A mystery exists at the heart of all literary biography: How does the mush of experience get turned into glittering artifact?
By Phyllis Rose
September 5, 2013
John Hersey, the author of Hiroshima, used to ride his bike around the town where I live, Key West. A handsome white-haired man, he was advanced in years when I saw him, but still in control, upright in every way. From his books one thinks of him as austere and uncompromising in his moral sense—what he would have called his humanism—yet he appreciated style. Occasionally you can still glimpse his classic Mercedes, which he left a friend. He loved this car so much that, in 1970, when he went to Europe for a year, he shipped it over to have it with him. I bring this up as an example of human complexity. Is there a contradiction between the moralist who documented the atom bomb’s horrific destruction of a Japanese city and the man who was passionately devoted to a car? What exactly are we interested in when we’re interested in writers’ lives? And do we have the right to be?
People who live in Key West see a lot of writers up close. We see writers shopping at our gourmet grocery, Fausto’s, waiting at the airport for friends, browsing at the library book sale, drinking rum punch at parties, doing lat pull-downs at the gym. A friend at a fitness center recalls how the poet James Merrill, when working out, used to chant “sets and reps, lats and pecs.” We talk to writers by the pool and over dinner. Sometimes we talk about literature. I remember one conversation two years ago, in which a few of us were talking about Hemingway. But more often, it’s about the white fly problem, house maintenance, bronchitis, bursitis, and flu, our children, our parents, our friends. Proust had this to say about socializing with writers: “The person you chat with at a party and the person who writes a novel are not the same person.” Writing is done in private and involves a descent into the self, a lowering of the engine of consciousness into inchoate depths, and the construction, painfully, in language, of a feeling, an insight, an observation. This struggle for truth and precision is so specialized, so private, so word dependent that it has no relationship with the rest of life.
Proust made an important point, and what he said has become the dominant view. The man on the bicycle and the man who wrote Hiroshima are not the same person. We are all interested in writers’ lives, but a deep-rooted and sophisticated tradition says we’re wrong to be. That tradition says that a writer has no life except what is in the work. Everything you have to know is in there. The writer is one place, and the human being is somewhere else. Except for the members of his family, who cares if he’s a louse? Some schools of thought even require him to be a louse. At the very least he has to be stingy with his time. You can’t plumb the depths of your consciousness and play bouncy with a toddler at the same time. The cork-lined bedroom of Proust has become a metaphor for the writer’s necessary isolation. Yeats put it that every artist has to choose between perfection of the life and of the work.
In his 2001 Nobel acceptance speech, V. S. Naipaul elaborated on this theme, that a writer has no life but what he writes. “Everything of value about me,” he said, “is in my books. Whatever extra there is in me at any given moment isn’t fully formed. I am hardly aware of it; it awaits the next book. It will—with luck—come to me during the actual writing, and it will take me by surprise.” Reading about Naipaul’s family, Indian immigrants in the Caribbean, we are likely to think, “What great material he had! How lucky he was!” But Naipaul anticipated the thought. “Perhaps you might feel that the material was so rich it would have been no trouble … to get started and to go on. What I have said about [my] background, however, comes from the knowledge I acquired with my writing.” The writer, that is, begins in confusion and nothingness and writes his way into form and clarity. At the start of Naipaul’s career, all around him were “areas of darkness.” His own novels wrote these areas of darkness into form, so now we think of the Caribbean and other third-world places as Naipaul’s “natural” material and naturally interesting.
The material does not make the work. The life does not make the art. Exactly the opposite. The work creates the material. The art creates the life. Did Trinidad exist before Naipaul? Did cargo ships exist before Joseph Conrad? Did Newark and the New Jersey suburbs exist before Philip Roth? Did women in playgrounds in New York City exist before Grace Paley? See how the writer invents the material? These places did not exist as literary subjects. They were invisible to literature. The magic of a great book is that it makes its own subject seem inevitable. The danger is, it makes the subject seem like the source of power in the work. It makes people think that all they have to do is position themselves in the right place at the right time, and they can produce a great book. In the past, it was conceivable for a young man who wanted to write to go to sea, like Conrad or Melville, in pursuit of his literary ambitions.
Writers’ lives seem interesting after the fact because writers have irradiated and transformed their own experience. But there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them. Writers spend more time inside at a desk than anyone except office clerks. Prison has proved a remarkably supportive spot for writers from Cervantes onward. I have made an informal study over the years comparing, simply from the point of view of life span, the lives of photographers with the lives of writers. The photographers win easily: Cartier-Bresson, 95; Steichen, 93; Bernice Abbott, 93. Writers don’t match that. Writing is bad for your health.
