Primary and Colonizing Biography


Carl Rollyson

In 2003, after more than two decades of researching and writing biographies, I thought that I had had it. All that traveling, interviewing, and archival work, coupled with diminishing advances and uncomprehending reviews of my work really got me down. I was in a mood to stay home, cultivate my woodland garden, ride my bike, and play with my Scotties. That—plus a full-time teaching job—seemed enough. Then Robert Messenger, editor of the arts section of the New York Sun, a new newspaper (actually a reborn old one) asked me to review Survivors in Mexico, Rebecca’s West's unfinished masterpiece. Robert liked my review (he had published earlier pieces of mine about West in The New Criterion), and because of the rapport between us, I felt comfortable proposing an idea that I had been contemplating for a few years. I told him I wanted to write a column about biography. I was displeased with the writing about biography in book reviews. Few reviewers had any notion of the history of biography or any sense of how individual biographies could be situated in that history. In short, I wanted to write about biographies from the perspective of a biographer and scholar of the genre. I was fortunate to be able to present my pitch to an editor who understood my work and who—even more importantly—had an avid interest in biography, about which he himself wrote on occasion. For the next four years I happily reviewed new biographies in pieces as long as two thousand words—although when the paper fell on hard times, I was cut back to eight hundred and then six hundred words. I quit the Sun not too long after Robert himself departed. The original idea of the column had been whittled away and then wrenched from me by a callow and uncomprehending new editor.

If the foregoing sounds familiar to followers of this column, that is because I wrote about my decision to pontificate about biography in my very first column, twenty-eight columns ago. I have not bothered to look up what I wrote then, as I hope this version is at least slightly different. More to the point, I want to revisit that column in light of what my friend, Doug Munro, has sent me: an article by Michael King about his work on a biography of the New Zealand writer, Janet Frame, “Biography and Compassionate Truth: Writing a Life of Janet Frame”, Australian Humanities Review, 24 (December 2001):

What caught my attention is King’s concluding paragraphs:

There is nevertheless much of value that can and should be said in the writing and publication of the initial or primary biography. Antony Alpers, mindful, perhaps, of his two biographies of Katherine Mansfield, saw the nature of biography as a continuous process rather than as the sporadic publication of individual books. “That process may be spread over decades”, he wrote, “[and] leads to the emergence of an historical view of rather more than the subject alone; and this is merely set in motion by the . . . primary biography. That book has to be followed by [others] . . .”

Indeed. And it will also be the task of later writers to colonise the narrative and analytical spaces left vacant by the primary biographer. And in this manner compassionate truth is, eventually, compatible with and complemented by the dispassionate and disinterested variety.

King was the first biographer of Janet Frame and wrote what he calls a primary biography. She had been a most reluctant subject, but she agreed to work with King because she had come to know him from a previous project and because he was willing to allow her to participate in the shaping of his biography. King is at pains, though, to say the biography always remained his book; that is, he remained fully receptive to Frame’s own take on her life, but reserved the right to disagree. And he did. What he gained, obviously, was extraordinary access to his subject. What he lost is the sensibility of a biographer who does not allow himself to be infected by proximity to his subject. However independent the biographer may believe himself to be, constant interaction with his subject is bound to have its impact. I know, because this is precisely the privilege I enjoyed and the plight I suffered by living, off and on, with Michael Foot during the three years I worked on the biography of his wife, Jill Craigie. I had met Jill and Michael and interviewed them while doing a biography of their friend, Rebecca West. Michael was an extravagant admirer of my work and readily agreed when I proposed writing up Jill’s life shortly after she died. My biography, To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie, was published in 2005. 

Many of Michael’s friends assumed I was his factotum and were skeptical that I would write anything about him or his wife that he would find displeasing. And although Michael repeatedly told me, “It’s your book,” in the end, as I belatedly realized, he did not mean it. He regarded our traveling together all over England and even to Dubrovnik, his favorite holiday spot, as sealing the deal. When I turned in a biography that violated his sentimental view of his marriage, he was outraged. And yet, like King, I had not told the whole truth, opting instead for what King calls the “compassionate truth.” I withheld some of what I knew about the marriage, much as James Anthony Froude did when he wrote about the Carlyles. I did not do this to spare Michael grief, since anything I wrote that did not accord with his amour propre would have offended him. I just felt that in a first biography I could only go so far and that others—even I myself—would have another go at the story in other biographies and memoirs of Michael. I was content to have set the story in motion in a primary biography.

The truth does not have to be told all at once, King suggests. And indeed, the truth of a life probably can never be fully unpacked in a primary biography, although without that initial work the biographies to come are at a major disadvantage. Just imagine how wonderful it would be to have had one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, a fellow actor or playwright, set down even a rudimentary biography. As King observes, biography is a process, a cumulative, incremental enterprise. Biographies build on one another. At least they should do so. And it irritates me when I see biographers like Robert Massie, for example, write a biography of Catherine the Great and not even bother to position their work in relation to the history of biographies about their subjects. We are just supposed to bow down, for example, to Massie’s wonderful prose and pretend Catherine is only great in a massified biography. At least reviewers, in their haste to review the biography at hand, have an excuse for failing to acknowledge predecessor biographies. They often do not have the space to engage in biographology—certainly I didn’t in the six hundred words I was reduced to in the Sun.

