One Cheer for Literary Biography

There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his notebooks

Poets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography.

—Octavio Paz, in an essay on Fernando Pessoa

The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record? Most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to be quiet moments. Regardless of what fascinated his contemporaries, Byron interests us now because of Don Juan and those other poems that, though slightly tinny, still ring out, and, secondarily, because of his dashing, spirited letters. His physical beauty, his poignant limp, the scandalous collapse of his marriage and his flight from England as a social outcast, his picturesque European dissipations, his generous involvement in the cause of Greek independence, and his tragically youthful death at Missolonghi in 1824—all this sensational stuff would be buried in the mustiest archives of history did not Byron’s literary achievement distinguish him from the scores of similarly vexed and dynamic men of this turbulent Romantic era. By his words he still lives, and they give the impetus to the periodic biographies of which the latest is by Phyllis Grosskurth, published last year.

Although one rarely sees literary biography on the best-seller list, a prodigious amount of it is produced, some of it at prodigious length. The estimable British biographer Michael Holroyd topped his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey with a three-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James took twenty-one years in the writing and occupies five volumes, of which the last is the bulkiest.

In my barn I keep those books which, arriving free at the house, I deem too precious and potentially useful to give to the church fair, and yet not so valuable as to win space on the packed shelves within my book-burdened domicile. Venturing out to my slapdash barn shelves, I note works of roughly five hundred pages on Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, and Joyce Cary; six-hundred-page tomes on Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett, six hundred and fifty pages on Norman Mailer, seven hundred each on Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett, an eight-hundred-page work on Zola, and, the heavyweight champion in this vicinity, twelve hundred pages on James Thurber. Length of life bears some relation to length of book; in the department of doomed poets, Sylvia Plath, dead at thirty, received three hundred fifty pages of attention whereas Anne Sexton, who lived to be forty-six, one hundred more. However, Delmore Schwartz had the fifty-three years of his life compressed …

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Letters

Slight Revision March 4, 1999