Love in the Catskills

Washington Irving
Washington Irving; drawing by David Levine

During the last year of W. H. Auden’s life, I sometimes had the luck to meet him in Oxford. On these occasions he would gradually place me as someone associated with literary biography, and would then inform me kindly but firmly that literary biography was no use. For its only purpose must be to display a relation of life and art, and either this relation—he would say—was obscure and impossible to detect, or else (and here his tone became triumphant) it was obvious and not worth mentioning. The verdict was chastening. But I found a little comfort in the fact that Auden defied his own rules. No one was more curious than he about the underpinnings of artistic careers. He wrote biographical poems about Housman’s furtive sexuality and Melville’s combat with Nobodaddy, and some of his essays, such as a long article on Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas, happily flouted by example his antibiographical precept.

In his will he nonetheless admonished his friends to destroy his letters with a view to rendering a biography impossible, and this clause is becoming almost standard for writers’ testaments, Orwell and Eliot having included it or one like it. Quite understandably, it is hard to accept that reticence can only last a lifetime. Writers are apt to feel that their biographers, if they do not merely drudge, will prosecute. Few are eager to submit posthumously to the whipping they have more or less ‘scaped during life, and the idea of one’s corpse lying on the analyst’s couch, with the analyst for once doing all the talking, and the patient prevented by rigor mortis from self-justification, is not fetching.

This aversion to biography is different from that of the structuralists and new critics who, coming from different postulates, agree in trying to clear the work of its creator. They take the view that there is an “exclusive interdependence of the objective elements which compose the work.” The author’s intention, if he had one, cannot be calculated, only miscalculated, and is irrelevant anyway. The intentional fallacy, which biographers are especially prone to commit, is a special case of the old offense, the genetic fallacy, which only Nietzsche among philosophers actively defended.

Still there is an opposite danger, the parthenogenetic fallacy that the text is a virgin birth accomplished without human intervention. “Look, mama, no hands!” Granted that purging a work of its originator may sometimes be useful and even virtuous, this ritual bath is not obligatory. Writers about whom we know most, those closest to our own day, have usually declined it; Flaubert seems not to have minded saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” or George Eliot to have avoided the admission that Mr. Casaubon was drawn from her own heart. Henry Miller even displays outrage at the suggestion that the Henry Miller in his novels is a fictional character, and W.D. Snodgrass, when he writes, “Snodgrass is…

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