Date of this Version
American Literature (2009) 81: 392-394. DOI: 10.1215/00029831-2009-009.
Literary historians writing biographies have increasingly shifted from critical biography (the author’s life as a means to interpret his or her literary works) to cultural biography (an author’s life and works in various cultural contexts). As literary historians whose biographical subjects (both nineteenth-century American women) are not primarily literary figures, Bergland and Scharnhorst represent a further step away from critical biography.
As a journalist (and popular lecturer, advocate of reform, playwright, and actress), Kate Field is a more literary figure than astronomer Maria Mitchell, but Scharnhorst has produced neither a critical nor a cultural biography. Instead, he presents a chronological march through Field’s life from beginning to end (her sudden death from pneumonia while returning from an investigative trip to Hawaii). Scharnhorst has meticulously researched Field’s life, drawing particularly on newspaper accounts of her presence in the public eye, but the dizzying array of dates, names, and places sometimes reads more like a bibliography than a biography. Field passed through and sometimes deeply engaged places and questions that have received ample scholarly attention recently. She was a feminist, advocating for women’s independence and mobility (practicing what she preached while traveling as a lecturer and journalist and remaining unmarried), but she advocated against women’s suffrage. She investigated Mormonism in the Utah territory and advocated against statehood. Her final trip was, despite its veneer of investigative journalism, a propaganda excursion in support of U.S. interests in Hawaii. However, Scharnhorst does not use scholarship on these questions to illuminate Field’s life or vice versa. Literary historians may find useful information in Scharnhorst’s biography, packed as it is with references to the literary figures with whom Field crossed paths, including Charles Dickens, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Henry James (who modeled Henrietta Stackpole in Portrait of a Lady on Field), Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They will find little, however, on the meaning and significance of Field’s life and works. In his preface, Scharnhorst catalogs statements by Field’s nineteenth-century contemporaries about her fame and importance, and he ends by claiming, “More than any other American woman of her generation, Kate Field heeded her calling, spread her gospel of noble deeds, and deserves to be resurrected from the footnote” (249). But why does she, rather than other figures in the footnotes, deserve that resurrection?