New Thoughts on Biography

I just watched a fascinating video of a recent discussion between the biographers Hermione Lee of the Oxford Centre for Life Writing and Gary Giddins of the Levy Center for Biography in New York. I was glued to every 1 hour and 5 minutes of it. Hermione Lee was so engaging and absolutely thrilling in her wide-ranging discussion of what she called the “art of the biography.” It was more than heartening to hear someone talk so lucidly about this genre that I have embraced and which I am beginning to think more deeply about.

Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf is known for its experimentation, and she pointed out how literary biography is riper for creativity with form than historical or political biographies. In the case of Woolson, since no book-length biography exists, I set out to write a cradle-to-grave narrative of the whole life, as best I can. There is so much to tell that hasn’t been told before, so I’m using a rather straight-forward approach to story telling. But I like very much the idea of approaching the form more creatively. I have never enjoyed writing so much as I have working on this biography and can tell that I will never go back to straight literary criticism and analysis. A love of narrative and writers’ lives is what drew me to literary studies in the first place. What a pleasure it is to actually be telling a story!

Lee also talked about the issue of writing a biography of a well-known figure about whom previous authoritative accounts exist. She paraphrased Woolf as saying, there are certain biographies that need to be written once in a generation, and added that subsequent biographies are like mulch: rather than “erasive” they are accumulative and fermenting. I like the image.

But I realized that even though there is no former biography to attempt to displace, I am writing under the considerable shadow of two formidable biographers of Henry James—Leon Edel and Lyndall Gordon—who have been the primary interpreters of Woolson’s life thus far. It is a rather interesting situation to be in. Although Gordon (in A Private Life of Henry James) did an incredible job trying to understand Woolson’s life and point of view, Woolson’s story has still been in the hands of James’s biographers (and the novelists who have followed, such as Colm Toibin) using her story in the service of his.

I took on this project in part because no one had done it before but also because the predominate narratives out there told only part of the story. What I have discovered is not only a more complete story but also a new motivation for telling it, namely to set the record straight not only about her side of the story but also about the significance of her literary output (which Edel dismissed as “regional and ‘magazinish’”—he couldn’t see what James saw in her).

Hermione Lee also commented in the discussion about how Willa Cather, another one of her biographical subjects, was incredibly adverse to people knowing about her private life. Sounds familiar! But she also said that as a biographer “you have to be ruthless. You have to have no morality. You have to write as if no one is still alive.” Woolson, James, and all of the other people in her life are long gone. I wasn’t really worried about what they might think until I read the letters of Woolson’s niece, Clara Benedict. In 1932, she published a book of Woolson’s letters and writings and felt that her aunt and “Cousin Henry,” as she called him, were still watching her and that she had a tremendous responsibility to do everything she could to enhance their posthumous reputations. That may be why she cut up letters and edited them so heavily.

But it got me thinking about the responsibility I had taken on to Woolson. James’s standing is assured, so I felt none towards him. But to her I felt as if I had dedicated myself to resuscitating her reputation. In the course of writing I have come to feel, strangely, a responsibility to James as well, to understand the bond between him and Woolson and to do it justice. Those are the ghosts that haunt me now.

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