Commentary Magazine

Literary Lives

In memory of F. W. Dupee

We cannot know completely the intricacies with which any mind negotiates with its surroundings to produce literature. The controlled seething out of which great works come is not likely to yield all its secrets. Yet at moments, in glimpses, biographers seem to come close to it, and the effort to come close . . . is not frivolous.

—Richard Ellmann, “Literary Biography”

There once was a time when what passed for critical discourse could be confidently subsumed under two neatly coordinate rubrics, the Man and his Work. These were, as the French literary theorist, Gérard Genette, has tartly observed, “the two caryatids of the old style of literary studies.” The vie-et-oeuvre school probably reached its apogee in the years preceding World War I, though many of its practitioners remained highly visible for the next few decades. After the Great War, there were the first fumbling attempts of the Marxists to explain the literary text through historical context, and of the Freudians to uncover pretext (in a double sense) in the text. These early efforts, at least in America, were followed by the emergence of the New Critics, who with their fine instruments of aesthetic analysis generally managed to sever the text from the particular human being who had produced it. And now, over the last decade and more, structuralism with equal effectiveness has displaced the writer from his work by its special emphasis on formal relations in literary texts, on genre, convention, allusion, and other modes of “intertextuality,” and on the complex cultural codes that are inscribed—sometimes it seems hardly by an individual writer—in a literary text.

With all this, one might suppose that the practice of retelling a writer’s life as a way to understand his work would be as obsolete as the 19th-century positivism which was largely responsible for its former vogue. But the fact of the matter is that the shelves of our bookstores are groaning under the weight of new literary biographies, which continue to appear at an unprecedented rate. During the past year or so, we have been offered—just to name some of the English and American writers treated—biographies of Samuel Johnson, Joseph Conrad, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, Delmore Schwartz; and, beyond the Anglo-American sphere, a wide range of continental writers from Dostoevsky to Hesse to Cervantes have been the subject of new English biographies. Later this spring, New Republic Books will be publishing a collection of essays on the art of biography, and I suspect there will be more such books on biography as well as many more biographies in the near future.

At least some of the present impulse to write literary biography may be explained precisely as a reaction to the ascendancy of structuralism which I mentioned a moment ago. For the semiotic critic, the human writer tends to become an “emitter of messages” which are to be decoded by the reader; écrivain disappears before écriture, the act or process of producing written texts. Not only is that act or process the primary subject of critical discourse, but what generally emerges in this fashionable style of reading is that the “subject” of any given text is not some complex of experiences the writer may have undergone but rather the production and operation of the text itself. If Roland Barthes were to discuss Virginia Woolf’s reshaping of the novel, he would no doubt talk about the historical tilt from one mode of semiosis to another, from the production of a so-called “readerly text” to a “writerly text”; and the prominence, say, of water imagery in her fiction might be taken as a comment on the fluid relation between signifier and signified dictated by a modern recognition of the arbitrary nature of linguistic conventions.

In this intellectual climate, an independent-minded critic could easily feel obliged, in the interests of psychological common sense, to ask, as Phyllis Rose does in her admirable study of Virginia Woolf,1 some simple but compelling questions: might there be certain significant connections between the highly subjective lyric form Woolf created for the novel and her pained relations with her father, her sense of being disadvantaged as a girl growing up in an eminently Victorian household, her bouts of madness, her oddly deflected sexuality? Literature obviously could not exist without formal structures and shared codes that may have their own internal dynamics, but literary creation, after all, is a plant rooted in the rich soil of the individual writer’s experience, and perhaps some critics, including younger ones, now feel impelled as a matter of intellectual self-defense to return in their work to that elemental truth.

It is also conceivable—and this would be a motive shared by readers and writers—that the current popularity of literary biography is in part attributable to the fact that we no longer live in a time of great writers. In regard to artistic originality, our age is manifestly a “postmodern era,” as the academic journals by now have officially labeled it. When instead of Joyce and Mann and Proust and Faulkner, we have in our midst John Barth, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Günter Grass, and—at best—Saul Bellow, it is understandable and not necessarily reprehensible that both readers and critics should turn to the literary past with a certain degree of nostalgia. Occasionally, the 18th century, with its discipline of rational control and its striking manifestations of resolute will, has been attractive; more frequently, the 19th century, exhibiting such heroic artistic energies and, especially among novelists, such Promethean aspirations, has been the biographer’s ideal territory. In recent years, however, it is the great age of modernism which reached its peak in the 20′s that has tended to be the most fascinating object of biographical attention, which of course makes perfect sense in terms of our own cultural situation. The classic modern writers are figures for whom there exists a wealth of archival material to be exploited; they are figures who in most cases have not yet been adequately “done”; but, above all, they are the generation of giants in the earth to whom we, their pygmy progeny, can look up in envy and wonder.



