Sara Alpern

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The Challenge of Feminist Biography

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In recent years, there have been several collections about the art of biography, in which biographers attempt to explain their methodology, their attraction to their subjects, and why biography has become such a popular genre. This collection ranks at the very top of such productions for the candor of the biographers’ comments, the high quality of the essays, and the persuasiveness of the argument that feminist biography holds the promise of opening up and radically transforming the conventions of biography.

Each essay contains a succinct description of the biographer’s subject, of her research methods and experiences, of the autobiographical elements in the biographer’s handling of the subject, and her conclusions about her subject and about how the biographer’s work contributes to a feminist agenda. To put it this way, however, is not to suggest a program—a lockstep vision of what women’s history should be or an attack on traditional biography per se. Indeed, several of these biographers discuss their problems with doctrinaire feminists and reject what they term the tyranny of “politically correct” injunctions; to the contrary, each biographer’s experience is presented as unique and resistant to codification.

With the exceptions, perhaps, of Freda Kirchway, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Helen Gahagan Douglas, many of the figures presented in this book may seem obscure, but in every case the biographers convincingly show the importance of their subjects and thus simultaneously point up the inadequacies of conventional history and biography, which have largely ignored their significance.