So, the enlightened view tells us: number one, don’t think the writer you meet at a party is the real writer, and two, don’t think the writer’s life provides material for his or her art. The solitary person exercising creative imagination is the writer, not the person exercising his quads. Moreover it’s the imagination that creates the life, not vice versa. You could even go so far as to say that the man on the bicycle doesn’t exist unless someone describes him or portrays him and turns him into art. That is the view of hard-core idealists, people who privilege thought over action, like Proust.
Proust’s remarks separating the deep work of the writer from his less important everyday life were provoked by the 19th-century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, who had a very different notion of the relationship between a writer’s work and life. Sainte-Beuve believed that in order to assess a writer’s work, you had to know the writer’s actions and beliefs—loosely speaking, his life—through letters and other biographical documents and, best of all, through the testimony of people who knew him. And Sainte-Beuve found a lot of bad behavior in writers’ lives. He didn’t like Stendhal or Balzac as men, and so he discounted their work. “Detestable” was the word he used for Stendhal’s novels. He said that to “judge” a writer (judge!), you have to know all about him, gather biographical documents, and speak to his friends.
That last part enraged Proust and produced some of his finest passages about the real nature of art. His friends? Why is a friend of Stendhal’s in any better position to know him than a reader encountering his deeper self in a text? A friend, with his anecdotes? his jokes? his little observations of behavioral tics and aberrations? The last person to understand the writer is a friend or member of the family. The writer has a private self, accessed in silence and perhaps confusion, and a much inferior outer self squandered in conversation, in opinions, half-truths, and charm. This is the self a friend sees. If friends think they know the writer in knowing this lesser self, they are the more deceived. Sainte-Beuve got Proust so angry that he wrote a whole book about him, which drew a line between ordinary life and artistic work, making the central literary task inward. In doing this, Against Sainte-Beuve became a kind of manifesto for modernist literature and literary criticism, and the forgettable critic has been remembered thanks to Proust’s scorn.
That was in France. England produced no Sainte-Beuve to serve as a straw man for another aestheticizing Proust. Instead it had the much more formidable figures of Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. Each of those critics in his own way was concerned with the relationship between art and right living. Each of them was convinced that art contributed importantly to the society of which it was part. Instead of a silly and irrelevant moralism, there was in the English critical tradition a deep moral concern that assumed a connection between life and art. Arnold was specifically a literary critic, and his conviction that literature embodied “the best which has been thought and said” was a potent force in Anglo-American literary culture until after World War II. Critics like Lionel Trilling and F. R. Leavis, whose thinking dominated the way we read when I entered college in the early 1960s, were still working in a basically Arnoldian tradition. Under their influence, we talked about the individual and the culture, the self and society, and about the endlessly interesting interplay between the two. Self. Society. We believed—perhaps naïvely—that these abstractions referred to something real. And while we believed, we had access to deep, rich themes and a starting point for wonderful discussions.
When Arnoldian criticism addressed the issue of the relationship between life and work, it tended to be psychological and sympathetic. To take Edmund Wilson’s essay on Dickens in The Wound and the Bow as an example: he explored how Dickens’s childhood experience of being sentenced to what he saw as slave labor by his parents affected his future sympathies and themes. Critics in the Arnoldian tradition were very often politically progressive and Freudian in their sense of life’s narrative. Therefore, what writers intended, how they lived, what they believed, what made them write as they did, what had happened to them—all was of interest to this school. It produced some of the greatest of literary biographies, like Leon Edel’s Henry James, Justin Kaplan’s Mark Twain, Walter Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, and Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce.
French criticism since Proust scorns biography. We could trace this to various elements in French intellectual life, especially a Cartesian favoring of the abstract over the concrete. We could mention French laws that punish invasion of privacy and libel more aggressively than Anglo-American common law. There’s no doubt that these laws have for years discouraged biography of any but the driest sort in France. But let’s focus on the literary rather than the legal. French literary criticism, with its disdain for biography, its insistence that the writer’s life has nothing to do with the writer’s work, dominated the latter half of the 20th century. French theory led us away from looking at literature in context, whether the context of the writer’s life or the context of historical times. In the United States and the United Kingdom it reinforced the so-called New Criticism, which encouraged us to pay very close attention to the text and to downplay or disregard the context. Many of us admired the New Criticism and learned a lot from it, even if we did not find it as much fun, finally, as the old criticism. But when the New Criticism was joined by French deconstruction, like two huge storm systems uniting, they obliterated everything in their path, text and author both. To the eyes of deconstruction, the harder you looked and the smarter you were, the less of a text was there. An author was the tool of his language. The author didn’t count. The critic was the truly creative person.