The question, however, of why people read literary biographies is bound to have several answers. To begin with, on the lowest level, there is a certain obvious piquancy in gossip about the great, and in this respect literary biographies do not differ from biographies of (preferably self-destructive) movie stars, political leaders, or business tycoons. Our curiosity about the makers of our literature may tend toward the ferreting-out of sexual secrets—what did Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West really do on their nights together? Did Samuel Johnson and Mrs. Thrale engage in sado-masochistic rites? Was Stendhal impotent?—but it easly extends to physical debility, money matters, social relations, and psychological quirks that have no erotic manifestations. I suspect that the insatiable thirst for books about Bloomsbury during the last seven or eight years2 is largely the result of the gossip side of readers’ interest in literary biography. Bloomsbury, to be sure, was the closest approximation of a coherent center of modernism that London ever managed, but it has also become the intellectuals’ Upstairs, Downstairs. Its setting in the second and third decades of our century holds more radical disruptions, more historical excitements, than the Edwardian background of the television series, but in its own way it, too, offers a glittering vision of style and elegance, a subtle play of class values we never knew in America, a peculiarly British combination of petulance and playfulness, made all the more appealing by the willful and at times exhibitionistic sexual rebelliousness of these genteel intellectuals, their self-conscious determination to be modern.

It is clear that any literary biography that attends chiefly to the aspects of its subject which are the province of gossip will have a trivializing effect. But there are two more elevated aims of literary biography to which almost any biographer who is not a hack will somehow address himself. A writer who has produced works of the imagination that will last presents a pattern of human greatness, however shambling or mediocre or grotesque his private life, however gnawing the anguish with which he had to live. Every great writer’s life is in some way an exemplary life, which is why the interest in literary biography is more than the prurient reflex of cultivated gossip. Walter Jackson Bate, at the beginning of his life of Samuel Johnson.3 states the edifying function of literary biography with unabashed directness: “The greatest writers, as Keats remarked about Shakespeare, lead ‘a life of Allegory’: their ‘works are the comments on it.’ But their lives become allegorical for us because the writers are so deeply akin to us.” To this general proposition Bate adds a remark of Mrs. Thrale’s on Johnson, the validity of which he will splendidly demonstrate in the next 600 pages: “His soul was not different than that of another person,” simply “greater.”

Such greatness can assert itself even in the throes of crushing defeat, as I believe is the case in the life of Kafka. But when a writer is really defeated, in his art and in his attempt to live a coherent life, some of our legitimate expectations as readers of literary biography are necessarily frustrated. Thus, James Atlas’s meticulous and discreetly managed life of Delmore Schwartz,4 tends to become increasingly oppressive after the first half-dozen chapters because of the subject, not the biographer. For if one is a literary person and not a clinician, what can one do with the life of a man of talent who produced his best work, much of it still only “promising,” before he was twenty-eight, who then progressively destroyed everything he possessed—friendship, marriage, intellectual discipline—and finally became for long years a wretched hulk, sodden with drugs and alcohol, ravaged by the storms of psychosis? I don’t mean to suggest that the lives of literary failures ought not to be written—we have, after all, as venerable an example in English as Samuel Johnson’s life of the ne’er-do-well minor poet, Richard Savage—but these strike me as a rather limiting sub-genre of literary biography, given the deeper resonances to which we respond in the lives of those writers who achieve some ultimate triumph through their art.

The other source of abiding interest in literary biography is the fascination with the mystery of literary creation. Between an observed pattern in the life and the inward leap of creation there is a strong connection but also an unbridgeable gap. The pattern can be described and defined, the act of creation at best only intimated. The lives of writers, in contrast to other kinds of creative figures, offer a tantalizing promise of yielding their ultimate secret of achievement because the primary autobiographical documents and the work itself are in the same written language. We may pursue recurrent stylistic traits, syntactical structures, configurations of imagery, conscious themes, obsessional concerns, from the writer’s journals and letters and memoirs to his novels or poems, but in the end that course will provide no more than a suggestive hypothesis about how the hiatus between life and art might have been crossed.

