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.1

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 the conventions and traditions of the nineteenth-century realist novel.

Barrell complains about Richard Holmes’s increasingly novelistic use of biography, but in fact Holmes, England’s leading Romantic biographer, has always valued the form because it can’t be pinned down as any one thing. For Holmes, biography is never monolithic, never conclusive or “definitive,” but always in motion, complex and experimental. As he says in his two collections of essays on biography, Footsteps (1985) and now Sidetracks, he finds analogies for it not just in fiction but in all kinds of other forms of expression: photography, dreams, ghost stories, plagiarism, travel-writing, radio plays, and theatrical performances. He is unembarrassed about the autobiographical dimension of his version of biography: “For me biography has always been a personal adventure of exploration and pursuit,” he writes.

Holmes’s biographies—Shelley: The Pursuit (1974), Coleridge: Early Visions (1989), Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage (1993), and Coleridge: Darker Reflections (1998)—are characterized above all by the notion of the “pursuit.” They are famous for following every step of their subject’s journey through life, and for creating, through their passionate attentiveness, an exceptionally vivid and thickly substantial account of place and context and events. They deploy an immensely detailed accumulation of evidence in the service of a strong, dramatic, personal story. So, to take one example, in a paragraph on the aftermath of the drowning of Shelley, with the weight of the whole life story pressing on this moment, he provides us with a brilliantly rapid, curious, precise inventory of the evidence, intensely moving (without any emotional commentary) because so immediate and informed:

The bodies of Shelley, Edward Williams, and Charles Vivian were eventually washed up along the beach between Massa and Viareggio ten days after the storm. The exposed flesh of Shelley’s arms and face had been entirely eaten away, but he was identifiable by the nankeen trousers, the white silk socks beneath the boots and Hunt’s copy of Keats’s poems doubled back in the jacket pocket. To comply with the complicated quarantine laws, Trelawny had the body temporarily buried in the sand with quick lime, and dug up again on 15 August [1822] to be placed in a portable iron furnace that had been constructed to his specifications at Livorno, and burnt on the beach in the presence of Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, some Tuscan militia and a few local fishermen. Much later Shelley’s ashes were buried in a tomb, also designed by Trelawny, in the Protestant Cemetery at Rome, after having remained for several months in a mahogany chest in the British Consul’s wine-cellar.

But Holmes’s “pursuit” is not just of settings, external details, or circumstantial evidence. His journeys into his subjects’ lives are interior as well as historical and geographic. Always deploying their letters, notebooks, manuscript writings, and published work as part of the texture of his narrative, he works his way into their thoughts, and speaks with empathy and confidence about their states of mind. There is no biographical writing so eloquent or intimate, or which negotiates so revealingly between the inner workings and outer actions of the subject. Here is Coleridge, aged twenty-eight, living at Greta Hall at Keswick, working on “Christabel” for Lyrical Ballads, expecting the birth of his and Sara’s third child, tramping over the hills to see the Wordsworths, keeping his fell-walking notebooks:


On 29 August [1800] Coleridge had a large section of Part Two completed, and with the manuscript in his pocket made a triumphant journey to Grasmere along the entire ridge of the Easter Fells—crossing Great Dod, White Side, and Helvellyn, and slithering perilously down by Nerthermost Pike to Dunmail Raise in the dark. He recorded this first of his epic solo fell-walks in a brilliant series of running plein-air sketches, which catch not only the physical sensation of the climber—“as I bounded down, noticed the moving stones under the soft moss, hurting my feet”—but also the spiritual effect of moving alone through such a high, wild, naked landscape. These prose-notations were a new form of Romantic nature-writing, as powerful in their way as his poetry; rapid, spontaneous, miraculously responsive to the changing panorama of hills he moves through, and containing a sort of telegraphic score of his emotional reactions.

