Biographicon is a cultural psychogeography of the Northern Enlightenment explored through a podcast series supported by this website.
The series draws from Dr Declan McCormack’s research on eighteenth-century northern theatre and with the help of leading scholars he aims to identify key figures who have influenced northern identity; many of whom have been marginalised or completely forgotten.
The word “biographicon” was coined by William Taylor of Norwich in a review about the first English treatise ever written about the art of biography which was published in Sunderland in 1813. The author of The Essay on the Study and Composition of Biography was a provincial actor called James Field Stanfield and Taylor recommended that Stanfield should put his theories into practice by concentrating on the British geographers then mapping the globe:
By separating into one biographicon this peculiar class of lives, a philanthropic emulation would be excited, a debt of social gratitude would be discharged, a trophy to patriotism would be erected, and an instructive knowledge of the present state of nations and the gradual concatenation of intercourse would be diffused. Literature should rear altars to the missionaries of human civilization.
Described by a contemporary as “the founder of the Anglo-German school in England” Taylor was a traveller who had crossed the German Ocean to visit the Dutch Republic, Denmark and the German States. He was remarkably prolific, writing more than two thousand reviews in literary journals, all of which were anonymous; although, when William Hazlitt celebrated The Edinburgh Review as “eminently characteristic of the Spirit of the Age” he reminded readers that the “style of philosophical criticism” which it boasted was actually in imitation of Taylor. As a provincial figure who has had a remarkable and unrecognised influence on modern culture Taylor epitomises the aim of Biographicon.
Rather like a method actor, Stanfield believed a good biographer needed to think like their subject. He also coined a new word to describe this spirit of enquiry and called it “biology”. The word might appear misapplied today, but it wasn’t then; because the word “biology” did not exist when he was writing. It serves as a reminder that in this pre-modern period Stanfield, Taylor and all of the figures that feature in this series existed on the cusp of change when the structure of their minds, their ways of thinking, were not like ours.
Biographicon will map these earlier patterns of knowledge and, as Stanfield encouraged, attempt to enter into the minds of these historical figures.
In this way we might better understand what we have gained and what we might have lost.