Having recently struggled with such problems in working on a biography of Stendhal, I would like to offer as an illustration one knotty instance of this general quandary with which I found myself confronted. In the fall of 1829, Stendhal, struck by a newspaper account of a young provincial tutor who was guillotined for shooting his former mistress, began rapidly sketching out the novel which, after several months of repeated interpolation and accretion, would become The Red and the Black. At that point, Stendhal had published only one novel, Armance, just two years earlier, at the age of forty-four, and that pale, often contrived performance would hardly be read today if it were not for what its author achieved afterward. The journalism, the travel books, the sundry works on art and music he had written between 1814 and 1829, reflect a shrewd, ironic intelligence, even exhibit moments of real brilliance, but they are not much more than attractive literary potpourris concocted by a highly gifted dilettante. Stendhal had aspired to literary greatness since childhood, but in the painfully abortive plays he attempted to write under the Empire as well as in his miscellaneous production during the Bourbon Restoration, he showed only the most intermittent evidence that he was capable of realizing that aspiration.

Then, in the last months of 1829 and in the early part of 1830, everything uncannily came together. The quavering voice of three decades suddenly reached perfect pitch. He was writing with a beautifully effective mobility of narrative point of view, a bold stylistic efficiency, a psychological penetration, a sense of the fine interplay among character, class, and the historical moment, and an ability to modulate from high comedy to tragedy, that had no direct models and certainly no equals in the European novel. One can of course point to various routes followed by Stendhal in his intellectual development, in his emotional history going back to childhood, in his political experience and in his romantic attachments, that lead to this moment, but the moment itself is finally inexplicable. In the end our efforts to assess the precise combination of ingredients will not really tell us how or why the mind reaches its moments of magic volatility. Perhaps this is why there is an aspect of inexhaustibility in the lives of great writers: they always remain to be retold because the essential fact of achievement can never be fully explained.



Nevertheless, there is much that can be explained, and the current crop of literary biographies offers a spectrum of instructive instances of how to go about, and how not to go about, the process of explanation. The biographer may use any variety of analytic apparatuses in trying to understand the life of his subject, but I would suggest that he has to begin with a strong intuition of the human subject’s distinctive presence, which must be patiently acquired from an intimate acquaintance with the writer’s literary work, his journals, letters, marginalia, doodlings, and the available comments on him by his contemporaries. Without this intuition of presence, what results is a flat chronicle of events in the writer’s life, not the complex effort of imaginative insight into a person that makes biography a serious genre.

A negative case in point is V.S. Pritchett’s scandalously overpraised The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev.5 Since Pritchett knows no Russian, he cannot pretend to hear the subtle inflections of individuality one assumes Turgenev left in his public and private writing, and he cannot even inspect many of the documents that bear on Turgenev’s life. In fact, he has fabricated his own narrative largely out of materials drawn from three earlier English biographies, by Avraham Yarmolinsky, David Magarschack, and (on the woman Turgenev loved) by April Fitzlyon. This highly mediated relation to his subject makes itself felt on almost every page. The “work” part, moreover, of the Life and Work, is a throwback to the worst of the late 19th-century tradition, being largely comprised of plot summaries punctuated by phrases of impressionistic approbation like “these figures are well-done” and “his ear is fine” (as though one could infer anything about a writer’s “ear” from translation).



Writing a biography, then, resembles novel-writing in its need for an immediate intuition of character and for an appropriate style and sense of narrative economy to render that intuition. In biography, of course, “character” is drawn from empirical data, and the biographer is not free to invent, say, undocumented details of dress, decor, and situation merely to make his story more vivid. But the plausible hypotheses about his subject through which he sees shape and order in the writer’s life are halfway to being fictional constructs.

Precisely here lies the rub in the supposed objectivity of the biographical enterprise. Writing biography is never an innocent activity. No matter how voluminous the documentation that a biographer may have at his disposal, what he sees will be significantly determined by where he stands. The view of the subject in some instances is dictated by a specific ideology, so that we can have, say, a reading of Emily Bronte’s life in feminist, Marxist, Freudian, or even Jungian terms, with only an approximate correspondence between any one version of Bronte and all the others. But even without an explicit ideology, anyone who tries to write biography is willy-nilly drawn to his particular subject by certain features which, whether he realizes it or not, are in tune with aspects of his own sensibility, perhaps with his own fantasy life, with his moral, aesthetic, or political commitments. What will emerge as foreground and background in a life, how diferent facts are to be connected, what will be the order of presentation of certain details, what lines of causal explanation will be proposed—all this depends on the biographer’s shaping point of view.