Holmes is here as “miraculously responsive” to his subject’s inner and outer experience as he says Coleridge is to the landscape around him. But in such remappings or reconstructions, there is a latent danger to which Holmes is extremely alert. It’s his extraordinary gift for “speaking for” his subjects that has recently provoked some doubts in his critics: Barrell is skeptical about “the ventriloquial [sic] magic of the free indirect style, which allows him to pass off his own thoughts as the thoughts of Coleridge…[as if] he can speak Coleridge’s mind for him.” But Holmes himself is well aware of the potential risks of this form of Romantic, empathetic biography. In his highly inventive and experimental “joint” biography of Samuel Johnson, as a young man in the 1730s, and the wild, violent, mysterious, and reckless poet Richard Savage, he imagines their friendship as a kind of night journey taken by two lonely misfits. The effect is to remake Johnson, against the Boswellian image, into a precursor of Gothic Romanticism.

We can instantly imagine the scene: the cobbled streets, the stinking rubbish, the tavern signs, the shuttered house-fronts; the moonlight and the dark alleys; the slumbering beggars, the footpads and the Night Watch; and the two central figures striding along, bent in conversation, convivial and ill-matched. Here is the huge, bony Johnson with his flapping horse-coat and dirty tie-wig, swinging the famous cudgel with which he once kept four muggers at bay…; and here the small, elegant Savage with his black silk court-dress…, his moth-eaten cloak, his tasselled sword and his split shoes, which well-wishers were always trying to replace.

It is a night-scene: these friends are outcasts from society, without money and without lodgings, talking of poetry and politics and reforming the world, while the wealthy complacent city slumbers in oblivion. They are in a sense its better conscience, ever wakeful; or its uneasy dream of oppression and injustice. It is a romantic, Quixotic, heroic or mock-heroic picture, depending on one’s point of view. But how true is it?

“But how true is it?” If biography is a form of “pursuit,” using and interpreting all the available evidence to get as close as possible to the interior life of the subject, there must always be an unresolvable tension within it between closeness and distance. In the wonderful Footsteps (1985), subtitled “Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,” Holmes meditates on exactly these dilemmas: on the relationship between fiction, autobiography, and biography; on the ceaseless negotiation in biography between objectivity and “possession”; and on the dangers of overinvolvement. Footsteps traces Richard Holmes’s apprenticeship to the art of biography from 1964 to 1976, starting with his youthful journey through rural France in pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey, then on to Paris and his own experience of the événements of 1968 as an entry point to the story of Mary Wollstonecraft and 1790s radicalism, then to Italy and Shelley, and then, post-Shelley, to a deeply depressive period in Paris, on the trail of the poet-suicide Gérard de Nerval, and the attempt to write a “Dream Biography” of Nerval that was never finished.


Footsteps’s retrospect on the induction of the Romantic biographer makes an emotional and eloquent case for biography as a form of autobiography, not as a clinical historical project: “The past is not simply ‘out there,’ an objective history to be researched or forgotten, at will; but…lives most vividly in all of us, deep inside, and needs constantly to be given expression and interpretation.” Holmes’s own experience, for example, of life in the 1960s, with friends who were living “in various forms of communities and groups,” fed directly into his version of Shelley’s marital and political experiments: “When I wrote about Shelley I seemed to be writing about my own friends, practically at first-hand.” But at exactly the same time that it feeds off autobiographical experience, the writing of biography also resists autobiographical identification: “I craved after intimacy with my subject, knowing all the time that I must maintain an objective and judicial stance.”

That paradox is at the heart of Footsteps, and of all of Holmes’s work. There is a necessity to take possession of, and feel the utmost intimacy with, your subject. But there is an equal necessity to recognize that there is a gap which cannot be crossed. Holmes learns this through a painful phase of his life in the 1970s, living alone in Paris and getting sucked into the unstable, solipsistic life story of Nerval. “I found myself slipping further and further into a peculiar and perilous identification with my lunatic subject, as if somehow I could diagnose Nerval by becoming him. As if self-identification—the first crime in biography—had become my last and only resort.” Biography has to recognize, but resist, its links to autobiography, just as it has to draw on, but dissociate from, its links to fiction:

You could not play-act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make-believe…. “Biography” meant a book about someone’s life. Only, for me, it was to become a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past, a following of footsteps. You would never catch them; no, you would never quite catch them. But maybe, if you were lucky, you might write about the pursuit of that fleeting figure in such a way as to bring it alive in the present.