In King’s concluding paragraph he uses that marvelous word “colonising.” I say marvelous because it is so honest and revealing. So many biographers like Massie hate to acknowledge their predecessors, or they badmouth those who came before (usually outside the covers of their books). An exception is Martin Seymour-Smith's biography of Thomas Hardy, in which a previous biographer, Michael Millgate, is given a very rough going-over. At the moment, I cannot recall another instance of this kind of vendetta, except Boswell’s disemboweling of his competitors, especially Sir John Hawkins. (I rely on my readers to send me other examples of biographoside.)

The impulse that generates, say, a new biography of Sylvia Plath springs precisely from the place King locates: “the narrative and analytical spaces left vacant by the primary biographer.” My biography, American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath is now in production. At various points in the book I acknowledge the biographical process—that is, the work of my predecessors—noting what I regard as gaps and vacancies in their work, but also emphasizing that I have profited from they have already accomplished. I develop, in short, a rhetoric of biography that is very like what King describes. What follows are excerpts of my method.

From my Author's Note at the beginning of American Isis:

I wrote this biography, in part, because I felt there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. I confess, however, that as I wrote the book I re-read my predecessors, usually after writing a section of my book. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have tried to concentrate on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. As a result, certain important poems and stories do not appear in my narrative, and others do so only briefly. I cut even paraphrases of poems and stories to an absolute minimum, assuming that the knowledgeable Plath reader will not need them. At the same time, I have tried to write a narrative so focused—without timeouts for exposition of her work—that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life.

From my Sources section:

Although I take issue at various points with previous Plath biographies, I don’t see how my book could have been written without them. As Plath’s first biographer, Edward Butscher interviewed for the first time many of the key figures in his subject’s life. To be sure, Butscher made errors, and his “bitch goddess” thesis has been deplored, but he nevertheless deserves an honored place in Plath biography as a pathfinder, and my debt to him shows in the notes below. Paul Alexander accomplished a good deal in discovering much new material about Plath’s family and her childhood. His command of the details of Plath biography is such that I consulted his book continually as I composed my own. Linda Wagner-Martin’s literary biography was the first effort to integrate a full discussion of her subject's literary sensibility and life from a feminist perspective. I have often consulted Ronald Hayman’s elegant and succinct biography when deciding how to handle some of the thornier issues in Plath’s life.

Anne Stevenson is the only biographer to have had the sanction of the Plath estate and, as such, her work has certain built-in advantages in terms of access to material and the ability to quote. But it also has the disadvantages of the authorized biographer beholden to the literary executor. As my last chapter demonstrates, Stevenson felt the stress of dealing with a hostile Olwyn Hughes, acting as her elusive brother's defender.

In closing this column, I want to acknowledge Alice Kessler-Harris's new biography of Lillian Hellman, which will appear next month and which I have reviewed for a forthcoming edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Kessler-Harris writes what she calls a historical biography, beginning with an assessment of the biographies, including mine, that have already appeared. She gives each book its due. Her work does not supersede what has gone before so much as it deeply enriches the biographies of others, bringing our understanding of Hellman to a higher level. As Kessler-Harris puts it, she has not tried to reassess her subject’s character, but rather to think through Hellman’s relationship to the twentieth century. What options were open to an ambitious woman who did not fit “popular images of beauty” and did not adhere to the “models of traditional family relationships”? And how did a woman of conviction survive in a “politically splintered America”? As a Southerner, a Jew, and a woman, Hellman had to finesse obstacles and sometimes break through barriers, all the while denying that her regional identity, gender, or ethnicity hobbled her in any way.

And I have tried to do much the same for Plath, presenting her as a figure arising out of her own times, strongly attached not merely to a certain literary tradition, but to the history of her country and its popular culture. At the same time, the very presence of those other Plath biographies has shaped my own sensibility and made me reflect on my place in the process King describes.

Writing for the Sun, I now realize, got me out of a rut and rooted me far more deeply in the great tradition of biography, situating me among both the pioneers and the colonizers—and leading me to this bi-weekly column, where I’ve been privileged to roam as widely as I like in the writing of lives and the lives of biographers.

Books mentioned in this column:
American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson (St, Martin’s Press, coming in February, 2013)
Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson (Penguin Books, 1990)
The Death and Life of Plath by Ronald Hayman (History Press, 2003)
A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman by Alice Kessler- Harris (Bloomsbury Press, 2012)
Hardy by Martin Seymour-Smith (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1995)
Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander
Survivors in Mexico by Rebecca West (Yale University Press, 2004)
Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Linda Wagner-Martin (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1988)
To Be a Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie by Carl Rollyson (iUniverse, 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. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.



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