Still, if the subject of the biography is not to be entirely inert, the biographer, once his own viewpoint is determined, must exercise some of the capacity of the novelist for imaginative identification. Here, for example, is how Phyllis Rose begins her life of Virginia Woolf: “Her earliest memory was of red and purple flowers on a black dress. She was sitting on her mother’s lap, returning from St. Ives, in Cornwall. Then, the sound of waves breaking on the beach as she lay in the nursery.” With almost deceptive simplicity, Mrs. Rose starts by drawing us into Virginia Woolf’s inner world. Each of these details of perception from Woolf’s childhood is clearly documented, but, however unobtrusively, the concrete details also immediately establish a perspective on the life and the work. The images of waves and flowers will dominate Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves; the need for maternal protection will be a recurrent theme of Woolf’s life ( for at least in a biography, a life has themes); and her ambivalence toward her mother, whom she was to lose so early, will have enormous consequences in her emotional development, her fiction, her feminism.

These first sentences of Woman of Letters illustrate what seems to me another basic principle of literary biography: that there can be no disjunction between writing about the life and writing about the work. Since it is the work, after all, that draws us to the life of the writer, every small stroke in recounting the life should ideally contribute, however obliquely, to enlarging our sense of how the cumulative experience of the writer issued in the work. A writer’s work is so fundamental to the way he is in the world that an account of his life which does not somehow incorporate a critical consideration of his work is bound to produce a foreshortened vision of the writer.

Paul Delany, for example, affirms at the beginning of his book on D. H. Lawrence during the war years,6 that he has chosen to stick for the most part to the perspective of literary biography rather than that of critical interpretation. With this self-limitation, he has written a very good book on a subject that might have elicited an altogether remarkable one. His narrative is based on scrupulous research; he writes with literate clarity; and he assesses Lawrence and his tangled relationships during these years with unflagging judiciousness. Delany’s occasional interpretative remarks are finely suggestive—like his proposal of a connection between the oscillations in Lawrence’s thinking and the physiological swings of his tubercular condition, or his comment on the way Lawrence, even as he vehemently opposed the war, absorbed the imagery and violence of the war atmosphere into his own imaginative idiom. But The Rainbow and Women in Love are treated mainly as sources of autobiographical data, and that has, I think, an especially foreshortening effect for a writer like Lawrence. He was in many ways a disagreeable man—ill-tempered, egotistical, childish, grandiose, often filled with loathing (misanthropy is too pale a word) for mankind. But the “exemplary” aspect of this desperately unhappy, snarling figure was that he created Women in Love and a few of the finest short stories in modern English: it was in his best writing that he found health in his sickness, triumph in his long, rasping defeat. Paul Delany is of course quite aware of all that, but his narrative is not pitched toward the achievement, and as a result his book, though intelligently conceived and skillfully written, lacks a compelling imaginative center.



To be sure, one can easily sin more egregiously in the opposite direction, as Frederick R. Karl does on a titanic scale in his biography of Conrad.7 In dealing with Conrad’s Polish boyhood and his seventeen years as a sailor, Karl is very keen on defining the various configurations in the life that will determine the distinctive nature of the fiction. He has inquired into every nook and cranny of his subject’s personal history, early and late, with a thoroughness that surpasses all previous biographers of Conrad, but the consequence of the interpretative strategy he has adopted is curiously self-defeating. For much of the first few hundred pages of this enormous book, the narrative surface is marred by a constantly spreading rash of prolepsis. Karl scarcely allows himself to report a single significant incident, from childhood illness to an early attempt at suicide, without elaborating in detail the pattern he supposes it to prefigure, sometimes even embarking on lengthy discussions of the novels in which Conrad later may have artistically worked out the early experience. Alongside these long anticipatory passages, one finds an abundance of water-treading maneuvers like the following: “He was registering, recording, storing memories, and learning to deal with experience, even at this age. He was, apparently, a recording machine of sorts; the brain working was inchoate, uncertain, lacking direction, but it was the brain of the future storyteller and novelist.” The unfortunate result is that the younger Conrad too often disappears behind the scrim of the biographer’s rather self-conscious interpretations and directional indications.

