The art of life

Biographer Jay Parini on his favorite biographies, about such writers as James Joyce, Henry James, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope and Ralph Waldo Emerson

Topics: Fiction, Writers and Writing, Books,

I’ve been addicted to reading writers’ biographies for 30 years or so. Literary lives attract me, in part because I’m curious about how the great writers were able to assemble their masterworks and, somehow, also
manage to get to the dentist, play with their children, pay their bills,
visit elderly relatives and do all the time-consuming things one must do
in the natural course of a life. What often fascinates me is the source
of writers’ inspiration and the specific details of their working lives:
how many hours they spent at the writing table, under what conditions
and with what results.

I’m hardly alone in liking, even loving, biographies. The art of
biography is an ancient one, preceding the novel by centuries. Among the
first major biographers was Suetonius (A.D. 75-150), who wrote “Lives of
the Noble Caesars” — a book I often thumb through for gossip about Caligula, Nero and Tiberius. These manic, grandiose emperors may never recover from their first biographer, who lingered over the most salacious and melodramatic aspects of their lives. Indeed, this scandal-mongering style of biography has rarely been out of vogue, although in recent years we have been deluged with examples of what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathographies” — biographies that dwell on, revel in, the dark side of the subject. (As a biographer myself, I often wonder why anybody would bother to spend years and years doing research on somebody they didn’t actually admire.)

Dishing the dirt in the mode of Suetonius gave way, in the
Middle Ages, to hagiographic lives of saints, which were meant to
inspire devotion more than entertain the reader. But literary biography,
in English, got underway with a bang in the 18th century with
Samuel Johnson’s “Lives of the English Poets” and, of course, Boswell’s
“Life of Johnson.” These were both works that raised the genre of
literary biography to the level of art. In the case of Boswell, certainly, the biographer was in love with his subject, and the resulting book remains a model of sorts, the biography-as-work-of-love.

Despite the grand achievements of Johnson and Boswell, the 20th
century has been, in fact, the consummate age of biography, beginning
with Aylmer Maude’s “Life of Tolstoy,” first published in 1910 but
considerably revised and expanded in later editions over three decades.
Maude was a brilliant critic who also knew Tolstoy well as a friend. In the tradition of Boswell, he spent a good deal of time in the company of his subject, taking notes on conversations, quizzing Tolstoy’s contemporaries, interrogating the great man himself. Maude’s Tolstoy offers a pioneering example of modern biographical practice.

It is commonly agreed (and I concur) that the two best examples of recent
biographical scholarship are Richard Ellmann’s “James Joyce” (1959) and
Leon Edel’s five-volume “Henry James” (1952-1972). These books will be hard to surpass. While neither is exactly hagiographic, both biographers adored their subjects, and they lavished decades of careful attention on them. They made every attempt to understand their subjects’ foibles and failures, too, although they put them in the context of lives filled with achievements — personal and artistic.

Ellmann’s “Joyce” bowled over most readers when it first appeared — no
one had seen such scholarly detail, such professionalism, such astute use
of modern critical techniques. Ellmann was teaching at Yale at the time,
and was rigorously prepared for writing this book by years in the classroom.
Having already written two groundbreaking books on William Butler Yeats,
Ellmann had a remarkable command of Anglo-Irish literary politics. He
also understood the complex ways that life and art interweave. “The life
of an artist,” he wrote, “but particularly that of Joyce, differs from
other lives of other persons in that its events are becoming artistic
sources even as they command his present attention.” Joyce was, of
course, an extreme example of the writer-as-autobiographer, which made him an excellent subject for a full-scale biography like Ellmann’s.

   

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Instead of allowing each day to lapse back into the fold of vague memory,
Joyce was perpetually reinforcing and reshaping his experience, making
art out of life. Ellmann is able to trace this process in vivid, almost
three-dimensional detail, taking us back to Dublin, introducing us to the
characters who would emerge in “Dubliners,” Joyce’s first volume of
fiction. We also meet the prototype of Stephen Dedalus, the hero of
“Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.” Indeed, you can hardly read that
great novel in any deep sense without having a huge amount of
biographical knowledge, and therefore Ellmann becomes a
necessary adjunct to the serious reader.

Ellmann’s narrative moves slowly forward, letting the details accumulate
as Joyce abandons Ireland for the Continent, marries, becomes a father,
supporting his family through various ill-paid jobs in Italy, France and
Switzerland throughout the years when he was writing “Ulysses” and
“Finnegans Wake.” As Ellmann puts it: “In whatever he did, Joyce’s two
profound interests — his family and his writings — kept their place.
These passions never dwindled. The intensity of the first gave his work
its sympathy and humanity; the intensity of the second raised his life to
dignity and high dedication.”

Ellmann is dedicated to the idea of the artist, and so is Leon Edel,
whose “Henry James” is a model of the biographical art. Edel devoted
himself to James for several decades, immersing himself in the novelist’s
unpublished notebooks and letters, in the rough drafts of his novellas
and novels, his stories and essays. Edel published this biographical
series over a period of two decades, somehow managing to sustain the
narrative tension from the first volume to the last.

I’ve read Edel’s five substantial volumes three times, word for word,
slowly. I don’t know how many people can say this, but I suspect they are few and far between. I expect to read them again soon, my fourth journey
through this extraordinary life, which begins in the nest of an
intellectually gifted, wealthy family who spent a good deal of time in
elegant European hotels. James was immensely sophisticated, by background
and education. His brother, William, became a famous philosopher, and his
sister, Alice, was also a brilliant writer.

