The Literary Biography
“Biographies are murder,” proclaimed Henry Adams, whose autobiography must then be considered a classic of American literary suicide. The nineteen essays that Dale Salwak, himself a biographer of Kingsley Amis, Barbara Pym, and Philip Larkin, has assembled in THE LITERARY BIOGRAPHY: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS offer eloquent defense and analysis of literary assassination. Contributors, most of them practicing biographers, reflect on their own experiences and the nature of their popular genre.
They range from Kenneth Silverman’s technical tips on how to keep the story flowing to John Halperin’s diatribe against deconstructionism’s contempt for history and the author. Several, including Justin Kaplan, Martin Stannard, and Natasha Spender, reflect on the ethics of an intrusive activity that could be likened to voyeurism and even necrophilia.
As a function of the biographer’s distance from the subject, Anthony Alpers distinguishes among personal, proximate, and historical biographies. Many contributors to THE LITERARY BIOGRAPHY provide striking personal accounts of how they wrote their books. Linda H. Davis explains the fatal fire that compelled her to be the biographer of Stephen Crane, whose life was also shaped by fire, and Katherine Ramsland recounts how friendship with Anne Rice has affected her role as witness to the author’s life. Russell Fraser details the power that R. P. Blackmur has exerted over him.
Among those who share the frustrations of their task, Linda Wagner-Martin describes the resistance she encountered from Sylvia Plath’s estate, and Diane Wood Middlebrook explains the hostility she confronted when she used tapes of Anne Sexton’s therapy sessions. N. John Hall surveys the contradictory critical reactions to his work on Anthony Trollope.
Readers of THE LITERARY BIOGRAPHY are likely to react with gratitude for its spirited discussions about the importance and artistry of life-writing.