Six Literary Lives

Whittemore is interested in climates of opinion that can be created by diverse literary figures — climates, he acknowledges, that are as much a product of the biographer’s as of the biographee’s focus. He acknowledges that his subjects, had they met, would have discovered profound political and literary differences, but he believes they shared a late nineteenth century milieu that fostered skeptical, even impious, investigations of culture that still informed the generation of the late 1930’s, when Whittemore was attending college at Yale.

One of Whittemore’s purposes is to rehabilitate the genre of group biography, first introduced by Plutarch but lately made difficult by the sophisticated studies of social scientists who call into question the idea of a “climate of opinion.” For Whittemore, the term’s justification resides in the biographer’s consciousness, in his ability to make a coherent set out of different personalities, forging connections that depend upon the biographer’s consciousness: “it is I, the biographer, who have put them together, and casually, somehow sharing their climate of thought as writers standing apart from their culture, yet serving it too, unlike their literary successors today.”

These last words are most telling — “unlike their literary successors today” — who have broken the bond between literature and culture that Whittemore sees as vital and which he seeks to reestablish by means of biography. His book also includes an appendix on three “naturalists,” Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, who share the skeptical intelligence that marks the six literary lives Whittemore evokes so shrewdly and imaginatively.