That melancholy acceptance of biography’s inevitable incompleteness hangs over all Holmes’s work, giving it its distinctive and seductive tone of longing and pathos (as well as its more robust appetite for comedy and strangeness).

As Holmes says in his books on Coleridge, biography has an advantage over fiction, “because it must conform to the complication, strength and strangeness of life.” But because it can’t make things up, can’t make a satisfying fictional shape out of its story, and can’t ultimately cross the broken bridge to the vanished past, it must also always be unresolved and undefinitive: “This is the peculiar music of biography, haunting and uniquely life-like for a moment, but always incomplete and unsatisfactory and sending out many echoes into the future.”

The form of Footsteps, which Holmes calls his “mongrel book,” part travel journal, part life-writing, is echoed in Sidetracks, intended as a companion volume and subtitled “Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.” But this time there isn’t the same concentrated sense of a developing biographical self, more a series of forays into different characters and intellectual landscapes. If this were a lesser writer, you would think it was nothing more than a clever packaging of unhoused bits and pieces—essays, introductions, broadcasts, letters, a review—dating from 1970 to 1999. For those who haven’t read Holmes on Shelley and Coleridge or Johnson, this certainly wouldn’t be the best place to start. But for the Romantic biographer’s many admirers, Sidetracks does construct an intriguing kind of autobiography of Holmes’s intellectual and emotional history over thirty years, tracing his journey from youthful melancholy solitude to sociable, fulfilled companionship. Along the way (travel metaphors are irresistible for this gentleman-adventurer, or écrivain-voyageur of life-writing), there are substantial and absorbing studies, notably of Chatterton, Wollstonecraft, Nerval, and Boswell, and an eloquently unfolding meditation on biography as an art of empathy, pursuit, and “passionate curiosity”—like love.

Sidetracks, like Footsteps, is also a good example of English “cross-channel” writing. Holmes is in love with Paris, addicted to French culture, history, and writing, greatly interested in French Romanticism, and a devout admirer of Voltaire. We’re always seeing him, enviably—and somewhat self-indulgently—as the Romantic Englishman in France, writing “in a little attic room in the ninth arrondissement,” or sitting at a southern café table with “the beloved novelist” in the gathering dusk, or seeking out the perfect shady Paris park in the summer heat. These rather precious cameos of the biographer with his loved one gave rise to some snorts of derision in The Guardian when the book was published in Britain (notably from the rebarbative Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin, who can’t bear Holmes’s urbane English persona, and calls him self-regarding, narcissistic, and complacent). But Holmes’s own deep, anxious involvement with Englishness, his own and other people’s—its obsessions, its pockets of eccentricity, its work ethic, its doubleness—is one of the interesting elements in Sidetracks, as in some brilliant short pieces on M.R. James, John Stuart Mill, Chatterton, and the very strange Reverend Barham, author of the once popular and now forgotten Ingoldsby Legends.

Barham was a comfortable, clubbable Kentish canon with a Victorian reputation for good cheer and amiability, whose work in fact reveals a macabre obsession with dismemberment, murders, amputations, hauntings, and double identities. Like Holmes for a while, Barham lived in the haunted English landscape of Romney Marsh, wonderfully conjured up here; and it is haunted “psychic landscapes” that greatly preoccupy Holmes. It is always strangeness that attracts him, like Boswell’s contradictions (depressive and sociable, manic and introspective, debauched and romantic, self-absorbed and observant) or the “peculiar,” “oddly unbalanced” quality of Chatterton, a provincial, a “radical innovator,” a “frantic and undaunted” explorer, not what Matthew Arnold would call “of the centre.”

