Tracking the Untrackable

Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer

Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 420 pp., $30.00

Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding

David Ellis
Routledge, 195 pp., $35.00

Reflections on Biography

Paula R. Backscheider
Oxford University Press, 289 pp., $55.00; $19.95 (paper)

A recent issue of the London Review of Books had as its front page lead “The Corruption of Literary Biography.” The heading referred to two reviews. One was a scathing demolition of James Atlas’s biography of Saul Bellow by Richard Poirier, who described it as a “censorious” and “condescending” work, fueled by “craven hostility” toward its subject. The other was a skeptical inquiry by John Barrell into the reliability of the second volume of Richard Holmes’s life of Coleridge, Coleridge: Darker Reflections.

Barrell recalls his admiration for Holmes’s Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), which set Shelley’s “emotional, intellectual and imaginative life” in “a generous cultural and political context,” and then describes, sadly, what he sees as a decline from that magnificent achievement. By contrast, the two volumes of Holmes’s more recent biography of Coleridge, especially the second volume, seem to Barrell to be the story of a “vie privée,” and to eschew a “more general sense of cultural or social or political history.” He goes on to make some rather damaging detailed comparisons between Holmes’s version of Coleridge’s journey to Malta and Coleridge’s notebooks and letters for that period, which Barrell finds that Holmes has rearranged and made more orderly and coherent, perhaps out of “the artist’s desire to reshape his material where it can be done without violence to it.” He regrets this, and he regrets Holmes’s belief that “he has the right to speak for his subjects.” The “corruption” of literary biography, then, is in the Poirier/Atlas example that of an inferior talent demeaning and traducing a greater man’s life out of envy and incompetence; in the Barrell/Holmes example, that of an outstanding talent making over and making up the meaning of a life at the expense of real facts.

In another recent review, in the Times Literary Supplement, of Claire Harman’s biography of Fanny Burney, the critic Simon Jarvis writes that he is weary of “the deadening convention” of most literary biographies, and argues that there should be more “partial lives,” which take only a small section of a life and are not driven by the demands of chronology. The “total” biography, the dominant literary form of our time, Jarvis calls “a genre which has become quiescent to the point (if we can hope for so much) of its demise.”

So questions about the health of biography and impatience with its long life have succeeded those cries we used to hear about the death of the novel. But by an intriguing cultural irony, this is happening just as biography has started to be analyzed in theoretical books and university courses, where, for a long time, there was no place for this popular, heterogeneous, impure form. Academe distrusted a genre that ignored the “death of the author,” structuralism, and deconstruction, which blurred and muddled T.S. Eliot’s powerfully influential separation between the work and the personality of the author, and relied heavily on …

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