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[book cover] “My Own Portrait in Writing”

Patrick Grant

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May 2015

9781771990455 (Paperback)
9781771990592 (PDF)
9781771990608 (ePub)


Cultural Dialectics

Literary Criticism & Theory



About the Book

Art historians, biographers, and other researchers have long drawn on Van Gogh’s voluminous correspondence—more than eight hundred letters—for insights into both his personal struggles and his art. But the letters, while often admired for their literary quality, have rarely been approached as literature. In this volume, Patrick Grant sets out to explore the question, “By what criteria do we judge Van Gogh's letters to be, specifically, literary?” Drawing, especially, on Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualization of self-awareness as an ongoing dialogue between “self” and “other,” Grant examines the ways in which Van Gogh’s letters raise, from within themselves, questions and issues to which they also respond. Their literary quality, he argues, derives in part from this “double-voiced discourse”—from the power of the letters to thematize, through their own internal dialogues, the very structure of self-fashioning itself. Far from merely reproducing the narrative of the artist’s personal progress, “the letters enable readers to recognize how necessary yet open-ended, constrained yet liberating, confined yet unpredictable, are the means by which people seek to shape a place for themselves in the world.”

This volume builds on Grant’s earlier analysis of Van Gogh’s correspondence, The Letters of Vincent van Gogh: A Critical Study (AU Press, 2014), a study in which he approached the letters from a literary critical standpoint, delving into key patterns of metaphors and concepts. In the present volume, he provides instead a literary theoretical analysis of the letters, one that draws them more fully into the domain of modern literary studies. In his deft and keenly perceptive reading, Grant deconstructs the binaries that surface in both Van Gogh’s writing and painting, discusses the narrative dimensions of the letter-sketches and the recurring themes of fantasy, belief, and self-surrender, and draws attention to Van Gogh’s own understanding of the permeable boundary between words and visual art. Viewing the letters as an integrated body of discourse, “My Own Portrait in Writing” offers a theoretically informed interpretation of Van Gogh’s literary achievement that is, quite literally, without precedent.


About the Author

Patrick Grant, professor emeritus of English at the University of Victoria, is best known for his studies on literature and religion. He is the author of Imperfection, which was short-listed for the Canada Prize, and of Literature, Rhetoric, and Violence in Northern Ireland, 1968–98.



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Copyright: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). It may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes, provided that the original author is credited.


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Select a Chapter

DownloadFront Matter

DownloadTable of Contents

DownloadList of Illustrations


DownloadIntroduction: The Dialogical Structure of Self-Fashioning

Van Gogh Old and New: Reading the Letters as Literature
What Is Literature Anyway? Cultural Codes and Timeless Truths
Bakhtin, Dialogue, and the Self Interrupted
Embodied Intentions: The Textual Dynamics of Self-Fashioning
Conclusion: Van Gogh’s “Double-Voiced Discourse”

DownloadChapter 1. The Painterly Writer

Dissolving Boundaries: Word-Painting and the Sister Arts
Ideal Space, Existential Time
Drawing and Painting: From Morality to Aesthetics
Thinking About Colour and Seeing Beyond It
Conclusion: Dialogical Means and Personal Ends

DownloadChapter 2. Binaries, Contradictions, and “Arguments on Both Sides”

Contradiction, Paradox, and the Shaping of Commitment
Half-Measures and Negative Contrasts
Deconstructing the Binaries
The Sower: A Dialogue of Life and Death
Conclusion: Contradiction and the Quest for Meaning

DownloadChapter 3. Reading Van Gogh’s Letter-Sketches

The Letter-Sketches and the Letters
Narrative Dimensions
Representing the Sacred
Homo Viator
Conclusion: Enhancing the Text

DownloadChapter 4. Imagination and the Limits of Self-Fashioning

Open Sea and Enchanted Ground: The Perils of Commitment
Imagination: “Impossible Windmills”
Imagination: “That’s Rich, That’s Poetry”
Safe Enough to Let Go: On Perseverance and Spontaneity
Conclusion: Managing the Dialogue

DownloadConclusion: Envoi




“A deep and creative inquiry suggesting meaningful structures for understanding the richness of the artist's life and work. Grant succeeds in bringing Van Gogh’s letters into the domain of modern literary studies, and demonstrates that the effort opens exciting new ways of understanding the radical tensions, puzzling transformations, and internal frustrations expressed by the artist in writing, drawing, and painting.”

University of Toronto Quarterly