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Biographer to speak at Linfield College

Alfred Habegger, a biographer and former professor of English, will speak on “Chasing Hidden Lives: Confessions of a Biographer” Thursday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. in the Jereld R. Nicholson Library at Linfield College.

His biographies, both of which have won awards, are “The Father: A Life of Henry James, Sr.” (1994) and “My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson” (2001). At present he is completing a life of Anna Leonowens, who taught English at the Siamese Court in the 1860s and became the model for the governess in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, “The King and I.”

Habegger did his graduate work at Stanford University, writing his dissertation on Henry James and receiving his Ph.D. in 1967. As a professor of English, he taught in the English Department at the University of Kansas for 30 years, and at the University of Bucharest in 1972-1973 as Fulbright Lecturer in American Literature. Research fellowships include four independent study fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. His scholarly articles, essays and reviews have appeared in American Literature, New England Quarterly, PMLA, Novel, and other journals, and in various collections of essays. His book-length critical studies are “Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature” (1982) and “Henry James and the ‘Woman Business'” (1989).

Habegger writes that he first specialized in the fiction of Henry James and William Dean Howell and later became interested in 19th century women’s novels and certain social and political aspects of fiction. He became aware of gaps in previous biographies of Henry James Sr. and through further research he became “an investigative literary biographer: someone who tries to get at the seam between a writer’s life and work by undertaking an exhaustive quest for anything that offers to shed light on the subject.”

“As a biographer, I’m on the lookout for what seem to be telling details of family, economic, and religious history, and I travel to many kinds of archives and record depositories, also making use of the internet,” he said. “I search for school records, census records, passenger lists, tax assessments, surviving letters of neighbors and friends, contextual matters as preserved in local newspapers, and on and on. To be a biographer is to be overwhelmed by the scattered traces a writer leaves behind and then to try to assemble these materials into a coherent and truthful narrative. Having begun as a reader of discrete texts, I now find myself pursuing the messiest occupation imaginable.”

The lecture is sponsored by the Ken and Donna Ericksen Endowed English Department Fund and is free and open to the public. Ericksen, a professor of English at Linfield since 1965, created the endowment in memory of his wife, Donna, a Linfield alumna, who taught reading, writing and English in the Hillsboro School District for 25 years. The endowment allows the English Department to bring speakers to campus for several days to work with faculty and students and to present a public lecture. For more information, call 503-883-2583.