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A HIGHER FORM OF CANNIBALISM?
Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography
By Carl Rollyson Ivan R. Dee
Copyright © 2005
All right reserved.
Chapter One IN THE EARLY 1970s, Rebecca West, a regular reviewer of biographies for the London Sunday Telegraph, deplored the modern taste for cutting up lives and rendering the bloody data of biography that made subjects sound pathological. West's outrage occurred some two decades before Joyce Carol Oates coined the term "pathography" in the New York Times Book Review in order to express her disgust with a biography of the writer Jean Stafford because the book emphasized Stafford's physical and mental debilitation. Ted Hughes, writing to the biographer Anne Stevenson, decried the prospect of
allowing myself to be dragged out into the bull-ring and teased and pricked and goaded into vomiting up every detail of my life with Sylvia for the higher entertainment of the hundred thousand Eng Lit Profs and graduates who-as you know-feel very little in this case beyond curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, popular bloodsport kind, no matter how they robe their attentions in Lit Crit Theology and ethical sanctity.
In an article titled "Biography Becomes a Bloodsport," the New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani began by quoting Oscar Wilde: "Formerly we used to canonize our heroes. ... The modern method is to vulgarise them. Cheap editions of great booksmay be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable." Since Wilde's condemnation of modern biography, it has accelerated its descent into bad taste, according to Kakutani. In her bill of indictment she included Joe McGinnis's The Last Brother, an account of Edward Kennedy which blurred the distinction between biographical speculation and fiction; Jeffrey Meyers's Scott Fitzgerald, a "voyeuristic" portrait that fastened on the writer's sex life and the size of his penis; Francine du Plessix Gray's Rage and Fire, which reduced Flaubert to a "selfish male chauvinist pig."
Kakutani condemned "tasteless biographies" that "mirror the cultural zeitgeist." What had once seemed liberating in Lytton Strachey's debunking of pious Victorian biography had rapidly devolved from refreshing candor to ugly "fact-and-gossip-stuffed hatchet jobs." Even "prize-winning" biographies from university presses dished the dirt. Why? It was due to a culture of celebrity, Kakutani argued, in which the artist's personality usurped the biographer's narrative. And biography paid well, she added, anticipating an Irish Times reviewer's observation that "I have no doubt that literary biography, a relatively weak and recent form, has been recruited in recent years to cutting-edge commercialism."
"Dishy" is the word a reviewer used on the front page of the New York Times Book Review to describe my biography Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. A newcomer to the warfare over modern biography, I did not realize then what the word meant. I had to ask my agent. The word is a synonym for gossipy. The reviewer did not consider whether Hellman as a subject might invite such treatment; rather she presumed that the dishiness inhered in the biography itself-in the mind of the biographer, in other words.
Similarly, a few reviewers chastised me for emphasizing Hellman's ugliness, even suggesting that because I had written Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress I was predisposed to admiring only that kind of beauty. That I was merely reporting physical descriptions of Hellman conveyed to me by her friends and lovers did not matter. The mere fact of reporting, or rather what I chose to emphasize, became my trademark as a biographer. Dwelling on Hellman's appearance, even when it was a striking feature of how people reacted to her, seemed mean-spirited-as if I had deliberately disfigured my subject.
Kakutani attributed the new invasiveness of biography to changing notions of what is public and private. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas and Paula Jones-Bill Clinton controversies had stimulated the public's salacious interests. "Salacious," by the way, is the word British reviewers prefer, including those who attacked my portrayal of the Hemingway/ Gellhorn marriage in my biography Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn (a revision of Nothing Ever Happens to the Brave: The Story of Martha Gellhorn) because I quoted some of Hemingway's more vicious descriptions of her sexual inadequacy. As the critic Hywell Williams put it, biography is "a peepshow on the past-not the real thing."
Kakutani ended her shotgun survey of contemporary biography by stepping back to the century before Wilde and quoting the British writer John Arbuthnot's observation that biography is "one of the new terrors of death." But if she could find this sentiment expressed more than two hundred years ago, what exactly was new about modern bloodsport biography? Well, that question shall be answered in due course.
The London Observer's literary editor Robert McCrum renewed the Kakutani offensive by taking the novelist/biographer Edmund White's remark for a column title: "Biography is the form by which little people take revenge on big people." McCrum invoked James Joyce's aversion to the "biografiend."
Biographers empty or steal lives of their meaning, Janet Malcolm contends in The Silent Woman, her influential evisceration of biography. Like many critics of contemporary biography, Malcolm sides with the subjects (victims) and with their families, who must withstand the prying of biographers. She investigates Sylvia Plath's life in order to understand why it has occasioned so many biographies that tend to idealize her and demonize her husband, Ted Hughes, a brilliant English poet and a ruggedly handsome man whom Malcolm believes biographers have maligned.
Malcolm calls biographers professional burglars, voyeurs, and busybodies, rifling through the most intimate parts of their subjects' lives. An elaborate apparatus of notes and other documentation makes biography appear to be a legitimate enterprise, but the scholarly machinery merely masks a crude delving into gossip, she suggests. Malcolm attributes the great popularity of biography to collusion between biographers and readers, both slavering to discover the secrets of other people's lives.
