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Knowledge of the Life

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The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography
By Scott Donaldson
Penn State University Press, 2015

theimpossiblecraftNear the beginning of his book, The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography, Scott Donaldson identifies what he takes to be the “central justification” of biographies about writers: “that knowledge of the life throws light on the work and vice versa.” This is no doubt a very common assumption, held by both writers and readers of literary biographies, and Donaldson apparently considers it so indisputable that nowhere in the rest of his book does he proceed to defend it, although surely it is a debatable proposition. What kind of “knowledge” of a writer’s life does a biography ultimately offer us? What kind of “light” is shined on the work, and is it really very helpful to us in reading the work with greater satisfaction? Why would we look for the work to cast light on the life, if we are reading the biography in the first place because of our interest in what the subject wrote?

To be fair, Donaldson is responding to what he perceives as hostility toward biographical inquiry in academic criticism, especially among those approaches that explicitly discount any and all considerations “outside the text.” Although Donaldson has maintained a long and successful career as a literature professor, it is nevertheless true that literary biography has never exactly been an esteemed practice in academic literary studies, the copious citations of such influential biographies as Leon Edel’s on Henry James, Richard Ellmann’s on James Joyce, and Joseph Frank’s on Dostoevsky notwithstanding. As the academy has shifted away from formalism and old-style historicism and instead adopted critical approaches—from deconstruction to “digital humanities”—that deemphasize the writer and focus more on impersonal forces outside the writer’s control, biography arguably has become even more passé.

Still, even if the biographer has struggled to gain acceptance for the form within the academy, the appeal of biography for many, perhaps most, readers is captured more accurately in Donaldson’s additional observation that “professional craftsmen” will persist in producing biographies “until human beings lose their curiosity about each other, and about the way they lived and loved and did their work.” It is telling that Donaldson refers to “work” last, only after the invocation of “human curiosity” is followed by the suggestion that our interest lies first in the way others “have lived and loved.” It seems a safe bet that the majority of those who read biographies, even literary biographies, are not scholars and students of literature but members of a more general audience motivated by the kind of curiosity Donaldson specifies. If these readers are not quite seeking enlightenment about the writer’s work but instead hope to find out about the lives and loves of writers (especially of certain more notorious writers, such as, say, Hemingway and Fitzgerald), it is not surprising that most biographies seem eager enough to furnish the latter and don’t always attempt to provide much of the former.

donaldsoncheever Donaldson’s own biographies, of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as John Cheever and Edwin Arlington Robinson, among others, do make such an attempt, although his preferred method is to abstract an overarching theme from his subject’s life and apply this as a thesis in considering both the writer and the work. He characterizes the thesis with which he approached his Cheever biography, for example, as the notion that this writer “was a man divided against himself,” struggling to reconcile “bifurcations [that] split Cheever down the middle.” Donaldson elsewhere in the book tells us that “as a biographer I resisted the New Critics’ obliteration of the author,” but in his classroom activities he “embraced their insistence upon ‘close reading.’” Whatever close reading he does in his biographies (at least to judge by his description of them) is done in the name of advancing the thesis, in this case offering a unified but very general account of Cheever’s fiction. At best, the sort of “light” this kind of thesis-driven biography can muster is rather low wattage, and it still ends up offering more understanding of the writer than the work. The psychological context of Cheever’s work may be illuminated, but “close reading” here does little to elucidate the experience of reading Cheever’s fiction.

Of course, a biographer would counter, it is not the role of biography to focus on the explication of text so acutely. This is the job of literary criticism, practiced in tentative isolation from biographical investigation. If biography can be said to enhance the reading experience, it is by providing readers with information and perspective they can themselves apply if they find it adds to their enjoyment or appreciation of a particular work. But while it may be true enough that a certain degree of knowledge about a writer and his/her experiences and assumptions can sometimes give the act of reading the work a firmer foundation in fact and circumstance—indeed, can sometimes make reading the work effectively at all even possible to begin with—of what exactly does the “knowledge” gained by reading a biography consist? Does familiarity with facts—the author drank, relations with his wife weren’t so great, he lived in the same sort of suburb he wrote about—help us much in appreciating how the author has transmuted his experience into fiction, which is, after all, the distortion of fact, its alteration into something else?

A common defense of literary biographies is that they do indeed help us to comprehend how writers have realized their ambitions, how literary art happens. (Donaldson does not claim this as a goal for his biographies.) But this admirable objective never seems to be reached. Even a biographer as indefatigable as Hershel Parker, with his encyclopedic knowledge of almost every moment in the life of Herman Melville, can really only chronicle the process by which a writer like Melville worked, not explain how this process rather than some other resulted in the sort of literary art we encounter when we read Melville. The biographer can tell us what the writer did, but hershelmelvillenot why it worked (or didn’t, as the case may be). Knowing what writers do may or may not be a valuable thing to know, but at some point it threatens to reduce the artistic process itself to the same tedium that reading about it frequently becomes. Perhaps admirers of Melville’s work inevitably want to know more about the circumstances of its creation. Surely, however, this is finally a satisfying supplement to the rewards of reading Melville’s stories, novels, and poems, not a condition of their fulfillment.

