Travels in Literary Time
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.
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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.