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An Annotated Bibliography
By Carl Rollyson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Carl Rollyson
All rights reserved.
BIOGRAPHERS ON BIOGRAPHY
Aaron, Daniel, ed. Studies in Biography. Harvard English Studies 8. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Essays by four biographers and seven scholars on the biographer's concept of a "core personality," the limitations of psychological approaches to biography, how the act of writing determines biographical interpretation, the nature of authorized biographies, the conventions of eighteenth and nineteenth century biography, Romanticism and biography, the difficulties of researching obscure lives, and the variety of sources that biographers use. Biographical subjects include Mark Twain, Henry Adams, Henry James, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Alice James, and Thomas Shepard. Biographers include Justin Kaplan, Edward Mendelson, John Clive, and Jean Strouse.
Ackerman, Robert. J. G. Frazer: His Life and Work. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
In his introduction, "Frazer and Intellectual Biography," Ackerman argues that although Frazer is no longer regarded as an important anthropologist and that his "approach to religion is virtually meaningless in terms of contemporary practice," his influence on writers has been extraordinary. Frazer, he suggests, has provided them with important metaphors, and his impact on a general audience has been significant in shaping the "modern spirit." This kind of intellectual biography becomes, in effect, "an essay in rehabilitation," providing a rationale for the study of a figure otherwise rejected by the strict canons of modern academic scholarship.
Alexander, Paul. "Holy Secrets." The Nation, March 23, 1992, 385–387.
Alexander, a biographer of Sylvia Plath, details his own experience with her psychiatrist and discusses the ethical issues concerning the release of psychiatric evidence. He rehearses the controversy over Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography of the poet Anne Sexton (which used recordings of Sexton's psychiatric sessions). Alexander argues for a case by case evaluation of the use of psychiatric evidence, carefully noting that both he and Middlebrook took into account their subjects' attitudes toward revealing such information as well as the psychiatrists' reasons for relinquishing confidentiality.
Atlas, James. "Choosing a Life." The New York Times Book Review, January 13, 1991, 1, 22–23.
Citing numerous examples (including his own biography of Delmore Schwartz), Atlas supports the view that the best biographies are founded on "the biographer's unconsciously realized opportunity for self-expression." Rather than liking the subject, the biographer must be "possessed," fully committed to the strenuous task of discovering and interpreting the evidence. Many biographies fail when the biographer, out of sympathy with the subject, turns against the biographical enterprise, either abandoning the form or attacking the subject.
Bair, Deirdre. "The 'How-To' Biography." In Biographers at Work, edited by James Walter and Raija Nugent. Nathan, Queensland, Australia: Institute for Modern Biography, 1984.
A useful discussion of different types of biography: authorized (controlled by the subject, the subject's heirs, or the subject's estate), designated (similar to the authorized biography, except that "no authority over the final published manuscript" is exercised), independent (written without the sanction of the subject or of the heirs and the estate), and bowdlerized (a miscellaneous, tendentious collection of data sometimes found in popular biographies). Bair also offers good advice on copyright issues and insight into her biographical work on living figures.
--. "Reflections on Life: 'Working' with Simone De Beauvoir." Pequod 14, (1987): 43–53.
"Working" is what de Beauvoir called her sessions with her biographer Bair, which gradually became more intense — almost a collaboration between them, with Bair at one point suggesting that de Beauvoir help her write a new kind of biography, one that inserted the subject's comments in the biographer's narrative. De Beauvoir died before this scheme could be essayed. Never exactly intimates (de Beauvoir showed little interest in the biographer's personal life), they nevertheless became joined in arguing (often disagreeing) about the significance of de Beauvoir's biography.
Bate, Walter Jackson. Samuel Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977.
Rejects the radical split between literary biography and literary criticism begun in the 1930's and 1940's. No other form of biography separates the man from his work: "[O]nly with writers was it assumed that there should be a division of labor," with the biographer enjoined to "stay clear of critical discussion of the writer's works" and the critic to "tiptoe around biography and history. ... If we are to find our way into the inner life of a great writer, we must heal this split between 'biography' and 'criticism,' and remember that a very large part of the 'inner life' of a writer — what deeply preoccupied him, and made him a great writer — was his concern and effort, his hope and fear, in what he wrote."
Berthoud, Roger. The Life of Henry Moore. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987.
In his prelude, Berthoud describes the process of researching his biography of the sculptor during Moore's last days, the countless interviews, Moore's efforts to be helpful and yet to remain aloof from the biographical query. Berthoud remarks on the "strange sensation" of writing on the life of a living subject while knowing that the subject is "unlikely to be in a fit state to read the end product, and might well not survive to see its publication, as indeed he did not." Consequently, the biographer develops a "double relationship" with the subject, sociable and friendly, and yet "clinical and critical."