Biography as supplement is a perfectly worthwhile function nevertheless, even for a New Critic. Attend first to the work, then by all means learn more about the writer, his/her life and times. In the long run, it’s always better to know more than less (not only about literature). But there is little reason to believe that this is the use to which most readers put the biographies they read. If the most useful source of insight about a work of literature is criticism, it is hardly the case that most ordinary readers avail themselves of very much criticism, except for what can be found in the best book reviews (and of course we could ask how many readers take reviews that seriously). Since literary biographies continue to be written at a steady pace—and in fact the number of biographies taking still-living writers as their subjects has only increased—a reasonable conclusion is that there is a demand for these books, that a significant proportion of readers do indeed turn to biography, making it the primary form of discussion about literature among readers whose interest in books is more than casual. It is more common to find critics pondering whether the biography at hand is the “definitive” one to appear, comparing this one to that one, than it is a critic explicating a writer’s work in any but the briefest and most cursory way.

But can’t the criticism-starved reader turn to the nearest academic journal, where “serious” criticism presumably has a home? Unfortunately, such a reader would find little of interest there, not because of increased difficulty or narrowness of focus but because academic criticism is now as preoccupied with context over text as biography, although in this case the context concerns those political, cultural, and historical forces that shaped the text, or that the text makes available to us in a way that academic critics find more worthy of their attention than the work itself. At a time, then, when “criticism” is either unavailable or unappealing to general readers, biography de facto remains as the most visible kind of commentary about writing and writers.

It is to some extent true that biographies help maintain recognition for some writers whose work might otherwise fall completely into obscurity or neglect. Even writers whose work continues to be read are probably given enhanced consideration they would not have received absent the appearance of a biography. But the most serious FrankDostoevskyproblem with biographies is that finally readers cannot be sure they are being provided with what they are seeking from a biography, namely an accurately rendered account of the life that adequately captures the “truth” about the writer. Whether the life has been correctly represented or not is a question that must be settled before anything at all can be said about the relationship between the life and the work. Even readers more interested in a gossipy tell-all about a famous writer must trust that the gossip has some basis in fact or else the biography becomes indistinguishable from fiction, lessening the titillation of eavesdropping on someone else’s life. And there are those who would contend that biographies are indeed a form of fiction, by default if not intent. Donaldson quotes Louis Menand, who has written that “biography is a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools. It is not a window or a mirror.” Donaldson himself warns that “we should be suspicious of enthusiastic reviewers who tell us that a biography has managed to capture its subject as a living and breathing person. And of books that sound too knowing, glide past gaps in the life, smooth over the rough spots. . . .”

“All any biographer can hope,” according to Menand, “and all any reasonably skeptical reader can expect, is that the necessarily somewhat fictional character in the book bears some resemblance to the actual person who lived and died, and whose achievements (and disgraces) we care to learn more about.” Donaldson hopes for a little more:

. . . You cannot go inside another human being’s heart and head: agreed. You cannot reconstruct his bone and blood in a word portrait: also agreed. But it may be that if you are diligent and devoted, persistent and perceptive enough, you may come close.

We could take The Impossible Craft to be Donaldson’s extended brief on behalf of this claim. It attempts to show how in the biographies he and others have written, diligence, devotion, and persistence have contributed to works that (so he hopes) “come close” to revealing their subjects’ essential characters. The book seems addressed less to general readers of biography than to those who might take up the genre themselves, who might make the effort to reconstruct a life in a word portrait, making The Impossible Craft a kind of how-to book for aspiring writers.

Donaldson begins his book by providing a very brief history of the biography as a form, as well as his own path to becoming a biographer. Although he makes no generalization about the evolution of biographical writing, he does contend that biography in the 20th/21st centuries is now characterized by a no-holds-barred approach that assumes all “veils have been lifted, leaving no taboo subject,” and by a tendency to the “vast accumulation of detail.” Throughout the book, Donaldson endeavors to portray his biographies as more disciplined than this, although the condensed narrative he gives of his own discovery of biography as a vocation seems partly intended to suggest that biography belongs to no particular “discipline” in the academic sense, given the circuitous and serendipitous way he became a biographer. After an early career as a journalist, he pursued a Ph.D. in American Studies, which ultimately resulted in his first book, a study of the postwar American suburb (anticipating, as it turned out, his later interest in John Cheever).

Donaldson acknowledges that he did not plan to become literary biographer, and that “For a long time, I had no occupational plans at all, other than vaguely hoping to become a writer of some sort.” His academic career appears to have developed from equally vague ambitions as well, or at least from a much more favorable job market than today’s academic job-seekers face:

The university market was not yet overstuffed with doctored candidates and. . . I secured a post teaching American literature at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. There I could teach bright students—and myself—about great literature and take summers off to write material that would not be used, the following day, to wrap the fish in.

