(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

It is a natural human impulse to want to know more about an artist one admires, both in order to understand the work in a more profound fashion and out of a fundamental curiosity about the life that led to that work. In spite of the dearth of information available about William Shakespeare’s life, endless speculation and invention has surrounded him since his era. An early biographer, John Aubrey (1626-1697), assumed that he could illuminate the writing of people such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) by recording gossip, snatches of conversation, impressions, and factual information that he mingled with some references to written work, and his Brief Lives—gathered by an editor and eventually published in 1898—was a forerunner of the kind of informed commentary that has grown in volume since the seventeenth century. Samuel Johnson, who wrote Prefaces, Biographical and Critical, to the Works of the English Poets, 1779-1781 (10 vols.; also known as The Lives of the Poets) partly as a promotional task for a consortium of booksellers, commented, “The biographical part of literature is what I love most.” A kind of countertrend among academics holds that it is a deception and a reduction to assume that there is a direct connection between the work and the life, a position developed with considerable force by the New Critics of the 1930’s, a casual confederation of southern writers (notably Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren among them), who stressed the importance of focusing on the work itself. Their useful corrective to the popular notion that the writer is the work was taken much further by the theory-drenched discourse of the late twentieth century which posited that a sort of self-generating text comes into being beyond the efforts of any individual writer.

The tension between the extremes of opposing perspectives on literary creation has occasionally been reconciled in the work of such deft, incisive writers as the poet Donald Hall, whoseRemembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (1978) combined Hall’s personal contacts with Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound with subtle, informative readings of their poetry. However suspicious literary theorists may be concerning the personal component of a literary work, the compelling power of Walt Whitman’s declaration, “Who touches this book touches a man” retains an appeal which no professoriat will be able to overcome.

Claudia Roth Pierpont, in a series of essays originally commissioned by and published in The New Yorker, has brought Whitman’s heartfelt proclamation to the remaining segment of the human species that, prior to the twentieth century, was often ignored or suppressed as artists. The essays, which she has expanded and gathered under the popularizing title Passionate Minds, are a demonstration of just how fascinating and illuminating an exploration of the events of a person’s life might be when joined with perceptive analysis of his or her work in a supple, lucid presentation that assumes a literate, interested audience ready and eager to learn more about the creator.

The occasion for several of the essays was the issuance of the Library of America editions of their work (Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty), and there is a clear thread of a developing feminist philosophy in the essays. In seeing the possibilities of a collection which would contain several themes that recur throughout the volume—issues of sexual freedom, matters of racial resentment, the constraints of political reality—Pierpont has moved beyond what she calls “women of literary influence” to consider “literary women of influence,” including Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, and Ayn Rand in a cohort that might be characterized by mutual distaste. As Pierpont observes, “[T]here is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others.” The jaunty, semiconfidential tone of her pronouncement is one of the keys to the exceptional readability of these essays, the fashioning of a narrative voice that is clear, direct, witty, and energetic without underestimating the capacity of the reader to appreciate solid scholarship, original insight, and a seriousness of mind that is worthy of the lives of the women she discusses.

Pierpont studied Italian Renaissance art history at New York University, completing her Ph.D. before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1990. There is a multidisciplinary strategy informing the composition of these essays; Pierpont’s strategy involves first a careful reading of her subjects’ work, then the gathering of critical and biographical material about them, followed by the composition of a concise account of the ways that the dominant factors in the artist’s life were significant features of her work. Pierpont’s easy mastery of both the primary work and the extant...

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