Spacks, Patricia (Ann) Meyer

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SPACKS, Patricia (Ann) Meyer

Born 17 November 1929, San Francisco, California

Daughter of Norman B. and Lillian Talcott Meyer; married Barry B. Spacks, 1955; children: Elizabeth

As an academic writer and professor of English, Patricia Meyer Spacks writes literary criticism on 18th-century authors, the structure of the novel, and women writers; nonfiction that elucidates aspects of mind (or age) such as the imagination, gossip, boredom, and adolescence; and essays on pedagogy and the literary profession. Presently the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia, Spacks also held the positions of chair of the English Department and president of the Modern Language Association (1994). She received her education at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (B.A., 1949), Yale University (M.A.), and the University of California (Ph.D., 1955). Her academic appointments include instructor at Indiana University at Bloomington (1954-56) and the University of Florida at Gainesville (1958-59). At Wellesley College she began as an instructor and was promoted to professor. Her awards include the Shirley Farr Fellowship of the American Association of University Women (1962-63), Guggenheim Fellowship (1969-70), National Endowment for the Humanities Senior Fellowship (1974), National Humanities Institute Fellowship (1976-77), Honorary Doctor of Letters from Rollins College (1976), and American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (1978-79).

In six books about 18th-century literature, Spacks writes with a vision that considers the writer and the genre in the social and cultural context of the period as well as the history of literary evolution and significance. Imagining a Self: Autobiography and Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (1976) is a comparative study between the two genres. The pairing of each autobiography with a work of fiction, e.g., Edward Gibbon's Autobiographies (1776) and Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (1760), reveals that the clear distinctions between the two genres invented in the 18th century are more apparent than true. As in her other studies, Spacks looks to the common ground: "the meaning of technique, the insistence of theme, and the implications of genre." "Autobiographies affirm identity" and novels in the development of character and plot assert identity. In the 20th century, the aim of either genre, "imagining a self," requires borrowings and blurring of the differences as self becomes the central subject.

Similarly, in Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels (1990), Spacks explores the question: What truth does fiction tell? She shows, although "desire" is a critical term of the 20th century, its priority is for building plots and assigning meaning: "Truth, dressed—like Falsehood—by Desire, becomes Fiction." Several studies associate fictional structures and reality, the making of novels, and social, ultimately, ethical, truth.

In all of her literary analyses, Spacks includes women writers and their writings, many of whom were unknown and excluded from traditional criticism. Imagining a Self (1976) presents several 18th-century writers: Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Barker, Susannah Rowson, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Laetitia Pilkington, Charlotte Charke, Hester Lynch Thrale, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Davys, Penelope Aubin, and Sarah Fielding. Spacks edited Series: Women Writers in English, 1350-1850 (1999). The Female Imagination: A Literary and Psychological Investigation of Women's Writings (1975), Spacks' first full-length text about women writers, introduces the integral relationship between the imagination and freedom. The text examines the "special female awareness [that] emerges through literature in every period."

Three themes predominate that reveal the social limitations of women's lives and the power of writing in obviating those restraints: the problems of women writing about women; the threat and the appeal of dependency, usually represented by marriage; and children or care-taking as a central justification of women lives. The imagination becomes the way to reproduce the reality that makes awareness and thus change possible and to represent other possibilities that bode for freedom.

The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination (1981), Gossip (1985), and Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (1995) share ideas, concepts, and states of mind that concern the 20th century, yet, through literary example, Spacks demonstrates the historical continuity. Adolescence as a social and psychological phenomena is a 20th century construct but earlier times represented this stage of life.

Gossip, like relationships, forms the subject, structure, and subtext of literature, as explored in Gossip. It functions as a plot device, as the source of malice or intimacy, as a mirror from the private to the public life. It is "the language of shared experience" transformed into story. Where gossip is social, boredom is lonely. Boredom examines how writing protects the writer against its vacuum, and reading admits the reader into the created antithesis to boredom: an active state of mind. "All writing—at least since 1800 or so—is about boredom…. The ideal dynamic between writing and reading depends in part on boredom as displaced, unmentioned, unmentionable possibility. The need to refute boredom's deadening poser impels the writer's productivity and the reader's engagement."

Spacks' recent articles discuss pedagogy. The title of her presidential address to the MLA (1994) links the structural and ethical concerns of her criticism with those of teaching: "Reality—Our Subject and Discipline" (1995). She asks, "So what…Why does it matter that we struggle to understand others' words and to shape our own language to convey meaning and feeling?" Her present work-in-progress is a study of self-love in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Other Works:

The Varied God: A Critical Study of Thomson's "The Seasons" (1959). The Insistence of Horror: Aspects of the Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1962). John Gay (1965). The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets (1967). An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope (1971).


CA Online (1999). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995).