Keepers of the Flame Essay - Critical Essays

Keepers of the Flame

Ian Hamilton is the biographer of Robert Lowell and J. D. Salinger. These books have equipped him to write a lively and fascinating study of literary estates. Hamilton was given a very difficult time by J. D. Salinger, who took the biographer to court and succeeded in suppressing the first version of Hamilton’s biography of him. Clearly this upsetting experience has provoked Hamilton into investigating how subjects, their families, and their estates often work together to control the writing of biographies.

By beginning with accounts of how the lives of John Donne and William Shakespeare were first published, Hamilton has given, in effect, a history of literary biography. As he notes in his foreword, notions of posterity, copyright law, and fame have changed greatly over the past five hundred years. What should be known about a literary figure, how much to tell about his or her private life, is still an unsettled question as biography has evolved from a form of eulogy to a much more critical and skeptical genre.

Hamilton’s approach is exclusively English. He covers the major periods and figures from the Elizabethans, to the eighteenth century (Alexander Pope, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson), to the Romantics (Robert Burns, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley), to the Victorians and Edwardians (Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, and Rudyard Kipling), to the contentious present, in which the estates and reputations of Sylvia Plath and Philip Larkin have made of biography a battleground.

Hamilton does not deal with his own case—perhaps because he covered it in IN SEARCH OF J. D. SALINGER. Yet how his own experiences have tempered his view of literary history and biography might have enriched his study—as would at least a glance at how other cultures have treated literary estates and the rise of biography.