Holmes is drawn to eccentrics and outlaws, as in his fine work on Nerval and, best of all, here, on Mary Wollstonecraft. But Sidetracks shows a change in Holmes as a biographer. Though he is still fascinated by obsession and extremity, neurotically split selves and doppelgängers, he shows here how he has become increasingly drawn to explorations of friendship, solidarity, love, and “rational happiness.” In his sympathetic accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “experiment in living” with Godwin, and John Stuart Mill’s defiance of society in his enfranchising relationship with Harriet Taylor, or Voltaire’s thriving liaison with the daring Mme. du Châtelet, he communicates his pleasure in stories of interwoven lives and working partnerships.

Holmes is not only interested in what Melville called “Isolatoes.” He is also fascinated by the obscure lives of ordinary people (there is a good piece on the sixteenth-century Lisle Letters, which he calls an “overheard history” of the everyday details of Tudor life). And he loves the Stracheyan idea of “portraits in miniature,” “rapid character sketches and historical essays” which bring a fragment of history or a partly forgotten human figure to light. His pursuit of a central figure will often throw up little eruptions of character-making, sidetracks within sidetracks, where a minor oddity will suddenly burst into life, like Chatterton’s friend the pewterer George Catcott:

Chatterton called him “Catgut.” He stammered and liked loud poetical recitation; he was impetuous and eccentric, partially humpbacked, totally unabashed. In his shop he once spat in the eye of a customer, “because he had a propensity.” He had a mania for…getting in the news that must have delighted Chatterton. He once transported himself across the skeleton of the new Bristol Bridge on a donkey because he desired to be the first man ever to cross over it.

A “propensity” for strange behavior is, in Holmes’s eyes, a leading qualification for a good biographer. One of the best pieces here, from 1976, is called “Poor Pierrot,” and tells the bizarre story (immortalized by Jean-Louis Barrault’s performance in the film Les Enfants du paradis) of the great French Romantic mime, Deburau, whose legendary, mysterious, and white-faced Pierrot, adored by the intellectuals and writers of the time as well as by the canaille of the paradis, the gods of the gallery, became a tragic figure when he killed a boy in a street quarrel. Deburau’s clown is one of the minor figures Holmes loves to pause over in his study of French Romanticism, and he’s also a good example of Holmes’s fascination with popular art forms.

But perhaps he also serves as a metaphor and a warning for the biographer, who enters into and acts out a range of characters with his own face concealed, and who is something of a comical and undignified figure. Woe betide him if, like Deburau (whose mocking, marginal, observant Pierrot turned into an increasingly grandiose and arrogant stage presence, especially after his trial for murder), he lets himself become the hero of the story. No, he should always be on the edge looking in, skulking at street corners and outside windows, eavesdropping, running after clues, falling over himself, a prey to “peculiar infatuations,” “maverick and impassioned,” doggedly nosing after the truth of a human life.


In 1993, I heard Richard Holmes give a paper at a conference on “The Art of Biography,” in the course of which he reported a conversation with Peter Ackroyd, who had said to him: “I don’t know about you, Richard, but I’m making it all up.” (The paper was published, but without this aside, under the title “Biography: Inventing the Truth,” in The Art of Literary Biography, edited by John Batchelor.2)

That humorous shrugging acknowledgment that biography is a form of fiction, which would be so irritating to a critic like John Barrell, who wants it to be a form of history, points to the unresolvable conflict within the practice—and the consumption—of biography. We all want patterns, plots, climaxes, explanations, and endings in life stories; but we distrust anything that looks too smooth and composed, because we know our own lives are not like that. Two recent books on the theory of biography, one by a British scholar and one by an American, tangle themselves up usefully in this conflict.

