Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Robert Graves wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929, when he was only in his mid-thirties. Born in 1895 into a middle-class English family with many literary and intellectual connections, Graves in this work ostensibly rejects his own personal experiences as well as the history of his time in order to pursue a new life. His mid-life crisis resulted from numerous private and public actions and events which the author was sloughing off, as he indicated in his title.

In general form, Graves’s work is a traditional autobiography. Perhaps parodying many nineteenth century literary biographies, the book begins with his earliest memories: watching Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in 1897 and being overwhelmed by the sight of a full edition of the works of William Shakespeare in the family nursery. His father, of Scots-Irish background, was a local supervisor of schools in London as well as a poet of orthodox verse. His mother, of German ancestry, was related to the famous historian Leopold von Ranke. Graves’s childhood was traditionally Victorian in upbringing: Protestant Christianity combined with intellectual endeavor. He was reared to be an English gentleman.

As was expected of one of his social class, Graves was educated at one of the exclusive public schools, Charterhouse. Like other twentieth century English writers, Graves stated that his school days were not particularly pleasant. His schoolmates often referred to his German antecedents, so Graves instead argued that he was Irish. He developed a crush on a younger schoolboy, typical in that all-male environment. Graves gained some respect and recognition after taking up boxing. In 1914 he was to enter the University of Oxford. Before that could occur, war broke out in Europe.

The assassination in the Balkans of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon evolved into the conflagration known as the Great War, or World War I. With many of his social class, Graves did what was expected. He enlisted as an officer in the British army and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a highly decorated and much-honored regiment. Graves had had no intention of making the military his career; nevertheless, he became both a competent and a conscientious officer. He served in the trenches on the western front, fought in no-man’s-land, was wounded seriously twice—he was reported dead...

(The entire section is 978 words.)