Couples and 20th-Century Life Writing has for contextualizing—perhaps we might say versioning—established life narratives. Both scholars inject uncertainty into grand narratives either of this thing called life or of literary history by theorizing how life stories are worked, and worked over, as a function of literary institutions and canon formation. Each scholar suggests that what remains unaccounted for in the spaces between people, and between official histories and archival materials, is a rich resource for scholars of life writing and for aficionados of the auto/biographical form. In so doing—attentively, compassionately, and humbly—these studies question the boundaries of “life” enacted through auto/biographical writing and constitute powerful new forms of literary being.