When Henry James’s dear friend James Russell Lowell died, James was troubled that his image then became “strangely simplified and summarized.”

The hand of death, in passing over it, has smoothed the folds, made it more typical and general. The figure retained by the memory is compressed and intensified; accidents have dropped away from it and shades have ceased to count; it stands, sharply, for a few estimated and cherished things, rather than nebulously, for a swarm of possibilities.

David Ellis quotes this profound and subtle passage in his sensible book on biography, Literary Lives, as a way into a discussion of one of biography’s many problems: that it can tend to sound too knowing and firm about the shape of its subject’s life. Alternatives, missed chances, roads not taken, choices and hesitations, the whole “swarm of possibilities” that hums around our every decision or experience, too often disappear in the “smoothing” biographical process. The superiority of hindsight may not allow for “accidents.” The biographer who knows the whole story may not be able to imagine how the subject’s story could ever have been otherwise. Both David Ellis and Paula Backscheider (who have written biographies of Lawrence and Defoe respectively) are fascinated by the virtually infinite number of choices and decisions the biographer has to make. And what becomes very quickly apparent from their accounts of how biography works is that it isn’t always possible to tell whether one choice is better than another.

At the center of any analysis of biography—as it is at the center of all Richard Holmes’s work—is the question of personality. The reader’s first question of the biographer is always going to be, what was she, or he, like? Other questions (like why, or how do you know, or do we approve, or does it matter?) may follow. But “likeness” must be there. In his investigation of how biography provides “likeness,” Ellis confines himself to “literary lives” and to the ways in which an understanding of character can be arrived at. Backscheider, in her Reflections on Biography, ranges much more widely over different approaches to biography and different kinds of lives: mathematicians, scientists, politicians, and slaves as well as writers.

Ellis is considering, judicious, somewhat wry, and frequently inconclusive; Backscheider is exhortatory, prescriptive, and emotional. His moderate line is that biographers are divided between “telling a good story but not telling fibs”; she maintains, more portentously, that a book on biography is offering the reader “fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Both cite, as an example of biography’s difficulties, the thirteen different explanations for why Van Gogh cut off his ear, though they give different sources for this.3 Ellis’s easygoing comment on the contradictions in the thirteen explanations (symbolic castration, or psychosis, or attention-seeking, or the influence of seeing a matador cut off a bull’s ear at a bull-fight) is that “biographers are not… obliged to reconcile incompatible determinants: they can simply allow a number of different opinions to be heard.” Backscheider, more concerned to be scientific and definite, thinks that the swarm of possibilities around Van Gogh’s ear shows the biographer’s need to make decisions about why people act as they do. Nurture or nature, self-created or external forces, the unconscious or the environmental: the biographer, she maintains, needs to decide which should have priority: “Biography writing is not a career for the indecisive.”

But for all their differences (which, if biographers didn’t need to be so careful about stereotyping, it would be tempting to attribute to an Anglo-American divide), they are asking the same central questions. Ellis asks: How can we “enter another person’s mind” and reconstitute his or her “internal soliloquy”? “Is life-writing inevitably a branch of fiction, or, even more dubiously, of gossip?” How, and how much, and on what principles, can (Ellis), or should (Backscheider), biography explain a life?

In Literary Lives, David Ellis—skeptical, alert, and hard to impress—lays out the possible routes biographers may take to “the truth.” First, the genetic approach. Why should biographers dutifully continue to call on remote ancestors for explanations of their subject’s behavior, when we know how complex the “mechanisms of inheritance” are? Peter Ackroyd’s contention that Dickens’s ancestors must have been Londoners, and his blithe belief that “certain themes run in the blood,” like “thrift,” are affably derided. “Biography is not a scientific discipline; but then neither should it be one in which anything goes.” Or would you rather have a psychoanalytic account? If “childhood trauma” is preferred to “themes in the blood” as the explanation for a life, we must, says Ellis, be equally wary. No biographers can have access to their subjects’ “determining moments,” except, usually, through the subject’s own testimony. We only know about Marcel’s childhood trauma when he waits for his mother’s goodnight kiss because Proust has told us about it, and has explained that his mother’s capitulation prevented the development of, as Ellis puts it, “a strong and healthy will.” George Painter, moved by what Ellis calls “biographer’s pride,” tried to improve on Proust’s version, shifting the significance of the moment to the mother’s initial refusal of the kiss, and explaining that this made Proust “hate” her forever. (The latest biography of Proust, by Jean-Yves Tadié, more suggestively and less schematically calls the childhood kiss a “crucial scene” that would recur and shape his behavior: “Marcel was a recluse who was unable to live alone.”4)

