Literary Biography

This statement comes from a letter to a colleague who sent me an article about a recently published biography of Melville.

Thanks for sending the WSJ article; I hadn’t seen it before.  I have mixed feelings about it.  There is something Casaubonish about spending fifty years digging into every detail of a writer’s life, although Parker does have a point.  While I am sympathetic to Parker’s contention that the New Critics and subsequent intellectual fads of the French variety “deprive literature of the very life out of which it springs,” I am also sympathetic to Edmund Wilson’s “savaging” of the MLA as I am sympathetic to anyone who savages that moribund organization for any reason.

But I’ve always felt that there’s another fallacy at the heart of literary biography that the article doesn’t mention.  If you spend fifty years contemplating the life of a particular writer, you will undoubtedly find an arc to the writer’s life and work which falsifies the actual relation between the writer and the world the writer is responding to.  The literary biographer tends to see the writer’s oeuvre as a seamless whole, the early works as precursors to the later works and the later works as culminations of the earlier works. 

There is something false about this.  As the New Critics and French faddists separate the text from the world, so the literary biographer separates the writer from the world, and the world only becomes important only as it affects the story arc the biographer is trying to create.  What fascinates me, in terms of contextualization is not so much the writer’s life but the resonance between the text and the world into which it is introduced as well as the subsequent history of that resonance.  What in the world prompted Melville to write Moby Dick and how did it percolate into the intellectual world at that time and beyond.  That, to me, is more interesting than its relationship to Omoo or any particular details of Melville’s life, although those may be of secondary importance.

In a recent PBS special about Phillip Roth, he said that he is at time of his life in which he has two misfortunes to contemplate, death and biography.