EdelJamesIf Donaldson apparently taught himself “great literature” as he went along, he also taught himself biography (and it must be said that in his more extensive accounts of each of his biographies he is entirely frank about this), and at its best the book generously passes on what he has learned. The Impossible Craft does not offer a theory of biography, but a loosely linked series of reflections on the practice of biography as Donaldson has come to understand it.

The book couldn’t really be called an intellectual memoir, although parts of it certainly do recount both the accomplishments and the mistakes Donaldson can claim, in his biographies and in the process by which they were written. He examines biographies by other writers and the issues they raise as well, including the examples of iconic biographies by Edel, Ellmann, and Justin Kaplan. Thus ranging widely over biographical practice, Donaldson considers whether biographers are allowed to use their imaginations, why writers make especially difficult subjects, how much revelation is “too much,” what ways of interviewing subjects and witnesses work best, and how “involved” with the subject the biographer should be (is it necessary to “like” the subject?). None of these questions are answered conclusively, although Donaldson does indicate how he came to answer them in particular instances. On the issue of involvement, for example, Donaldson sums up what he has learned:

You begin writing a biography with love or at least a strong admiration for your subject, and with a complementary curiosity about what sort of person was able to accomplish such wonders. You do your dutiful yet often exhilarating research, discovering illuminating remarks and unexpected actions along the way. You read and reread and assemble boxes full of notes. Eventually the notes begin to fall into a pattern. You shape your book along the lines of that pattern, You hope to end with understanding. . . .

Ultimately we also do learn a good deal about Donaldson’s own subjects as well as efforts to write their biographies. Because of his outwardly colorful life (and inwardly conflicted one), Ernest Hemingway has been especially appealing to biographers. Donaldson both surveys the still-expanding series of Hemingway biographies (including his own) and focuses more intensively on the initial attempts by various writers to write about Hemingway’s life. This latter discussion, while interesting enough for what it reveals about the resistance writers like Hemingway put up to having their lives become the object of scrutiny (even when the scrutiny is not that intense), nevertheless DonaldsonHemingwaydiverts the reader’s interest from the art and craft of biography to the particular situation faced by Ernest Hemingway in a sufficiently protracted way that it often seems like a parenthetical digression, a pretext for Donaldson to augment his biography of Hemingway, as does the similar story of Zelda Fitzgerald’s putative affair with a French aviator in 1924, which is posited as a watershed event in the lives of the Fitzgeralds and in Scott Fitzgerald’s subsequent career as a writer but seems even more like an excursus into an episode covered in less detail in Donaldson’s own biography. Both of these sections of the book reinforce the weaknesses of Donaldson’s scattershot approach, so that it seems organized less informally than haphazardly.

The lengthy exposition of the fight forced on early biographers for full disclosure from family members and friends of the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson is also quite detailed, but here it does have the benefit of showing how a biographer such as Donaldson can benefit from such a fight after its participants have “faded from the scene.” The obstacles faced by the would-be biographers of Robinson also illustrate the special problems attendant on writing a biography of a living writer, or one just recently deceased, whose survivors are still very much around and consider themselves to have an interest in how the writer (and they) will be perceived. Donaldson addresses this dilemma more directly in the final section of The Impossible Craft, which presents a full report on his encounters with the Cheever family during and after writing his biography of John Cheever. This account is notable for its acknowledgments of the mistakes Donaldson believes he made, both in dealing with Cheever’s widow and children and in his interpretation of Cheever’s life (actually taking a too-forgiving view, he now thinks). Indeed, Donaldson intersperses his chronicle of what he calls “the Cheever misadventure” with extended passages he simply labels “Mistakes,” as in his interaction with Cheever’s daughter, Susan:

In retrospect I knew I should have said less and listened more. The putative biographer should keep his mouth shut and, above all, should not make any show of superior knowledge. When I talked about Cheever stories that Susan had not read, it led to “bad chemistry.” I’d offended her, she subsequently told a reporter, by acting as though I knew more about her father than she did and by “bragging” about research grants. So far as she was concerned, we were in competition, and it was a competition she did not mean to lose.

The story Donaldson tells has an undeniable fascination, as it opens the curtain behind which the biographer is pulling the levers that will produce a plausible image of the writer. But if Donaldson believes he got the trajectory of Cheever’s life wrong, does this mean he also in that book gave us an incorrect view of Cheever’s fiction? If the life throws light on the work, does this mean a flawed portrait of the life throws a distorting light on the work, or just leaves it in darkness? The ultimate disappointment of The Impossible Craft is that it doesn’t try to answer such questions. If Donaldson believes that the claim for biography as a critical tool doesn’t need defending, he is wrong. That biography in itself can enlighten us about a writer’s work is mere conjecture short of an explanation of how this happens and illustrative examples. If he can’t defend it because the “light” thrown on the work is too dim, then biographers like Donaldson should stop making the claim. It is understandable that he does not want his “impossible craft” to be associated with the sensationalism found in many biographies of “famous” people (a quality that is all too possible), but asserting a value to it that can’t be sustained does very little to substantiate that literary biography is “literary” beyond the fact that it takes writers as its subject.

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Daniel Green is a critic and writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications and who maintains the literary weblog, The Reading Experience.