Biographies raise the same sort of ethical concerns Malcolm has identified in her book on journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer (1990). The biographer, like the journalist, is driven by reportorial desire, the urge to get a story no matter how it may affect its subjects, their friends, and their families. Like the journalist, the biographer uses the interview to con people into spilling the beans-as she puts it.
Much of The Silent Woman concerns the efforts of Ted and Olwyn Hughes to keep the lid on Sylvia Plath's life, to discourage and even censor unlicensed biographical interpretation. Malcolm sympathizes with them, feeling they have a right to protect their privacy, especially when biographers violate it looking to make a buck, or to get an academic promotion, or to punish Ted Hughes for his vile treatment of Sylvia. For Hughes has become the villain of the story. Tales of his violence and womanizing darken the Plath biographical myth. His own poetry is violent, and it is easy to see him as a modern-day Heathcliff. He even hails from Yorkshire, Brontë country, the world of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.
Although Ted Hughes had opposed the Plath biographers because he said he wanted to protect the privacy of himself and his family, several biographers have suggested he was merely trying to stifle and even destroy the evidence, which puts him in a bad light. Hughes contributed to this image of himself by destroying one of Plath's journals and by claiming another had been lost. His sister Olwyn, even in Malcolm's sympathetic portrayal of her and her position as a literary executor, harried biographers-including her own authorized biographer Anne Stevenson, whose biography many critics lambasted as the Plath estate's put-up job.
How can Malcolm be so sympathetic to Ted and Olwyn Hughes, especially when Malcolm admits their many faults and mistakes in the treatment of Plath biographers? Because Malcolm sees biography as an epistemologically problematic genre. She doubts that the biographer can know the truth about much of anything. If this is so, no wonder biographers appear to her and others as impertinent and sensationalistic. They deal mainly in melodrama, confecting narratives that provide a factitious coherence to lives that are far more ambiguous than biographers recognize.
This willful side of biography is apparent in Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright. A send-up of biography, the novel is divided into "The Early Years," "The Middle Years," "The Late Years"-a parody of Leon Edel's titles in his five-volume biography of Henry James. Jeffrey is Edwin's Boswell, not only faithfully recording the minutiae of the writer's life but also creating situations in which he can observe his subject's life and eventually his death. Millhauser captures both the comic and sinister side of the biographer's devotion to the creative self and the sense in which the subject is the biographer's creation, an extension of his desire to impose a certain order on sometimes trivial, sometimes hazy evidence. The very neatness of Jeffrey's mind calls into question his interpretations and the biographer's obsession to invent a unified self.
I once sat next to Steven Millhauser during an event at the National Arts Club and tried to engage him in a discussion of his novel, but he was having none of it. Clearly I was the enemy. I think I know why. Biographers, in his view, are bogus because they are writing fiction in the guise of nonfiction.
For Malcolm, the biographer is also a suspect-a "perp," as the police say. She raises all sorts of problems with the so-called data biographers collect. Interviews, for example, are done after the subject's death, or, at the very least, after the events that the biographer seeks to study. Memories fade and contradict each other. Witnesses to the events have their own agendas. There is no infallible way to tell the truth. Similarly, letters are unreliable. They seem to fix experience, but they are only expressions of the moment and cannot be taken for the subject's final or complete attitudes.
Malcolm's main target is Paul Alexander, who reconstructs scenes from Plath's life with an immediacy and detail that, she asserts, cannot be verified. Even if some of his details can be traced to letters, interviews, journals, and memoirs, those details are the product of individuals with their own biases. Alexander misleads readers, Malcolm argues, by presenting a story as if it could be objectively told, when the whole mass of it is in fact a collection of subjective accounts.
Perhaps Malcolm read Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. In his diary, Antoine Roquetin, the biographer of Marquis de Rollebon, grapples not only with the meaning of his subject's life but with existence itself, concluding that he cannot finish his biography and cannot justify the meaning of another human being's existence any more than his own. The novel provides keen insights into the biographer's ambivalence about his subject and his sources, and into the way the biographer's life impinges on his subject, sometimes making the biographer feel he is writing a novel of another's life in compensation for the career he himself cannot pursue.
Excerpted from A HIGHER FORM OF CANNIBALISM? by Carl Rollyson Copyright © 2005 by Carl Rollyson. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
A candid and revealing account, by an expert in the minefield, of the biographer's contentious work.
author of lives of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, Orwell, and Maugham
"Rollyson's discussion of writing and evaluating biography is revealing and stimulating, making this a good read."
New School University, Choice
...A free wheeling...examination of the art and craft of biography.... Bright, witty, persuasive...worthy of our best attention.
Rollyson is...a discerning critic of the art of life writing.... Witty and wise essays...
author of William Faulkner: An Illustrated Life, professor, Randolph-Macon College
...A witty, informative, and hugely entertaining book that is chock-full of food for thought....