Blotner, Joseph. "On Having Known One's Subject." In Leon Edel and Literary Art, edited by Lyall H. Powers. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1988.
Blotner knew his subject, William Faulkner, for the last seven years of Faulkner's life. This relationship provided Blotner with enormous advantages, since he had a "visual memory" of his subject, of how he comported himself and spoke on different occasions. With the sanction of Faulkner's family, Blotner could approach sources in full confidence and gain their trust. Yet he admits that authorized biographers are sometimes shunned because it is assumed they are writing to please the subject's family. Friendship with Faulkner's family did prevent Blotner from asking certain intimate questions that a later biographer thought to ask. An unusually thoughtful essay about the way the biographer becomes implicated in his subject and how he or she struggles — not always successfully to attain a proper sense of proportion and discrimination.
Boswell, James. Life of Johnson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
At the beginning of his biography, Boswell establishes his method. Quoting liberally from Johnson's writing on biography, Boswell aims to allow his subject to speak in his own words rather than "melting down my materials." Boswell's offers a life, "not a panegyrick," revealing Johnson in his conversation as a great, but not perfect, man. Boswell's portrait is composed of innumerable details ("minute particulars") — a necessity he believed would reveal human character, which Plutarch (whom Boswell quotes) recognized when he said that a short saying or jest often expressed another's virtues and vices better than anything else. First published in 1791.
Bowen, Catherine Drinker. Adventures of a Biographer. Boston: Little, Brown, 1959.
A lively account of the research, the travels, and the interviews Bowen conducted for her biographies of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein, Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes, Jr., John Adams, and Sir Edward Coke. Bowen is excellent in evoking how a biographer researches a subject. Her own method is from "the outside in," reading generally in the period of her subject before dealing with the specific events of the subject's life. See especially the chapter entitled "On Interviewing and Evidence: Boston and Holmes."
--. Biography: The Craft and the Calling. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968.
A sensible, incisive discussion of how biographies are plotted and shaped, how biographers create opening and concluding scenes, the biographer's relationship with the subject, the use of sources and other quoted material, and "techniques of revealing the hero's thought." Bowen draws on her biographical research and shrewdly uses examples from other biographers to demonstrate how they handled research problems and matters of style and documentation. She explains not only her successes but also her false starts and other mistakes that required considerable rewriting. Not a scholar, she presents the case for popular biography and the biographer's need to entertain as well as inform.
Bradford, Gamaliel. American Portraits. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922.
In his preface, Bradford considers the difficulties in dealing with contemporaries and figures from the recent past. There are prejudices and "secondary associations" to overcome, the inclination to "please somebody, or to spare somebody, or to annoy somebody." Even great writers such as Sainte-Beuve have been unjust with their contemporaries. Bradford has also had to contend with the appearance of new material that makes him wonder whether his attempt to incorporate it after writing his portrait is sufficient or whether with such information beforehand his portrait might have been shaped differently. Most difficult is evaluating reports of the subject, which are always flawed: The "turn of a sentence may alter the light on a man's soul! Of such materials is biography made."
--. "The Art of Biography." The Saturday Review of Literature 1, May 23, 1925, 769–770.
Reviews the major issues and concerns for biographers: maintaining a critical attitude toward sources (including the subject's self-confessions), shaping facts into a coherent, literary style, the scrupulous control of anecdotes that often clutter a biographical narrative and make it diffuse, and an overall sense of balance, weighing the demands of a chronological account with the structure of the work as a whole. The primary goal of the biographer is to render character; all other elements of the work must be subordinated to this rendering of essential personality traits.
--. Bare Souls. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924.
Psychographies of Voltaire, Thomas Gray, Horace Walpole, William Cowper, Charles Lamb, John Keats, Gustave Flaubert, and Edward FitzGerald. In "A Clue to the Labyrinth of Souls," Bradford discusses the difficulty of interpreting the inner selves of his subjects, how he looks for telling details in "minor, insignificant actions," sifts through the reports of others, and analyzes his subject's writing (published works, diaries, and letters) in order to dissect and penetrate the core of the self. Some kinds of evidence are better than others. Bradford favors diaries and letters, which may be more spontaneous than retrospective works such as autobiographies and memoirs. The "naturalist of souls" must learn to distinguish between the subject's poses and determine which evidence is most self-revealing.
--. Biography and the Human Heart. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932.
