In this post, Dr. Chris Johnson, chair of the department, discusses a forthcoming publication about a little-known eighteenth-century biography. Although the biography commanded a huge following for decades after its publication, it’s been largely forgotten today, but studying it and other overlooked literary texts has its own rewards.
Much of my scholarly work involves recovering old texts that may have enjoyed considerable popularity in their own day, but that have been largely forgotten by literary historians and critics. These works, I’ve discovered are often quite readable, and they give us an opportunity to reconsider some of our assumptions concerning a particular genre or time period.
For the past few months, I have been working with a nearly forgotten text, Philip Doddridge’s Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of the Honourable Col. James Gardiner, which was first published in 1747. The biography, which was enormously popular throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, records the life of a famous solider who endured horrific wounds as a young man, repented and early life of sin, and fought valiantly in the Battle of Preston pans, where he was killed.
Although readers of the biography will learn a bit about eighteenth-century weapons and tactics, Doddridge does not focus on Gardiner’s military career. Instead, he directs our attention to his subject’s spiritual life. This focus seems logical when one considers the author. Doddridge himself was a dissenting minister, who published dozens of sermons and theological works, including the tremendously successful Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul.
For Doddridge, the important part of Gardiner’s life is his transition from sinfulness to redemption, and his work follows many of the conventions of spiritual autobiography, which English majors will remember from John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Doddridge’s work, however, is notable for the quality of its writing. Reading very much like a novel, the work is a rhetorical masterpiece, and it contains many of the features that Doddridge incorporated in his sermons and that he taught to young ministers. Particularly noteworthy are Doddridge’s many appeals to his reader’s emotions, which align his work with later eighteenth-century sentimental literature.
In the end, I argue that the biography helps us understand the complicated dynamics that exist among novelistic fiction, biography, homiletics, and hymns.
Dr. Johnson’s article about Doddridge’s biography, “Artful Instruction: Philip Doddridge’s The Life of Colonel James Gardiner” is forthcoming in Beyond Sense and Sensibility: New Perspectives on Moral Education in the Late Eighteenth Century, ed. Peggy Thompson (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press).