Monday, October 8, 2012

His biography is simply, “He did this, nor will ever another do its like again.” - on literary biography

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.


  1. Your last paragraph--spot on. I could not possibly add anything worthwhile to it!

  2. I agree with Nicole, that you're absolutely right about biographies being either literature or not. Most seem to be not literature, darn it.

    Doubtless you know that James wrote the Hawthorne biography for money at the invitation of John Morley after James had lived abroad for three years. I think the book is as much James' attempt to separate himself from Hawthorne's influence as it is an essay on Hawthorne. In that sense, I suppose, it's really a book about James. In a similar way, I'd submit, James' early European novels are novels about Hawthorne. Maybe "early" doesn't belong in that sentence.

  3. I am not convinced that "for money" tells us much. A commenter stopped by here once who dismissed the entire genre of the short story because they were generally written "for money."

    Without having read the book, "influence purging exercise" sounds plausible. zhiv argues that The Bostonians (1886, seven years after Hawthorne) is in part a parody of The Blithedale Romance.

    I haven't read any of this; what do I know.

    If anyone wants to mention, in comments, a favorite biography-as-literature, that would make sense. Life of Johnson, Nabokov's Nikolai Gogol, etc.

  4. "For money" was a dumb thing to say; totally beside the point. All of James' novels were written for money, as were all of Chekov's stories, etc. What I mean is that, without having been hired to do the work, James may never have written the biography. Maybe that's beside the point as well, since James did in fact write the book.

    Probably there's a lot more Henry James than there is "not Hawthorne" in the novels of Henry James. It was a passing thought and a fun paragraph to write.

    I remember liking Thayer's Life of Beethoven, but it's been decades so I won't bet on that one.

  5. I don't know how they would hold up today, but I remember really enjoying Enid Starkie's old school Rimbaud and Baudelaire bios when I was in my early to mid twenties puppy stage as a reader. I still think a good lit bio is prob. worth an occasional investment in time, but reading through an author's back catalogue and supplementing that with either author diaries or the occasional short biographical piece or essay like Gautier on Nerval is likely a more practical use of time.

  6. I'll put in a vote for François Caradec's bio of Raymond Roussel. Roussel was simply good copy, and Caradec was fascinating in his own right.

    Among literary autobiographies, Aleister Crowley's "autohagiography" deserves some hilarious, disreputable pride of place.

  7. Scott, that it just what I did! I got out the Chekhov bat and swung it around.

    Mostly, as Richard notes, we pick up an enormous amount of information about artists just through ordinary scattered reading. So there is usually little point in acquiring this kind of knowledge in 800 page doses.

    Every once in a while, though - the right artist, the well-matched writer - so I appreciate these non-obvious recommendations. Someday I'll take a run at Roussel - yes, his life is ridiculously fun.

  8. Here's a bibliography of Caradec. He also wrote bios of Jarry, Jane Avril, Lautréamont, Alphonse Allais, and Le Pétomane; encyclopedic works on comic strips, children's books, and novelty items; and much more. The ultimate 'pataphysical scholar!

  9. An amazing bibliography, hard to believe, even. And only the Roussel bio in English!