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How to Judge a Book By Its Author: The Renaissance Invention of Literary Biography

Abstract: How did the life stories of authors first attain such a prominent role in the interpretation of their texts? When did Anglo-European literary culture first assume a fundamental link between writers’ personalities and their words? Although conventional literary histories have identified a Romantic-era origin, the story in fact begins much earlier, in the work of Renaissance textual editors, literary theorists, and, eventually, poets. To illustrate how this now widespread reading practice first came into prominence, this talk examines the first-person voice of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 76 in the context of contemporary experimentation with author-centric textual editing – particularly Erasmus of Rotterdam’s landmark edition of the letters of Saint Jerome (1516). Throughout the edition, Erasmus’ primary interpretive strategy is to extrapolate authorial ethos from textual evidence. This conjectured character of Jerome in turn serves as a basis for Erasmus both to compose a biography of Jerome and to propose emendations to Jerome’s writings. In this edition, Erasmus also articulates the highly individualized style-man correspondence theory that undergirds his own career-long editorial method and, in turn, through his enormous print popularity and influence, echoes across the work of many subsequent early modern readers and writers – including Shakespeare.

Bio: Douglas Pfeiffer is Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York. His teaching and research focus on early modern fiction, humanism, and history of the book, with particular interest in the non-rational elements (emotion, personality, speculation) of textual culture. His book, The Force of Character (2022), proposes a new account of how biographical criticism got its start. His current research projects include an exploration of fiction’s central roles in the practices of pre-modern interdisciplinarity and a study of intercalation in western calendrical practice. He also regularly performs individual books of Paradise Lost from memory.

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