Travels in Literary TimePrint
A writer’s excursions beyond mere archives
By Jay Parini
March 6, 2017
This Long Pursuit: Reflections of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes; Pantheon, 368 pp., $30
Among modern biographers, I can think of few rivals to Richard Holmes, especially among those who write about the Romantic era. When Shelley: The Pursuit first appeared, in 1974, I was in my final year of graduate school in Scotland, and I had ambitions of my own as a biographer. My sense of Shelley—I had read him obsessively for many years—was permanently altered by Holmes’s book. I had imagined him as an ethereal young man, rather distracted, a mind on fire but somehow not of its time and place. Holmes not only shifted my view, but also that of a generation of scholars and readers. The Shelley who emerged was earthy, vindictive, even calculating. He was also a brave and original poet, an early proponent of free love, an atheist, and a political thinker with disruptive views.
That startling biography made me wonder about the young man who had written it. A little over a decade later, Footsteps—the first volume of Holmes’s musings on the art of biography—appeared. It was full of sharp reflections on the craft of life-writing, and deeply personal: Holmes re-created a journey by Robert Louis Stevenson in rural France, for instance, and took us into the post-Revolution Paris of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Italian villages and seascapes that were such a part of Shelley’s life as he forged his radical thinking. As ever, Holmes wrote with such delicacy and clarity, with such idiosyncratic grace, that I found myself drawn back to the pages of this book again and again.
Sidetracks followed in 2000, another collection of personal reflections, a mix of travelogue, memoir, and biographical detective work. It was, more than Footsteps, a miscellany: meditations on Voltaire and James Boswell, further extensions of his work on Wollstonecraft, a radio play about Shelley. Here, Holmes gives us a sense of his 30-year journey into the lives of key figures from the Gothic or Romantic periods of English writing. As a biographer, I found his dedication to the craft inspiring, and I still do. (Biography remains one of the least theorized of any major genre.)
In addition to a major two-volume life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge—perhaps his finest achievement post-Shelley—Holmes has written a compelling book about the young Samuel Johnson and his complicated friendship with the older, and bizarre, poet and playwright Richard Savage, whom Johnson would himself memorialize in a brilliant biography that became a forerunner of Romantic biography, establishing an image of the poet as revolutionary outsider that would play out in the work of more than a generation of writers.
In the wake of The Age of Wonder (2008), an immensely charming book about science in the early Romantic era, and Falling Upwards (2013), about the early history of ballooning, comes This Long Pursuit, a further installment on the art of biography. Once again, readers will find much to ponder. Holmes is a “total immersion” biographer, a believer in what he calls the footsteps principle: “The serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or travelled or dreamed.”
I suspect that few readers of biographies quite understand what lies behind the making of any substantial life study. It’s probably impossible to re-create a life in any detail and with feeling without a close knowledge of the landscapes, even the actual houses, that held the subject over the course of a life. I’ve myself traveled in the footsteps of Steinbeck, Frost, Faulkner, and Gore Vidal—so I know something of what’s involved here: countless hours of travel and a great deal of expense, in time and money. But I know the pleasures as well: how this research animates the life at hand.
We learn a great deal about Holmes’s writing habits here. I was intrigued by his idea that one should keep a two-sided notebook: on the right side of the page, he records the “objective” facts of his subject’s life, quoting from diaries and letters, historical records, whatever—the stuff that comes from archives. On the left side, he puts down his “most personal responses,” including feelings and speculations, questions and conundrums that arise, all of the subjective thoughts that come with authorship. The “cumulative of the research journey” enthralls him.
Few biographers have dwelled as explicitly on their writing experience as Holmes, and I’m grateful to him. More than mere scraps of personal reflection, this book adds up, in a rather unkempt way, to a further if not final installment in his long excursion in this genre, and it mixes autobiography and inquiry on a particular subject with reflections on his craft.
Its miscellaneous nature may be distracting for some readers. The book contains 15 essays on either the discipline of biography or on particular subjects, several of whom Holmes has already written about in detail, and I don’t fully understand its organization with three sections called “Confessions,” “Restorations,” and “Afterlives.” Holmes rehashes material, as in the essay on Wollstonecraft, one of his favorite subjects. Some elegant reflections touch on such subjects as memory and forgetting, on ballooning as a hobby, but I wonder if these should not have been put elsewhere, in a book of essays not necessarily in the vein of Footsteps or Sidetracks. Certainly each of the five essays in “Afterlives,” which respectively consider neglected aspects of the lives of Shelley, Coleridge, John Keats, Thomas Lawrence, and William Blake, are splendid biographical entertainments.
For instance, he writes engagingly about Coleridge in his role as lecturer. The young Thomas De Quincey describes the famous poet’s appearance as that of a man “struggling with pain and overmastering illness.” Holmes further quotes an unpublished report from a committee that evaluated one series of lectures by Coleridge: “He has suffered greatly from Excessive Sensibility—the disease of Genius.” It seems that Holmes cannot let go of his beloved subjects; that he must revisit them periodically, refresh his research, rethink his conclusions. I am glad he returned to Coleridge here.
“One of the methods of biographers, in their search for truth,” Holmes writes, “is to alter our conventional perceptions of time. They may challenge superficial chronology, and seek to place events in a new sequence or a deeper context of ideas.” That “deeper context” permeates this book, as Holmes plunges again and again into the pool of history, seeing how the lives that interest and absorb him manage to play off, to withstand, even to change the intellectual and moral climates of their own experience. This Long Pursuit may be seen as a continuation of this writer’s “search for truth,” and it shimmers with odd revelations that, on second thought, often seem indispensable.
Jay Parini is a poet, a novelist, and professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College. His most recent book is New and Collected Poems, 1975–2015.