Those of us who believed that a text could have a meaning—however elusive, however dependent on a reader’s subjectivity—were considered provincial. We waited for the enthusiasm for French theory to blow away, but we had to wait a long time, and when it did blow away, little was left of the glorious university English departments built by the old Arnoldian humanism. The discovery shortly after the death of Paul de Man, the most important propagator of French theory in America, that he had written anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi pieces for a Belgian newspaper certainly helped redress the balance quickly. It was hard not to think that his insistence on the irrelevance of the writer’s life had been prompted by a desire to hide his own shameful actions during the war. Still, de Man’s disgrace did nothing to undercut the political correctness tests that had replaced literary analysis in most American universities. The damage had been done.
Throughout the desert years of deconstruction, literary biography was a refuge for readers and writers both, an oasis of sanity. We tried not to look at the theoretical objections, because if we did, we would run into one of two huge rocks: literary criticism’s disdain for biography on the one hand and on the other the formidable suggestion of literary journalist Janet Malcolm in book after book that nonfiction writing is a sort of theft. Between this Scylla and Charybdis, some of us found a way thanks to a very basic love of story. We told the story of lives, looking neither left nor right but following the channel we saw. Where it led us, we hoped, was to the truth of individual lives, perhaps the writer’s, perhaps our own, and then on to the truths of the lives of others. Narrative was our pilot. Wonderfully, there were readers interested in this. Writers about writers were rescued by readers who wanted to know about writers’ lives.
I have always loved Roland Barthes’s essay, “The Writer on Holiday.” This is what I remembered its saying: the writer is never on holiday. When Flaubert is in Egypt, going to brothels, he is really at work. When Henry James goes to dinner parties, he is at work. When Dickens produces theatricals, he is at work. Everything writers do is valuable because everything they do, potentially, is inspiration. Nothing in a writer’s life is wasted. Since ultimately what we all want most is to have our time on earth prove to be valuable, we examine writers’ lives to learn how to turn whatever happens to us into something useful or beautiful. Writers are models of creative alchemy, and at the heart of our interest in their lives is the appeal—mythic, perhaps—of a life in which everything counts.
When I reread Barthes’s essay, I discovered that what I remembered his saying isn’t what he said at all. I had Americanized Barthes’s thought. I had turned his witty, paradoxical style into an earnest one and his dismissive attitude toward the middle class into (I have to confess) an encouragement of bourgeois self-help. Barthes was not explaining the appeal of writers’ lives but mocking the romanticization of writers by the bourgeoisie. It is, in Barthes’s view, a joking pretense of the bourgeoisie to suggest that the writer, like a laborer, can be on holiday. No humanizing detail can take away from the writer “the glamorous status which bourgeois society liberally grants its spiritual representatives (so long as they remain harmless).” Yes, writers have a human essence, the bourgeois mythology concedes: they have a small daughter and a country house. But according to Barthes it would be wrong to see this as an attempt to demystify creativity. “To endow the writer publicly with a good fleshly body, to reveal that he likes dry white wine and underdone steak, is to make even more miraculous for me, and of a more divine essence, the products of his art.” In other words, Barthes thinks that the man on the bicycle is the same man who wrote Hiroshima, but he doesn’t think that most people are smart enough to realize that. He thinks that, in the popular imagination (what he calls the bourgeois mind), riding the bicycle elevates the writer of Hiroshima even higher into the realm of the sacral. How great must a man be to serve as conscience for his generation and ride a bicycle at the same time?
Barthes has nothing but scorn for what he calls “the professionals of inspiration” and even more scorn for those who seek inspiration from them. We, as readers, as lovers of literature and of literary biography, have to come to terms with that scorn. Those of us who are interested in writers’ lives, both as readers and as writers, have to dispute the fashionable wisdom if we are not to seem at best morbidly inquisitive and at worst prurient. If a writer’s life is of no importance to his or her work, how can we justify being interested in it?
First of all, it is absurd to say that a writer’s life has no importance to a writer’s work. It may be a deep truth and at the same time a patent evasion. The person you chat with at a party and the person who writes novels are the same person. The man at the gym muttering “Sets and reps, lats and pecs” is the same man who wrote “Victor’s Dog.” This is just the kind of moment that a literary biographer dreams of finding, when a writer’s sensibility and unique talents impose themselves spontaneously on the material of their daily life. Another James Merrill example: when the poet finished a reading once, a woman presented him with a potted plant in gratitude, an anthurium. He instantly said, “Well, it isn’t laurel but it’s hardy.” Who on this planet could have come up with that line except James Merrill?
