Perhaps, writing about “The Aspern Papers,” I downplayed its attack against that malicious species known as the literary biographer. If so, I had two good reasons: first, upon paying attention to the text of the story rather than my received idea of it, I quickly saw that James’s target was more complex and more interesting; second, James himself was a literary biographer. He had written and published Hawthorne (1879) only nine years earlier.
Granted, James did not attempt to steal, or at least avoids the inference that he had stolen, any love letters from Hawthorne’s early paramours or illegitimate daughters, and in the book’s first sentence he claims “to give this short sketch the form rather of a critical essay than of a biography” (Ch I), in part because Hawthorne’s life was unutterably tedious (“almost strikingly deficient in incident, in what may be called the dramatic quality”), but largely because James’s concerns are more with the art than the man, none of which prevents him from writing several chapters of what appears to be ordinary biography, mostly a summary and commentary on the more conventional 1876 Hawthorne biography written by George Parsons Lathrop, or from delivering aggravating judgments like “[t]his sketch of the Custom-house is, as simple writing, one of the most perfect of Hawthorne's compositions, and one of the most gracefully and humorously autobiographic,” even though the “Custom-house” section is a blatant fiction as a critic as sophisticated as the author of "The Art of Fiction" surely knows.
I’m abandoning James now, so I thought I would treat myself to a nice, twisty sentence.
On the one hand, I am not much of a reader of literary biography. On the other hand, I love it and read it all the time, mostly in the form of magazine reviews of gigantic definitive biographies that I would never think of reading, the big bruisers that go into so much detail about what the writer has for breakfast.
Actually I do not remember any of the big biographies I have read (Nicolas Boyle on Goethe, Brian Boyd on Nabokov, Richard Holmes on Shelley) having a word to say about breakfast (Boswell’s Life of Johnson may well contain a morsel of breakfast). When Jane Austen in Mansfield Park tells me “that the remaining cold pork bones and mustard in William's plate might but divide her feelings with the broken egg-shells in Mr. Crawford's” I take that as an example of exquisite artistry. I wonder where the anti-breakfast cliché came from. More biographical breakfast, I say!
By chance I came across John Ruskin expressing my true feelings, or what I would like them to be, in his peculiar book The Queen of the Air (1869). Artistic biographies are in no obvious way the subject of the book, but that never stops Ruskin:
Of Turner’s life, and of its good and evil, both great, but the good immeasurably the greater, his work is in all things a perfect and transparent evidence. His biography is simply, “He did this, nor will ever another do its like again.” (III.113)
Give me a list of works and their chronology and I will understand the artist’s biography. The rest – the breakfasts, the love letters – is just literature. Meaning: a biography is well-written, or not; clever or dull; meaningful or trite; a good book or a dud. Literature, or not.