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James became the quintessential expatriot, and Edel is artful in the way
he evokes a sense of place as James arrives in Florence, Paris, Rome or
London. Edel’s biography provides, for me, the satisfactions of the old
Victorian three-decker novel. The details of daily life are here in
profusion.

Although James’ life was never dull, I’m especially drawn to the young
Henry — the ambitious writer who takes London by storm in the second
volume, which is subtitled: “The Conquest of London, 1870 to 1881.” Readers are more familiar with the magisterial James who spent the last 15 years
of his life in Rye and Chelsea, a Johnsonian figure whose legendary
reserve and imperial manners frightened away casual visitors. The younger
James was “more ardent and less circumspect,” Edel observes. “He met life
eagerly and often with exuberance. He was in the fullest sense an
‘addicted artist,’ but one who was guided at every turn by his intellect. And
he was a man of action and a man of the world as well. No novelist of his
time addressed himself more assiduously to wooing fame and fortune.” This
makes a breathtakingly good tale — and a wonderful introduction to
Victorian life, which James encountered in all its complexity and color.

It certainly does matter whether or not the subject of a biography
actually “did” something in his or her life in addition to writing books.
I like it when people in books go places and do things, when they mingle
and compete in the great world. Financial and marital crises also make
for good reading. All tragedies are useful, from a narrative viewpoint.
Ill health can help, too. Fortunately (for the biographer), most lives
are full of problems and crises, so there is plenty of available suspense
to create a compelling narrative.

Charles Dickens has always been a favorite subject for biographers, since
his life was easily as large and entertaining as his novels. It is a
marvelous rags-to-riches tale, with suspense at every turn as the
author’s fame and fortune zig and zag, if always on an upward curve. The
first Dickens biography was by his closest friend, John Forester, whose
book appeared in 1874. Dozens of biographies have been written since
then, but one of the best is the most recent: “Dickens” (1990) by Peter
Ackroyd.

Ackroyd is himself a talented novelist, the author of many novels,
including “Chatterton,” “The Trial of Elizabeth Cree” and “Milton in
America” — all works of fiction with a distinctly biographical bent. But
“Dickens” remains his masterpiece: a vast, 1,195 page book, as capacious
and varied as its subject. Ackroyd has a novelist’s gift for pacing, and
this biography rips along, with lurid descriptions of slum life in London
and Paris and colorful portraits of major Victorian figures from
William Makepeace Thackeray and Edward Bulwer-Lytton (two rival novelists) to Queen Victoria
herself, who invited Dickens to Buckingham Palace for tea.

I can think of no biography that provides a better sense of an author’s
working life. Ackroyd invokes the smell of paper and ink, the frenzy
of writing novels in installments, the effort of having to meet each
looming deadline, the confusion created by an endless stream of proofs in
need of correcting. He gives us the numbers: how many pages Dickens wrote
per day as well as how many pounds per page he earned.

From the beginning of his career, Dickens was a fluent writer, Ackroyd
tells us. With “Pickwick Papers,” his first major production, he “was
writing quickly but such is the sureness of his invention that the manuscript in his strong and confident hand is remarkably free of corrections. He
numbers each page at the top as he goes along with his flowing pen —
there are two or three small deletions on each page which look as if they
were made at the actual time of writing, and there are others which were
clearly made when he looked over the manuscript after he had completed
it,” the biographer explains. One puts down “Dickens” with a rich,
complete sense of the writer’s life and mind, and with some feeling for
how he might have written so many astonishing books.

Two other, more recent, biographies that strike me as extraordinary works
are “Anthony Trollope” (1992) by Victoria Glendinning and “Emerson: The
Mind on Fire” (1995) by Robert D. Richardson Jr. The life of Trollope,
of course, rivals that of Dickens for worldliness and productivity. He
wrote more than 40 novels and kept company with most of the important
people of his day: statesmen, authors, industrialists, actors and
aristocrats. Glendinning tells the whole story in vivid detail, examining
the strange separation between the robust, outgoing man-about-town who
was often seen in the fashionable clubs of London and the vulnerable
artist who suffered from extreme self-doubt, a man haunted by a sometimes
painful childhood during which he was dominated by a flamboyant mother and an aggressive older brother. His rise to national, then international,
prominence as an artist is beautifully told. Glendinning ingeniously uses ample quotations from Trollope’s work to suggest what the author himself might have been thinking about aspects of his own life.

Similarly, Richardson offers an entirely fresh sense of Ralph Waldo
Emerson, America’s premier thinker, essayist and archetypal man of
letters in the 19th century. “Emerson is the great American
champion of self-reliance,” says Richardson, “of the adequacy of the
individual, and of the importance of active soul or spirit.” More than
any recent biography I have read, Richardson’s “Emerson” challenges the
reader to live at the level of spiritual intensity that was Emerson’s
natural gift. It was Matthew Arnold who called Emerson “the aid and
abettor of all who live in the spirit.” Richardson brings this Emerson to
life, and makes him available to our overwhelmingly materialistic age in a
miraculous fashion, creating a vivid sense of the “vanishing volatile
froth of the present,” as Emerson called his life. This book is, in
itself, a work of art.

It may be some years before critics, who are always behind the times,
quite realize what is before them: the Age of Biography. In the meantime, readers who understand as much can still thrill to the spectacle.

Jay Parini is Axinn Professor of English at Middlebury College. His novels include "The Last Station" and "Benjamin's Crossing." He has written a life of John Steinbeck and is just completing a life of Robert Frost.

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