Once Conrad embarks on his literary career, he is converted from a recording machine into a writing machine, and between the two, the man who wrote Nostromo and Lord Jim never seems entirely real. Many writers get caught up obsessively in the relentless rhythm of their vocation, but Karl’s account of the mature Conrad places such unrelieved emphasis on the minute circumstances of the novelist at his desk, the number of words produced per diem for each book, the number of pounds sterling advanced him per quarter by his agent, his maneuvers among publishers and collectors, that his relations with his wife, his sons, even his literary friends, fade into an abstraction, dutifully dealt with but never quite realized by the biographer. This overfocused circumstantiality, coupled with an awkward, frequently faulty style, creates a serious problem of readability. Karl has gone through some 1,500 letters and various other documents to which previous scholars have not had access, and perhaps one must view his week-by-week chronicle of the gestation of Conrad’s books as a useful compendium of reference materials for others doing research on Conrad. It is harder to see it as biographical narrative with sufficient momentum to carry forward a literate general reader.



Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives also raises the vexed question of length in literary biographies. The tendency to gigantism among American biographers has, quite justifiably, elicited frequent denunciations of the so-called laundry-list or daily-menu approach to biography, an approach based on the fallacious assumption that since a life is made up of endless details, the more details you put in your book, the more of the life you will capture. There is, however, no ideal size for biography, and length sometimes can be amply warranted. Walter Jackson Bate uses some 250,000 words for his life of Johnson, but his thorough account of Johnson’s personal history, accompanied by analytic attention to all the major works, reflects a fine sense of revelatory detail, never wanders into trivia, and our interest is steadily engaged because whatever he deals with is powerfully informed by a central imagination of Johnson’s distinctive presence, his unfolding character. In quite another direction, it seems clear from the first volume of Joseph Frank’s projected four-volume biography of Dostoevsky that the scale of that work will justify itself because in order to set Dostoevsky in proper perspective, the biographer has undertaken a vast, and illuminating, reconstruction of the 19th-century Russian setting out of which the novelist developed.

Now, Karl is by no means a practitioner of the laundry-list school of biography, but the bulkiness of his book—almost half-a-million words—points to other varieties of laxity into which American biographers are too easily tempted. There seems to be a widespread sense that if you somehow surround the life, say everything about it you can think of saying, you will encompass it; and this tendency is lamentably encouraged by the disposition of many reviewers—as has been the case with Karl’s book—to be imposed upon by sheer volume, which is immediately celebrated as “monumental,” “definitive,” “classic” biography. There is some scrupulous and informative consideration of Conrad’s professional life in Karl’s study, but it is buried in layer upon layer of adipose tissue. This includes, aside from the lavish deployment of interpretative anticipation and the excessive circumstantiality, sheer repetition (there is scarcely an important aspect of the Conrad story that is not run past us five or six times); gratuitously copious quotation of sources; and, above all, a tireless invocation of supposed parallels to the writer and of what are imagined as authoritative models for interpreting a life. The proposed analogies between Conrad and Mallarmé (whom Karl would appear to know mainly from Wallace Fowlie’s distillations), Conrad and Proust, Conrad and Kafka, all seem rather dubious and unhelpful, though in varying degrees. How silly this game of comparisons can become is evident when the biographer begins to write sentences like the following: “Seen through a different lens, and if written in French [sic], Nostromo becomes Conrad’s ‘Proustian novel,’ the depiction of a society analyzed and atomized [anatomized?]. If Conrad had become a French writer, as he once contemplated, he might have begun like Flaubert and Maupassant, and developed toward Gide or Proust.” Elsewhere, in an effort to explain Conrad, Karl quotes or summarizes at length from Jung, Freud, Erik Erikson, Erich Neumann, Ernst Kris, Mircea Eliade, Herbert Marcuse, and other guides to psyche and self, giving the impression of a series of cumbersome grids imposed on his subject rather than a clear vision of the man.



