Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Spring Break Biographies

I suppose Spring Break is now officially more than half over. Tomorrow afternoon I bundle the girls into the car & we cross the penisula to Sarasota, where we'll hook up with J., who's flying down from New York to New College for a medieval/renaissance conference. It'll be nice – a new place to explore, & a chance to hook up with the excellent Robert Zamsky & his family. But I'm not looking forward to the 4-hour drive: it'll be the longest road trip the girls have been on, & their first with only one parent – and the grumpy, taciturn one at that. "Shut the frack up! I'm listening to All Things Considered! Didn't I tell you the rest area was in another 20 miles? You can hold it!"

I've actually gotten some significant work done in the first part of the week, & might get some more out of the way. Of course, my besetting sin, when I've sent a project off to its editor, is to take a half-day's holiday & go book shopping. Yesterday included a run to South Florida's (probably all of Florida's) best second-hand bookshop, Bookwise, where I picked up a stack of literary biographies: Paul Mariani's The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane (Norton, 1999), Andrew Delbanco's Melville: His World and Work (Knopf, 2005), & GE Bentley, Jr.'s massive The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blake (Yale, 2001).

(The very massiveness of Bentley's book set me to thinking about paper stock in biographical publishing: is it a good thing or a bad thing for a biography to be a thick book? Do potential readers go for the fat book over the thin one? Clive Fisher's Hart Crane: A Life (Yale, 2002) is a good 70 pages longer than The Poem of a Life, but it's considerably slimmer, due I'm sure to a thinner stock. I like it that I wrote a big biography, but my groaning bookshelves prefer the thinner books these days.)

The Bentley's a book I intensely coveted when it first came out. A ravishing beautiful job of production (the endpapers reproduce in color Blake's engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, for instance), for one thing. And a quick read of the preface & some dipping thru the text convince me that this will be a mostly "just the facts" kind of biography, but as many of the facts as Bentley can shovel in, particularly as they relate to the economics of Blake's career as a fine & applied artist. I think I've read 2 or 3 other Blake biographies – Jacob Bronowski's & Mona Wilson's perhaps, & certainly Peter Ackroyd's, soon after it came out. But it's really hard to get enough of WB.

I'm not sure why I bought Mariani's Crane. I already own Fisher's, the two books seem to tell pretty much the same story (candy magnate dad, tortured relationships, final cruise-ship dive, etc.), and I'm not even that big a fan of Crane's work. I read Mariani's life of WC Williams back in the day, & found it consistently useful if dreadfully, Victorianly overlong; maybe he's restrained himself this time around. (Then again, Crane killed himself in his early 30s. If he'd lived a full lifespan, Mariani might have written another thousand-pager.) I suspect this will be something of a case study for me in comparing biographical approaches: clearly Fisher and Mariani were working independently at much the same time, dealing with the same materials. As usual, it'll be instructive to see what different edifices they construct out of their shared "factual" bricks. (This kind of case study has been going on in my reading room for some time now: 5 different Ruskin biographies, 5 or 6 Pounds, who knows how many Shakespeares: next up, the vast plains of Virginia Woolf biography.)

The real winner here, or at least the book that's totally derailed me from the Hegel & Lawrence Stone I meant to be reading today, is Delbanco's Melville. Delbanco starts with an advantage: he's writing in the wake of Hershel Parker's ├╝ber-massive, 2000-page 2-volume life of Melville, a book which aimed to chronicle every known fact about HM. Having that kind of spadework already done is a gift to the interpretive biographer, which is what Delbanco unapologetically is. What's totally enthralled me in the 50 or 60 pages of Melville I've devoured this morning is the extraordinary deftness & grace of Delbanco's writing, the way he's able to weave a impressive density of cultural background & literary interpretation into a breezily readable narrative. The book wears its depth lightly, as opposed to something like David Reynolds's similarly learned Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography (1996), which all too often pretty much sinks the reader in digression.

I have several shelves groaning with unread biographies right now – Wordsworth, Defoe, Conrad, Pope, Gray, Dickens (2x), Browning, Swift, etc – & I'm at some stage of reading lives of Wordsworth, Thelonious Monk, Andy Warhol, Leonardo, Dickinson, William James, Foucault, & Wittgenstein (those last 2 re-reads). It's all fun, even the bad ones (and lemme tell you, I'd rather read a bad biography than a bad book of literary criticism any day). And the best part is that I can justify it all to my superego by gesturing towards that book on biography I keep talking about writing.

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