Dispatches | August 25, 2008

According to Nigel Hamilton in Biography: A Brief History, the word “biography” was not coined in English until the late seventeenth century (the word is a Greek concoction meaning “life depiction”). Until a hundred years ago biography was relegated to inferior status in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a sub-branch of literature devoted to the lives of individual men.” English departments are known for their ragbag of exotic subgenres, but only recently have a smattering of them added biography to their course curriculums. Hamilton credits the University of Hawaii with the only department devoted entirely to its study.
It takes a lot of willful ignorance not to read The Bell Jar, On the Road, Bright Lights, Big City or Tender is the Night as thinly veiled biographies. Rat out these novels to your students and suddenly they get interested; Sal and Dean and Carlo are more compelling to them as real people than as characters. When teaching On the Road, I invariably lapse into talking about Kerouac’s clan as if I know them, which to some extent I do. After reading Chartres’ and Brinkley’s exhaustive biographical works on the Beats, their lives are more familiar to me than my grandparents.
In fact, I like these novels more for their biographical borrowings than their fiction. This summer I lived on a steady diet of literary biographies, mostly for the gossipy bits of my favorite writers’ lives. The genre is my equivalent of Entertainment Tonight, minus Mary Hart’s seizure-inducing voice.
Perhaps I use these books to avoid thinking about my own troubles. More likely, nosiness has always been a part of my temperament. I delight in the steady unrest of real life as long, as it’s someone else’s. There are few things more exciting than a glimpse behind the facade of a perfect marriage or family to discover a disheveled and dysfunctional mess. And yet, there is the comfort in knowing before you even open the book that despite the personal obstacles of alcoholism, depression, infidelity, insanity, the writer succeeded in creating art (no art; no literary biography).
Two of my favorite summer reads are collections of biographical sketches: Katie Roiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939 and Joan Acocella’s Twenty-Seven Artists and Two Saints. Roiphe depicts the progressive relationships of H.G. Wells and Jane Wells, Clive and Vanessa Bell, and Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murry among others at their most volatile and vulnerable points. The portrayal of these brave couples as they tried, and mostly failed to recreate marriage to suit their own ideas and needs is pure opium for the literary biography lover.
In her collection of essays, most of them previously published in The New Yorker, Joan Acocella casts a wider net to include lesser known Jewish and English writers, dancers, and a couple of literal saints. Writers aren’t the only ones with stormy lives. In fact when compared to dancers and saints, they seem to suffer a lot less.
Next up, Francine Prose’s The Lives of the Muses.