This last point leads me to a final general issue in the writing of biography, which is the extent to which anyone not technically trained and not intending a specially focused “psychobiography” can bring to bear established paradigms of psychological explanation. Here the biographer finds himself in something of a dilemma. He can scarcely pretend that psychoanalysis doesn’t exist, that there is no unconscious, that memory and behavior are not marked by elaborate defense-mechanisms, screen-devices, and other oblique manifestations of things repressed. Yet a literary biographer is not likely to have any professional command of the ramified and evolving body of psychoanalytic discourse, and even if he did, because he is working after all with the leavings of a life on paper, not with a living patient on a couch, whatever he has to say about the “depth psychology” of his subject is bound to be rather conjectural. The most sensible course, I suppose, is some sort of tactful compromise. When one encounters, for example, a testimony like the famous passage in Stendhal’s autobiography in which the novelist recalls how as a small child he loved to embrace his mother, how he longed to be naked with her, and how he hated his father’s interference, one can hardly put aside the specific cultural awareness we all share since Freud of Oedipal desire and its importance both in early development and as a matrix for later attachments. But it seems to me unwise, not only as a matter of rhetorical tact but also as a matter of conceptual precision, to hammer down the meaning of an experience so suggestively evoked by the writer with the rigid nails of a ready-made technical terminology.

A biographer probably has to find some discreet means to alert his reader to psychological dimensions of the subject about which the reader will be able to draw the necessary inferences or make the appropriate conjectures, but as a rule the biographer will be able genuinely to reveal more of the writer’s nature not by presuming to inquire into the unconscious but by observing precisely how the writer casts such early memories in language, how they feed into the imagery and personages and imaginative texture of his conscious art. No one has argued ths position more persuasively than Richard Ellmann in his essay on literary biography: “As we push back into the mind of a writer, we are apt to lose sight of his conscious direction, of all that gives shape to what might otherwise be his run-of-the-mill phobias or obsessions and distinguishes his grand paranoia from our own squirmy one. . . . We may reduce all achievement to a web of causation until we cannot see the Ego for the Id.” Causation, of course, cannot be neglected in giving a coherent account of a life, but I would argue that the primary task of the literary biographer is the elucidation of design, not the tracing of etiology.

In precisely this regard, I would take issue with an underlying assumption about literary biography suggested by Leon Edel in a recent essay, “The Figure Under the Carpet” (the New Republic, February 10, 1979). In pointedly deforming the emblematic Jamesian phrase, the figure in the carpet, Edel proposes that it is the business of the biographer to look at the hidden underside of the writer’s life, for “beyond the flesh and the legend there is an inner sense of self, an inner man or woman, who shapes and expresses, alters and clothes the personality that is our subject and our art.” The truth of the assertion must be conceded since one hardly wants to claim that the outward person is generally a transparent revelation of the inward self, but I am troubled by the implications of the argument. For the literary biographer as Edel sees him is a kind of intellectual detective, constantly sorting out unconscious or at least devious motive from visible expression, exercising compassion, to be sure, toward his subject, but finally enjoying a godlike superiority in often being able to know more about the secret springs of the writer’s life than the writer himself.

Underlying this view is an assumption of the biographer’s lofty objectivity that does not take into account the relativity of his viewpoint, his own lack of innocence vis-à-vis his subject. The brief examples Edel offers of figures under the carpet in the lives of Hemingway, Thoreau, and Rex Stout are not reassuring: in the case of Hemingway, the analysis is almost too obvious to be worth the trouble (the insecurity behind the constant show of virility); for Thoreau and Stout, the procedure seems more clever than biographically interesting. But the essential difficulty is that while the lives of some writers may lend themselves to this reversing of the carpet, in many other cases the operation will actually throw things out of proportion, lose the significant pattern, which was there all along to be followed by the patient eye and illumined by resourceful interpretation.

I would suggest that though psychological theory may alert the biographer to aspects of experience that require special scrutiny, his best understandings will be improvised ad hoc after close observation of the particular case, substantially the way most of us try to make judgments about people in the shifting contexts of social intercourse. Judgments of this sort will always be influenced by one’s point of view, but much depends on how rigidly or flexibly one maintains it. Thus, Phyllis Rose’s avowedly feminist perspective on Virginia Woolf is applied reasonably, almost always without tendentious insistence, and it is of course a perspective that accords with a conscious commitment of the novelist’s and with her own perception of her formative years. Virtually the only place where this study of Virginia Woolf begins to flag is when for a few pages the biographer stoops to lean on R. D. Laing, whose guidance may have led her to speak loosely—and to my mind, untenably—of Woolf’s madness as a “unique adventure,” a “discipline,” an “education.” In general, though, Mrs. Rose’s direct perceptions of Woolf, including of Woolf’s human and artistic limitations, are much subtler and eminently more sensible than this.



