Cara E. Murray, “Self-Help and the Helpless Subject: Samuel Smiles and Biography’s Objects” (pp. 481–508)
This essay examines how the changing relationship between human subjects and industrial objects in the industrial age redraws the conventions of the most influential strand of nineteenth-century biography, self-help. It argues that Samuel Smiles’s greatest contribution to biography, self-help, arises from his initial recognition of how, in an industrial age, objects shape subjects, and then from his subsequent demonstration of how subjects surmount that very phenomenon. By tracing the strides that Smiles makes in his biographical project from his earliest speeches in the mid-1840s, and then to his technical and biographical writings of the following decade, to his synthesis of these two forms in Self-Help (1859), this essay demonstrates how Smiles develops the genre of self-help out of writing about men’s changing relation to objects. It argues that Self-Help teaches the paradoxical lesson that at the height of industrialization men no longer need to depend upon machines. With this message, Self-Help invigorates biography by providing it with the ideological purpose of teaching Victorians that in the age of machines man can help himself.