Painter, Ellis argues, instead of proving the specific case, is “applying models of human development from the general psychoanalytic store.” Freud’s theory of infantile neurosis is being mapped onto the specifics of Proust’s life. That’s how psychoanalysis in biography tends to work—modern biography is often “only vaguely ‘Freudian.'” Yet biographers shouldn’t argue away the importance to the subject of—say—Orwell’s unhappy school days or Virginia Stephen’s sexual molestation, even if childhood data is hard to verify, or starts to dissolve when you look more closely at it, or can tend to infantilize or depoliticize the adult subject. It’s interesting to see how careful and unprescriptive Holmes is in these matters. He notes, for instance, Shelley’s feelings of betrayal toward his mother, but doesn’t construct the poet’s whole life story on that basis; he is more interested in how his “reaction against his family was…to develop a strong moral and political character.”

Organic explanations of a life can be tricky, too. The significance of what Karl Jaspers, writing on Nietzsche, called “sick factors” (syphilis, insanity) is difficult to assess. This is partly because, as Ellis says, “a medical explanation has a tendency to invade all the available interpretative space.” Should we congratulate Proust’s asthma for turning him into the author of À la recherche? Can certain of Plath’s last poems be tracked down to days of pre-menstrual tension? Was Maupassant’s pessimism due to syphilis? Ellis implies the answer “no” to all these questions, but doesn’t think it wrong to ask them. Biographers must be conscientious, must not simplify or romanticize, and must not jump to conclusions. Holmes doesn’t want to explain all of Coleridge’s behavior by his opium addiction, but he understands how his continual efforts to free himself from his habit, and his failure to do so, infected every other part of his life:

Each time his will was broken, he suffered and lost confidence in his own powers. This terrible repetition of resolution and failure—like one of the endless, circular punishments of Dante’s Inferno—shaped much of what happened in the second part of his life. Yet he never stopped resolving, and this dogged determination to battle on also became characteristic and took him through experiences that few of his contemporaries shared or even remotely understood.

Illness raises acute questions of choice and free will, and Ellis pursues these thoughtfully by examining the probable effects of conditioning. For literary biographers who rely so much on letters and diaries, there is a tendency, and a desire, to treat their subjects as exceptional, isolated indivi-duals, “principal actors,” “subjects in control of their own destinies.” What William James memorably calls “a certain average tone of self-feeling which each one of us carries about with him” is likely to be given more emphasis than social setting, or passive conditioning, or historically determined factors. The issue is sharply accentuated when, for instance, the biographer is faced with the subject’s suicide. Ellis is sympathetic to the reading of Virginia Woolf’s suicide (which I and others have made) as an act of courageous choice, but he also sees that in this debate between free and determined lives (of which Sartre, above all biographers, was the exhaustive analyst), there is bound to be “an untidy compromise.”

Though Backscheider’s rhetoric is very different from Ellis’s, her conclusions are often similar. She shares his feeling that genealogical connections can seem tenuous. She too finds that “overt psychologizing” now seems old-fashioned and makes readers “uncomfortable.” Like Ellis, she thinks that too much emphasis on traumas or “turning-points” can be distorting, that “personality disorders” and illness need to be scrupulously researched, and that the “swamp of motive” for any subject’s actions can often only be “surmised.”

