• Most modern biographies are vexingly long, and it vexes me even more when they’re so well written that I feel compelled to read them from cover to cover, taking in all sorts of brain-cluttering information along the way. I could have cut two hundred pages out of Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton (Knopf, 869 pp., $35) without breaking a sweat, and another hundred without noticeably diminishing the book’s usefulness. Lee is the kind of biographer who feels obliged to tell absolutely everything she knows about her subject—and then some. Was it really necessary to devote half a page to a listing of the contents of the wine cellar of a woman who didn’t drink wine herself? Yet I never once felt tempted to abandon ship in midstream, for Edith Wharton is one of the most intelligent biographies of an American artist to come my way in years, and I read it with an interest almost entirely unaffected by its unselectivity.
Lee is sound on pretty much everything, including the touchy subjects of Wharton’s anti-Semitism and snobbishness, both of which she describes fully and frankly without feeling the need to reassure the reader of her own sensitivity (though I wonder whether she would have been quite so unostentatious about it had her subject been a man). I was especially pleased to learn that the supposedly stodgy Wharton was an admirer of Cézanne, Colette, Proust, The Rite of Spring, and Vile Bodies, not to mention Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Lee believes that Wharton was a great writer—she uses the word unapologetically—and it is a tribute to her persuasiveness that even if you disagree, you will likely put down Edith Wharton wondering whether you might be wrong. I regret to admit that I am more or less the kind of reader she has in mind when she writes dismissively of those who accept “the version of Wharton—which has proved extremely hard to shift—as a female Henry James, a more superficial and middlebrow imitator of the Master, using the same kind of plots, characters and society, but with less depth and subtlety.” I love The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, but I’d hitherto considered them exceptional among Wharton’s large and uneven output. Now, though, I’m feeling the itch to go out and read all the Edith Wharton I can get my hands on. Is there anything better to be said about a literary biography than that?
• I never saw Carolyn Brown dance—she retired from the stage in 1972, long before I moved to Manhattan and saw the Merce Cunningham Dance Company for the first time—but there is plenty of filmed evidence to show that she was one of the finest modern dancers of the 50’s and 60’s, and a great beauty to boot. As if that weren’t enough, it turns out that she’s also a very good writer. Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years With Cage and Cunningham (Knopf, 645 pp., $37.50) is nearly as overlong as Edith Wharton. But the first half, in which Brown describes what it felt like to be at the center of the postmodern movement in American art, is both readable and important. No one has written more acutely about Cunningham, John Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg, and even if—like me—you have mixed feelings about their legacy, you will find the story of how they got started to be wholly engrossing.
Brown has some odd gaps in her sensibility—she doesn’t get George Balanchine at all, for instance—but she writes about Cunningham and his choreography with perfect comprehension and a sense of proportion rarely to be found among acolytes. No less acute are her reflections on the act of public performance: “The essence of performance is its ‘now-ness’—no mind, no memory. Just that brief time when one has the chance to be whole, when seemingly disconnected threads of one’s being are woven and intertwined into the complete present. No other. No past. No future. No mind as an entity distinct from the body.” I’ve never heard it put better.