A collection of biographical studies of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Walpole, and others. In his first and last chapters, Bradford speculates on the "universal interest in biography," noting the "desire to get out of ourselves and into the lives of others" and the need for readers to understand their own lives by assimilating the knowledge obtainable from biography. On the one hand, biography reminds readers of what they share with great subjects, the themes of love, ambition, and money that figure in most lives. On the other hand, biography is "the study of difference," the effort to understand lives that are quite beyond the ordinary. Modern biography must have a critical focus (even an iconoclastic one) if it is to acquire knowledge and be educational.
--. The Journal of Gamaliel Bradford, 1883–1932. Edited by Van Wyck Brooks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
Scattered comments on biographers, biography, the impact of the subject's life on the biographer, working methods, the merits of longer and shorter biographies, the importance of structure and style, and the disadvantages of authorized biography.
--. Lee the American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1912.
"Psychography," the "portrayal of a soul," aims to concentrate on the subject without "general prejudices," eschewing "personal affection" and a tendency to form fixed opinions. Noting how easily documents can mislead — including an instance in which Robert E. Lee's handwriting has been misinterpreted — the psychographer must resist assuming that he or she has the truth, since so much is lost (how the subject smiled or gestured, for example) and cannot be recovered. Taking Sainte-Beuve as his model, Bradford concentrates on character and learns to love his subjects, correcting, he believes, Sainte-Beuve's one weakness: a bitterness that prevented him from fully revealing his subjects.
--. The Letters of Gamaliel Bradford, 1918–1931, edited by Van Wyck Brooks. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Bradford defines and defends his conception of life-writing, attacking the biographer's reliance on chronology, which necessitates the incorporation of extraneous detail and detracts from a unified view of the subject. Bradford's medium is the seven-thousand-word portrait of a personality, although he prefers the term psychography because it suggests his systematic approach to biography, his attempt to find the essence of a personality and its spiritual character. Although he believes his method is scientific and based on a rigorous evaluation of sources, Bradford aspires to write as an artist, aiming for the intense insight of poetry.
--. "Psychography." In A Naturalist of Souls: Studies in Psychography. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1917.
Distinguishes psychography from the biographical portrait, arguing that the psychographer "endeavours to grasp as many particular moments as he can and to give his reader not one but the enduring sum total of them all." Making an analogy to the naturalist who "spends years in studying the life of a bird, or a frog, or a beetle," Bradford suggests that the psychographer's study of individual human characters is "inexhaustible" and "absorbing," requiring the identification of "certain elements that are far more significant than others." "A naturalist of souls" searches for the "deep and hidden motives and passions of the soul" regardless of chronological sequence. Psychography is often weakened, however, by its "dependence upon generalisations, usually hasty and never complete."
Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981.
In a preface, "Auden and Biography," Carpenter addresses Auden's view that "biographies of writers are always superfluous and usually in bad taste," that the "raw ingredients" of a writer's life do not explain "the peculiar flavour of his verbal dishes," and that his private life is of "no concern to anybody except himself, his family and his friends." Yet Auden had a more complex view of biography than his "dogmatic attitude" seemed to countenance. He made exceptions (Carpenter lists them) to justify biographies of certain writers, reviewed without compunction collections of writers' letters, allowed selections of his own correspondence to be published, and wrote autobiography. Carpenter champions an approach that Auden approved: A writer's work "may throw light upon his life."
Clark, Axel. "A Mongrel Task: Writing the Life of a Writer." In Biographers at Work, edited by James Walter and Raija Nugent. Nathan, Queensland, Australia: Institute for Modern Biography, 1984.
A biographer of Australian poet Christopher Brennan, Clark argues that not to see how the subject's life and work shape each other is tantamount to producing a life of the Duke of Wellington with the dates of battles and no assessment of his military achievement. The "variable status" of the "I" in Brennan's poems illuminates his life and sometimes even contradicts the evidence offered by his friends. Both the evidence of the poems and the life yield a range of possible motives that are not strictly separable from each other. The "I" of a poem, in other words, leads the reader both inside and outside the work, and it is this mixture of interpretation that defines the "mongrel task" of biography.
Clifford, James L. "A Biographer Looks at Dr. Johnson." In New Light on Dr. Johnson: Essays on the Occasion of his Two-hundred-fiftieth Birthday, edited by Frederick W. Hilles. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959.
Using examples from incidents in the life of Johnson and from his own experience, Clifford illustrates the problems of dealing with conflicting or meager evidence. He argues that a biographer should select the material, describe the subject, and evoke the scenes of the latter's life not only in accord with what can be verified but also in the light of the biographer's total understanding of the subject's life. Contending that biography must be subjective, Clifford says it has "no standing as history," for the subject's life depends on the "pattern that has been set up in the biographer's mind."
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