Last week my reading group discussed Janet Adelman's Blood Relations: Christian and Jew in The Merchant of Venice. This is the most recent of several books we've read that includes either explicit or implicit autobiography. Adelman's book is not a memoir-by-way-of-literature, like Reading Lolita in Tehran (or, perhaps more relevantly, Leonard Barkan's Satyr Square); it's a work of scholarship that opens with a several-page meditation on the author's Jewishness; the ambivalent reception that she and other Jewish scholars of the Renaissance once received; and her discomfort with Merchant itself.
I didn't feel that these autobiographical musings affected the rest of the book negatively, but neither, to my mind, did they affect it positively. For one thing, taken as autobiography, her opening anecdotes aren't especially interesting or evocative. It might have required too much text to make them better--Adelman's book is not, after all, a memoir--but as it is, these autobiographical moments work neither as autobiography nor as an entrée into the rest of her book.
By contrast, a book we read last spring, Jeff Dolven's Scenes of Instruction in Renaissance Romance, had what seemed to me both powerful and productive autobiographical resonances. Dolven's book, which deals with humanist education and the successes, failures, and revolts that it bred among Renaissance writers, felt personal without being in the least confessional. I got the impression from Dolven's discussion of some of the problems with imparting and assessing knowledge that he's a thoughtful, engaged teacher whose scholarly interests affect and inform his pedagogy. I don't know Dolven any more than I know Adelman, but that vague sense of the personality behind the text increased my interest in and enjoyment of his work.
So with those two books standing in for the others I've read that do similar things, I'm curious, first, as to whether my readers (especially those in other disciplines or subfields) perceive there to be a rise in autobiographically-infused scholarship; and second, whether or when you think such an infusion is productive.
If this is indeed a trend, I suspect it may be an extension of our belief that everyone has an agenda (and what seems to be a related rise in opinion- and personality-based journalism and punditry); perhaps some of us, especially those who work on potentially controversial or identity-based topics, feel that it's useful to foreground our own backgrounds, assumptions and prejudices. I understand that impulse, though I'm not sure I agree with it.
As the existence of this blog should make clear, I'm a fan of autobiography. Indeed, it wasn't until I began blogging that I realized I've always been attentive to authorial voice and persona; almost nothing, in fact, is more fascinating to me than the various ways we present ourselves to the world--and the degree to which those self-presentations are or are not in our control. But one of the reasons that I blog is to create a space for the autobiographical. The voice that I use in my scholarship is, I think, both personal and recognizably my own--but it is not explicitly autobiographical nor would I wish it to be.
Part of the problem is that autobiography has the potential to make our scholarship seem too personal and too partial. Yes, it's true that Adelman's Jewish last name might, all on its own, cause some readers to speculate about her reasons for writing on Merchant of Venice--just as my ethnic-Catholic last name or my friend's East Asian one might raise assumptions or expectations about "where we're coming from" when we work or don't work on certain topics; it's also true that all of us, whatever our backgrounds, have idiosyncratic and personal takes on the things we study. But to foreground the autobiographical in our scholarship isn't just to acknowledge the personal (which I support), but to imply that it's the most important part of our research.
Myself, I am interested in learning why people study the things they study and what started them on a particular project (or how that project intersects with and informs other areas of their lives). But I'm usually interested in that when I'm interested in the person, as part of a developing relationship; it's the sort of thing one chats about over a couple of drinks, or in the comments section to someone's blog. If I don't know you, it's your work I'm judging you by, not how affecting and interesting your personal narrative is--and indeed, I suspect that the better an autobiographical narrative is, as autobiography, the more inappropriate its presence in your book or article becomes.
But there's an easy solution here: get a blog!