Why Biography Matters


Carl Rollyson

I’m reading Amy Lowell’s two-volume biography of John Keats, part of my preparation for writing a biography of her—one I started several years ago that keeps getting interrupted. No matter, Amy waits, and I repay her patience by reading her in fugitive moments when I’m supposed to be doing something else. She has won my heart—not a development you would expect if you have ever read a biography of Amy Lowell. But as I noted in my last column, I have my reasons for returning to subjects that others deem already done.

When I say I repay her patience, I’m indulging in a literary conceit, of course. I don’t actually believe she cares a wit whether I write about her or not; neither do I believe that she is in a place where she could care. Nonetheless, such is exactly what, in practice, many biographers do believe. We develop intimate relationships with our subjects, dream about them, and carry on conversations with them as though they have taken us into their confidence. So strong is this urge, Dale Salwak is publishing Afterward: Conjuring the Literary Dead, a collection of pieces by biographers who engage in dialogue with their subjects—I have a dialogue with William Faulkner, Jeffrey Meyers braves a talk with Samuel Johnson, and so on.

What got me started on this particular column is a passage in Lowell’s Keats biography, which in turn made me think of something Tennyson said about Shakespeare. This last, in another turn, reminded me of a passage in Joan Schenkar’s recent biography of Patricia Highsmith. All of these references serve as texts for my sermon on why biography matters.

I’ll address Tennyson first, because he expresses the modernist bias against biography. He thought it wonderful that we know so little about Shakespeare. Like many lords of literature, Tennyson liked his Shakespeare neat—without entangling alliances with the messiness of life. Ah, to have the work stand by itself! Matthew Arnold also expressed this same celebration of the unknown Shakespeare: “Others abide our question. Thou Art Free.”

Surely you can think of any number of reviews which ask rhetorically, “Do we really need to know that . . . ?” You can fill in the blanks. When I wrote to Martha Gellhorn asking her for an interview and telling her I was writing her biography, I enclosed an article I had published on William and Estelle Faulkner. She wrote back a cordial but firm letter saying my article was well written, but she did not need to know about Faulkner’s marriage and did not believe in biography—for herself or for any other writer. Not all writers take that tack, of course, but a great many deplore the biographical genre, giving it at most two cheers—as John Updike did, when he sought to outwit a prospective biographer by publishing an autobiography, Self-Consciousness.

But it is biography itself that abides our question, not Shakespeare alone. The genre endures and will not yield to the scorn of its literary detractors. Why? Because biography carries intrinsic interest quite apart from that generated by what the literary figure has published. Suppose, for example, a letter or journal came to light that included a firsthand account of Shakespeare doing something, anything. Would Tennyson, Gellhorn—anyone—refuse to read it? Hardly. The desire to have even a glimpse, a vestige of Shakespeare the man, would be overwhelming.

Of course, if this Shakespeare discovery dealt directly with the composition of a play or poem, with how that work was produced and in what circumstances, the drawing power of biography becomes irresistible. Now Shakespeare himself is subject to an act of creation as the biographer/critic interprets new evidence. Oscar Wilde understood this phenomenon quite well, even if the remark that biography lends a new terror to death has been attributed to him.

John Keats, no particular friend to biography, nevertheless craved the kind of close connection to literature and literary figures that fuels biography. Thus Amy Lowell observes the way a certain Keats letter gives “an intimate picture of himself”:

The candles are burnt down and I am using the wax taper—which has a long snuff on it—the fire is at its last click—I am sitting with my back to it with one foot rather askew upon the rug and the other with the heel a little elevated from the carpet—I am writing this on the Maid’s tragedy which I have read since tea with Great pleasure. Beside this volume of Beaumont and Fletcher—there are on the table two volumes of Chaucer and a new work of Tom Moore’s called “Tom Cribb’s Memorial to Congress”—nothing in it. These are trifles but I will require nothing so much of you but that you will give me a like description of yourselves, however it may be when you are writing to me.

It is enough to fix this moment of writing, even when it deals with “trifles,” with the minutia of himself, because life—biography—is no trifling matter.

Keats goes on in the same letter to pinpoint biography’s appeal:

Could I see the same thing done of any great Man long since dead it would be a great delight: As to know in what position Shakespeare sat when he began “To be or not to Be”—such things become interesting from distance of time or place.

No sooner had I read this passage then I thought of “An Ordinary Day,” a section in Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith:

On 16 November 1973, a damp, coldish breaking day in the tiny French village of Moncourt, France, Patrician Highsmith, a fifty-two-year-old American writer living an apparently quiet life beside a branch of the Loing Canal, lit up another Gauloise jaune, tightened her grip on her favorite Parker fountain pen, hunched her shoulders over her rolltop desk—her oddly jointed arms and enormous hands were long enough to reach the back of the roll while she was still seated—and jotted down in her writer’s notebooks a short list of helpful activities which “small children” might do “around the house.”

This paragraph is done to a turn, for of course Highsmith, an author who delighted in murder and mayhem, was composing mischief. “Tying string across top of stairs so adults will trip” and “[r]eplacing roller skates on stairs, once mother has removed it” are the first two items on the short list. This was Highsmith’s idea of a “quiet day” at work, and the biographer’s delight in showing off her subject, whose physical peculiarities are of a piece with her outré outlook.

Check Ms. Schenkar’s notes section, and you will find she is not making any of this up.  The biographer had the benefit of material from Highsmith and her friends, material that included not only diaries but also photographs and films, a veritable treasure trove the author and her accomplices assembled precisely for the use Schenkar puts it to—and the  style she employs in doing so.

Indeed, on the first page of “An Ordinary Day,” the biographer includes a footnote that quotes the twenty-year-old author, high on mixed metaphors in the exuberance of her own desire to document the writer’s life: “If we were permitted one quarter hour in Shakespeare’s study in 1605, how we should watch his every movement, how hungrily we should notice the life of his head, the touch of his hand on the edge of his paper . . . the angle of his back as he writes. . . . How little we know of history. Time is a column of carbon monoxide fraying into oblivion at its far end like the tail of an old rope.” Ah, spoken like a true biographer.

Such passages from Keats and Highsmith (have these two names appeared before in the same sentence?) say as much for biography, I think, as longer essays and book-length defenses. “To have been there!” is what the biographer dreams of and what readers say to themselves whenever they begin another biography.

Books mentioned in this column:
Afterward: Conjuring the Literary Dead by Dale Salwak (University of Iowa Press; 2011)
John Keats, Volumes I and II, by Amy Lowell (Houghton Mifflin, 1925)
Self-Consciousness by John Updike (Knopf, 1989)
The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin’s Press, 2009)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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