In any case, the most interesting aspect of literary biography is not the discovery of the devious but the full imaginative recovery of the obvious. Bate’s memorable study of Johnson is an instructive case in point. Bate occasionally, and perhaps a little stiffly, invokes Freud’s notion of the superego—if ever a man suffered from a hypertrophied superego, to the very brink of madness, it was Johnson—but by and large he explains his subject with an old-fashioned moral psychology that admirably accords with his Keatsian conception of a “life of Allegory.” As different as his sensibility and the tonalities of his prose are from Phyllis Rose’s, one feels here, too, that the real strength of understanding of the writer flows not from a general theory of the self—though it may at times draw on such a theory—but from a direct scrutiny of every testimony left by his subject coupled with the biographer’s own sense of what life is all about. Here is one of his early characterizations of Johnson, on which he will build much that follows:

One of the most striking things about Johnson’s whole psychic nature is the severe rein he kept on any temptation (and it could naturally be very strong) to project outward and to blame external conditions. Instead his whole procedure . . . was to meet a thing head on, as courageously and honestly as he could, and then internalize and contain it. The result—whatever the moral advantage—was time and again a pattern of self-conflict rather than of projection. Often, as we shall see, there is in this a strong element of compensation, a forceful bending over backward.

Two of the terms used here, projection and internalization, have a psychological provenance, but the analysis is not in any rigorous sense psychoanalytic, and, conceptually, it would have been perfectly comprehensible to Johnson and his contemporaries. In regard, moreover, to what I noted earlier about the biographer’s necessary intuition of presence, the passage embodies what amounts to a kinesthetic image of the man, with Johnson vividly conceived as an almost dangerously vigorous flexer of psychic musculature. Later, when Bate discusses Johnson’s “aggressive independence” as a thinker, the image of the man who meets things head on is effectively reasserted. Bate writes of Johnson’s “refusal to be intimidated by the ‘authority’ of fashion; his scorn of the ‘cant’ of those who are conditioned by attitudes simply because they are current; his tendency to walk immediately up to the tyranny of the stock response in the prevailing mode of thinking, and to push directly through it in order to see what is on the other side.” This is something we have always approximately known about Johnson, but not with this strong sense of connection between the exploder of intellectual fads and the troubled, terrifically resolute inner man. One might perhaps object that the entire picture of a bravely independent Johnson is a reflection of Bate’s own particular brand of moralism, but this strikes me as a signal instance in which there is a nice fit between the sensibility of the biographer and the nature of his subject. And as Bate steadily interweaves criticism with biographical narrative, his construction of Johnson’s lifelong intransigence toward himself helps us see more clearly the peculiar strength of Johnson’s moral vision, even the distinctive vigor he exercised as a stylist.

As readers we may be grateful that there is no single assured model of biographical criticism: the endlessly intricate arabesques in which life and art intersect would seem to preclude that possibility. The best literary biographies, I think, do not concentrate on the pedantic and finally simplistic operation of uncovering the “real-life models” of the writer’s imaginative creations, though that operation may have a certain utility in cases where the writing can be used as documentation of events in the life. Biographers like Bate, Phyllis Rose, and Joseph Frank are quite aware of the futility in attempting to derive the work from the life, but their informed pondering of the movement from multifarious experience to accomplished art heightens our understanding of both subjects.

Through the realized presence of the individual writer which a gifted biographer is able to conjure up, we are put in touch with a particular kind of human greatness, ultimately enheartening as all greatness must be. In the examination of the whole system of mind and memory and feeling through which experience becomes art, we may arrive at a perception of literary art and the human needs to which it answers that is beyond the purview of formalist criticism. Biographical portraiture and, even more, biographical criticism, may be doomed to give us no more than brilliant approximations, always bound to a particular viewpoint, but, as the better recent practitioners of the art demonstrate, the effort is far from frivolous.


1 Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf, Oxford, 298 pp., $12.95.

2 Still another is about to appear, a “group biography” by Leon Edel called Bloomsbury, a House of Lions.

3 Samuel Johnson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 646 pp., $19.95.

4 Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 418 pp., $15.00.

5 Random House, 243 pp., $10.00.

6 D. H. Lawrence's Nightmare: The Writer and His Circle in the Years of the Great War, Basic Books, 420 pp., $15.95.

7 Joseph Conrad: The Three Lives, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1008 pp., $25.00.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.