Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Agony and the Ecstasy, perhaps Stone’s most acclaimed novel, is a worthy successor to Lust for Life (1934), his first venture into the artistic world, and the two novels contain many of the same themes. Stone’s other novels concern, for the most part, political figures as diverse as Eugene V. Debs and Mary Todd Lincoln; he returned to the world of art in Depths of Glory (1985), a novel about the Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro. In his genre, the biographical novel, Stone has no American equal in quality or quantity, though Andre Maurois is a worthy foreign rival.

The lack of competition is understandable, given the demands of the genre and the lack of critical appreciation for it, despite its popular acceptance. First, the research is formidable, for the biographical novelist must know not only his subject but also his times, including history, religion, politics, science, and the arts. Second, because they believe that less imagination and creativity are required in “history,” critics value fiction over fact. As Stone points out, however, a biographical novel is not simply history or biography; a biographical novelist must select and shape his material to give it dramatic structure and theme. In The Agony and the Ecstasy, Stone eliminates historical characters, alters them, adds fictional ones, and has them reappear so as to give unity, focus, and theme to his novel. Given the massive amount of material that was at his disposal, Stone’s novel is a significant achievement.