Fanning the Gemlike Flame

Are biographies running away with themselves? Bernard Berenson, an art connoisseur whose writings are not much read any more, has been the subject of two biographies before this one, has been written about three times in this journal, and now appears again in the second and final volume of the authorized biography—nearly seven hundred pages long. Perhaps the answer is that biography is no longer the official tribute to rare genius but a form that examines life through the medium of one person’s story—to some extent taking over territory that used to belong to the essay. If there were documentation enough and the biographer were skillful enough, any one person’s life might serve. For those who like biography as a medium for examining feelings and actions and ideas (I do), these seven hundred pages will not be too long; for others, they well may be.

Although this second volume covers a longer span of years than the first (from the age of thirty-eight to ninety-four), those first thirty-eight years were perhaps the more attractive to read about. They covered the growth of the ten-year-old from a Lithuanian ghetto into a brilliant Harvard student and then into a man who after much delay settled to choosing a career, a wife, and a country (one single complex decision that he was to agonize over for the rest of his life). Inevitably much of this volume, especially the latter part, which deals with old age, consists of a repetitive record of the Berenson yearly round—the regular trips abroad, the regular stream of visitors to I Tatti, the regular output of letters to and from correspondents all over the world.

For the documentation is enormous. Berenson had a complex attitude to the act of writing; in his Sketch for a Self-Portrait written in 1940–1941 he said that writing—serious writing for publication—caused him agony. His “neurasthenia,” his rages, tended to be associated with times when he was trying to produce a book. He laments in the Sketch his inability to express, to find a prose style fit for what he was trying to say. Yet of free writing—letters and, in age, diaries—he was an inexhaustible producer. He compared this writing to a kind of excretion; he had regularly to spill it out. So there are innumerable letters; in addition, his wife’s frank correspondence and diaries, his second “wife’s” memoirs of him, the Sketch, the diaries of old age, and the comments of the vast number of distinguished people he entertained. Professor Samuels has threaded his way through the jungle with great success. He is lowkey, however, about psychological analysis of the characters he deals with.

When the book opens Berenson, at thirty-eight, was well settled into the role of professional connoisseur, which he so often complained had distracted him from some higher destiny. He had spent a number of years after college traveling and absorbing art, while his contemporaries settled into jobs; at a very young twenty-five he had met Mary Costelloe, who left…

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