Here in Key West, this glorious community of creative people, we can see that one friend plays Ping-Pong with the same precision and killer instinct she brings to bear on describing a frog. Another, talking about the Book of Isaiah at a dinner party, shows the same brilliant, almost hallucinatory intensity that he does in his novels. Another is as direct, generous, and helpful to the people around her as she is to her readers. Another’s genius for mimicry, which has us falling off chairs laughing, is central to her brilliance as a novelist, and another’s impish but deep wisdom is no surprise to encounter in person if you’ve read her books. And as for our upright bike-rider, the conscience of his age, can it be that there’s no connection between the fact that John Hersey, the son of missionaries, spent his childhood in China and the fact that he of all writers of his generation tried to show the effect of the atomic bomb from the point of view of its Asian victims? All writers have their own style, their characteristic mixture of restraint and engagement, their way of deploying humor, their quotient of outrage, their warmth, their coolness, their brilliance, their empathy, their nuttiness. These rhythms of the spirit move through a writer’s daily life as they move through the work.
How do people use their psychic injuries and strengths to fashion their art? What do they take from their experience and what do they not? How do southern ladies leading limited lives like Flannery O’Connor, how do repressed gentlemen like Henry James produce work that transforms other people’s lives and continues to do so for centuries? Why do energetic, outward-facing, political people like Grace Paley ever sit down to write fiction at all?
There is a mystery at the heart of all literary biography. How does the mush of experience get turned into glittering artifact? How does the random become essential? Those of us who love literature are a kind of religious cult. The stories of writers’ lives are our saints’ lives, not in the sense that they are models for how to live, but in that they focus over and over again on the moment of transformation and creation, a moment hard to render in words, partly because it is never just a moment but a long and interrupted process in time. In visual media, like film, which collapse time into dramatic moments, it’s even harder to render and often ends up seeming ludicrous. Jane Fonda, as Lillian Hellman, throws her typewriter through the window of her Cape Cod cottage to indicate frustration. There is the joke we used to enjoy as kids in which Herr Beethoven, trying to write his fifth symphony, but stymied, is interrupted by a knock at the door. Duh duh duh DUH. The joke is satisfying because we wish it were that simple but know it isn’t. Literary biography can be seen as an effort to explain creativity in a fittingly complex and nuanced way—not so much to explain it as to put it into a context that allows us to understand how unique the process is in every person. The biography itself is a speculation as to how it was done. The connection exists between the man or woman at the cocktail party and the man or woman who writes, but it cannot be explained at a cocktail party. This is why writers at cocktail parties rarely welcome the question, “How did you get that idea?” The explanation requires a book.
So my first answer to why do we want to hear about writers’ lives is that we want to understand the mystery of creation. We are not satisfied with the sacral view of the writer. We want to learn the secret of creativity, because it can be the secret to happiness. We turn to all kinds of literature, biography and fiction both, to learn how to live, and in a way, all books are self-help books.
Now we get to the crucial subject of gossip, that portal to moral inquiry. Writers’ lives are especially fascinating because writers, one way or another, tell us so much about the truth of their lives. In the letters they write, in their essays, as well as in their novels or poems. Writers write. They generate truthful information. One must not be crude in understanding the ways in which they convey information, but they do.
I wrote a book called Parallel Lives about the marriages of five Victorian writers. It was really about marriage, not writing, and I focused on writers not because I thought their marriages were better or worse than anyone else’s but because they gave me material. Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane, wrote volumes of letters. Dickens issued public statements about his marriage like “Mrs. Dickens and I have lived unhappily together for many years.” Ruskin told his lawyer what he thought when he saw his wife naked for the first time. John Stuart Mill admitted that he changed his view of socialism from negative to positive to please his girlfriend. These people didn’t censor themselves, and that is partly why we love them.
I did not intend to undermine their stature as writers, yet that was how some readers reacted. “I used to like Dickens, but thanks to you, I’ll never read him again.” “I always suspected Ruskin was a pervert and now I can ignore everything he said.” (The Sainte-Beuvian fallacy.) That upset me. That wasn’t what I’d hoped for. Each of us has many selves. There is Dickens, the conscience of his generation, Dickens the ham actor, Dickens the selfish and self-righteous husband. If literary biography teaches us anything, morally, it is to endure contradiction. It is possible to find Dickens’s private behavior disgraceful and still enjoy reading his work. It is possible to be appalled by Norman Mailer’s violence to his second wife, his recklessness as a political activist, and still acknowledge the greatness of his writing. I understand that for some people that dual recognition is simply not possible. What horrifies them in the life would destroy their pleasure in the work. I understand how this can happen, but I think it’s a shame. And I advise such people not to look too deeply into anybody’s life.