She places great emphasis on “factoring in” (one of her favorite phrases) the biographer’s own “unconscious cultural assumptions.” Biographer, know thyself! The message extends, dauntingly, to every stage of the decision-making process. What are your motives in writing your book? What ethical position do you propose to adopt? What tone of voice will you select? If you were thinking of starting on a biography, this book would surely make you want to give up at once.

Backscheider is interested in subjects Ellis pays little or no attention to: how to tell the lives of women, or of African-Americans. For the writer of African-American biographies, particular thought needs to be given to the “double vision” or dual consciousness that Du Bois and many black writers after him have described. The necessity to wear a mask and play a role makes it difficult for them, and for their biographers, to draw a line between “self and performance.” For the writer of women’s lives, what she calls “lifespan expectations” (difficulties, quest, crises, goals, pinnacle, decline), may take a quite different shape. In “this golden age of women’s biography-writing,” the practical details of women’s lives have become a vital subject. The gaining of finan-cial independence, the clash between domestic responsibilities and public careers, the relation between mar-riage and work, have been closely examined in recent biographies of, for instance, Eleanor Roosevelt (by Blanche Wiesen Cook), Isak Dinesen (Judith Thurman), Mary McCarthy (Carol Brightman), and Louise Bogan (Elizabeth Frank).

When she is writing on women’s lives, Backscheider tends to throw analysis to the winds and take to the pulpit: “It matters. It matters. It matters being a woman.” Biographers who fail to respond to feminist influences are reprimanded. Brenda Maddox (in her work on Nora Joyce and the Lawrences) “is hindered by not using the full range of feminist tools.” In too many biographies of women, “motherhood is undertheorized.”

Ellis says that only a Martian would be interested in a biographical explanation of teeth-brushing, and in any case it’s not an activity “which many biographers are keen to record.” Backscheider points out that in women’s life stories, the equivalent of teeth-brushing—domestic details, the everyday business of ordinary lives—may well be given more significance.

In the end, neither of these attempts to theorize the writing of biography succeeds in pinning down this messy, baggy genre. In biography, Ellis says, incompatibles don’t have to be resolved; “totalizing” biographies make him develop a “fondness for loose ends …inconclusiveness and disorder.” He shares Richard Holmes’s fondness for incongruities. And Holmes’s work, though it has a tone and flavor not to everyone’s taste, does provide the finest possible illustration of the pleasure that biography can take, and give, in its appetite for accidents and superfluities, for the inexplicable, the mysterious, and the odd.

The last piece in Holmes’s Sidetracks is a radio play about an imaginary encounter with Boswell, who tells a story about Johnson’s fondness for cats. We all know about Johnson’s favorite cat Hodge. But in this little Boswellian fantasy, Holmes imagines that there might have been another, earlier cat in Johnson’s life, the pet of a blind girl who died young and whom Johnson befriended when he first came to London as a young man. As in Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage, this whimsical little story takes Johnson back to his early years, long before he had been Boswellized. It suggests all the dark secret parts of a life that the “official” biography never reaches; and it teasingly demonstrates how the biographer can allow himself to play around with fictions and fantasies in his spare time, but should be wary of letting such make-believe into the biography itself. And the piece also allows Holmes to set himself at the other end of the line of great English biography of which Boswell, as he says elsewhere in Sidetracks, was the “prophet” and “foundation.”

Boswell established an ideal of “truth-telling,” and stands behind “modern biography’s” “enquiry into the quiddity of human nature: what motivates us, what forms or splinters character, what gives self-identity, what brings intimacy.” As David Ellis observes, those who read Boswell’s undisciplined, extravagant, disorganized, vivid Life of Johnson are “glad to find” there the incongruous and apparently pointless story of Johnson’s account of the young man from a good family who was said “to be running about town shooting cats.” “And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot: no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.'”

This Issue

April 12, 2001