Tuesday, March 11, 2008

`A Very Strange Reader'

Our junior-high-school English teachers drilled home the self-evident fact that speakers in poems and narrators in fiction are not to be identified with the poets and novelists who created them. A text is a discrete world, one that coexists and overlaps with ours but remains autonomous. Works that violate this law of epistemological sovereignty we dismiss as didactic, self-indulgent, crude or boring. In other words, autobiography-in-disguise.

An occasional corollary of this dictum, often identified with the once-dominant New Criticism, is that authorial biography is extraneous to the work. Knowing that William Faulkner was an Olympic-class drunk won’t help you plumb the convolutions of Absalom, Absalom! Put that way, I have no argument with the idea. Years ago I slogged through Joseph Blotner’s two-volume Leviathan of a Faulkner biography, and it added nothing to my love for The Sound and the Fury or contempt for A Fable.

I’ve noticed among some litbloggers a revival of this theme in a more strident form – namely, that literary biography is little more than tarted-up gossip. Knowing the particulars of a writer’s life contributes nothing to our understanding or appreciation of his work. In most cases, I would agree, but that’s not why I read literary biography. The best literary lives – and superior biographies in general – stand as works of literary art. Consider Boswell’s Life of Johnson, J.Y.T. Greig’s David Hume, Donald Frame’s Montaigne: A Biography, W. Jackson Bate’s Samuel Johnson, Richard Holmes’ lives of Shelley and Coleridge, Robert D. Richardson’s of Thoreau, Emerson and William James, and Jonathan Bate’s reclamation of John Clare.

I might add that I prefer Holmes’ Shelley: The Pursuit to anything Shelley ever wrote, and while I love Dubliners and Ulysses, I’m content never again to read Richard Ellmann’s 1959 biography of Joyce. It’s a clumsy, plodding, endless affair, and the one time I interviewed Hugh Kenner, in 1994, he was still laughing at Ellmann’s credulousness in the face of Irish blarney. But there’s another, more compelling reason to read first-rate lives of first-rate writers, and the poet Richard Tillinghast, in the preface to his prose collection Poetry and What is Real, articulates it with satisfying directness:

“A poem is best read, at first anyway, on its own – with no need of biographical or historical background, no guide other than a dictionary. But throughout my life as a reader, I have consistently wanted to learn about the authors of my favorite books and poems. For me it would in fact be a very strange reader who did not want to know things about the authors of his or her favorite books….One thing we all have in common is that each of us is living this mysterious thing called life, and we want to know how other people manage it – what their conflicts and compromises, failures and triumphs have been.”

From Samuel Johnson – his works and life – I have learned much about how to be a man and a writer, how to live with unhappiness and adversity, how to dwell in vanity while striving, without hope, for humility. This is not gossip. A “very strange reader,” indeed, would deny Johnson’s enrichment of my life and the lives of many others. (See “What Makes Doctor Johnson Great?” by Theodore Dalrymple.) Johnson himself endorsed the notion in Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides:

“I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.”


Jim Murdoch said...

But what if your first-rate writer has lived a third-class life? I remember reading a biography of Philip Larkin and sometime later watching a dramatisation of his life and being very disappointed in the man-behind-the-words. And, of course, now I have those sad facts in my head they won't go away.

Anonymous said...

Knowing the particulars of Milton’s life, or the politics of Hawthorne’s ancestors, is not necessary for an appreciation or understanding of their works. I find, however, it does add richness.

Particularly when dealing with poetry, I agree the pitfalls of simply equating the poet with the voice in the poem are many, but the suggestion that biographical knowledge is irrelevant or limiting seems to overstate the case. Wordsworth, for one, invites us into his life with his poems, and while we need not have read his biography to appreciate his work, such knowledge is hardly detrimental. I think this is what Tillinghast was pointing toward when he wrote, “at first anyway”.

Ms Baroque said...

Wonderful. Charles Lamb is another - but then his writing was intimately bound up with who he was. The Bate Johnson and the Bate Keats are two of my most important books, and the Clare as well opened my eyes hugely - well, in that case it did enable me to read Clare's poetry in a new way.

I think I must link to this and quote your paragraph about Johnson - lovely.