Most biographers understand that they can create only a partial account of a subject. If they aspired to completeness, it would take their entire life and career—and still their account might not be final. Every biography carries to some extent the personality of the biographer and the time in which it is written—new emphases, new nuances, new themes. This is not to say there is no there there, no reality, no fact. It is to say that human life is infinitely complex, and any version of it stylized, a selection. So there can be no definitive biography, and we can go on writing biographies till the cows come home.
Let me suggest that there is a spectrum of biographical enterprises. They are all perfectly valid, but it’s important to understand where on the spectrum you are as a writer or as a reader. To use a photographic metaphor, every biography has a different depth of field, different areas of focus. Some biographers want everything in focus. They aspire to total objectivity. They want to try to write the definitive life. They see themselves primarily as researchers and tend to value their own prose only so far as it is transparent. This is traditional objective biography. The self of the biographer is not supposed to count. Next to that, on the spectrum I would like you to imagine, is biography in which some personal choice or bias is admitted, some shaping lens is consciously chosen, for example literary biographies, which foreground the work and put daily life into the background. Then, farther on, the relationship between biographer and subject comes into focus—it is my search for Graham Greene or Robert Louis Stevenson. Richard Holmes called this romantic biography in his great work in this genre, Footsteps. Finally, farthest on the spectrum from an objective compilation of facts, a writer can recreate another writer in his own imagination. At that point, although I may reveal much more about my subject than a conventional biographer, I am writing a novel. I am Colm Toíbín, for example, bringing us his own completely convincing Henry James in The Master.
We have made our way to one group of people who are especially interested in writers’ lives, and that’s other writers. Writers are interested in other writers as a matter of craft and of self-fashioning. Writers learn how to write from other writers. This is sometimes very concrete and specific. Katherine Anne Porter set herself to copy out passages of Laurence Sterne’s work so that she could master his style. A writer may also turn to another writer to discover himself. How to follow out a vision over a lifetime? How to be a novelist who takes social issues seriously? How to be a woman and a writer? How to be gay? Writers make use of the many occasions presented to them to discuss other writers in forums like book reviews or magazine essays. If they are smart—and they usually are—they choose these occasions carefully. They know, as Oscar Wilde put it, that criticism is the only civilized form of autobiography.
Sometimes, in a first book, a writer will apprentice himself or herself imaginatively by writing another writer’s biography. I chose Virginia Woolf. Judith Thurman chose Isak Dinesen. James Atlas chose Delmore Schwartz. Arnold Rampersad chose Langston Hughes. These aren’t accidents. They are significant choices, like the choice of a totemic animal: something in your spirit aligns with theirs. Where the apprenticeship leads one never knows at the start. Sometimes it can lead around in a circle and produce a great book that has very little to do with its ostensible subject, like Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. Sometimes, when our mentors are novelists, it isn’t necessarily their novels we like best about them. We like their letters, their diaries, their essays. We want to get as close as we can to their spontaneous bursts of being. When this happens, it’s best to admit it: Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence—these are our imaginary friends. When we call, they always pick up the phone.
But even before that, before the writer has published a book or maybe even had a Scotch and soda, as a child, as a young adult, he or she has to be obsessed with other writers. Writing comes from a love of writing, a savoring of it, a habit of sensitivity to words and a penchant for literary experience. There are many paths to literary achievement, but the one way you do not get there is by neglecting to read. You cannot be a good writer if you have not been a good reader, and I would say that a writer’s responsiveness to other writers, whether discussed or held private, is the thing without which literary merit cannot exist.
Over two centuries ago, Samuel Johnson invented the idea of crowd wisdom, only he called it “the common reader.” “I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” Virginia Woolf agreed and titled her wonderful collection of essays on literature The Common Reader. “The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. … He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” I find it charming and very English that snobby Virginia Woolf allies herself with this common reader. How different, how very different, from the stance of French critics whom we may equally admire but who are always distancing themselves from the common reader, whom they usually call the bourgeois mind. I personally rejoice to belong to the Anglo-American tradition of reading and writing, which I see as polyphonic, pragmatic, and invigoratingly tied to life.
Phyllis Rose is the author of Parallel Lives and Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time and a contributing editor of the SCHOLAR. Her latest book is The Shelf: From LEQ to LES.