Monday, April 16, 2007

Call for Suggestions

The long haze of reading proofs is almost over, just in time for the last run-up to finals week & the ensuing purgatory. So I suppose I'll be back to scribbling here in a day or two. But in the meantime –

In Spring 2008, I've decided, I'll be teaching a graduate seminar on biography – history & theory of the genre, research methods, stylistic decisions, reception, practical problems, etc. (Clearly, I'm still thinking my way thru what's gonna go into this gumbo...) So I call out to my 7 1/2 readers: What are your favorite biographies? (Lives of literary figures, historical figures, scientists, politicians, musicians, whatever?) What books have you found compelling, perhaps even despite your lack of initial interest in the subject?

Help me write my syllabus, please!


( t.a. noonan ) said...

I'm very fond of Richard Holmes' biography on Coleridge. I also read one on Nabokov recently, but it wasn't good enough for me to remember who did it.

Nothing else comes to mind right now, but if I think of anything (or get some recommendations), I'll drop you a line.

Brian S said...

I'm currently reading the letters of Vincent Van Gogh--there's a short biography by his sister included. Might be fun to jump genres?

Frank Sauce said...

I was thinkin', as soon as I read this post, of the Adams-Jefferson letters, a biography of the United States through letters.

Then I was thinkin' about Hermione Lee's work. She gives us huge tombs on significant female writers.

Then there is always H.D.'s "End to Torment," but that might be less biography, more memoir.

And you're sure you don't have more then 7.5 readers?

Anonymous said...

If you are thinking of adding any women into the mix, I recently read The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family by Mary S. Lovell.

Amazon has this to say of the biography: "Lovell's history of England's Mitford sisters, who were major figures in the international political, literary and social scenes for much of the 20th century...rises with aplomb to the challenges of a group biography, deftly weaving together the narrative threads of six at times radically disparate lives to create a fascinating account of a fascinating family. Born into the ranks of the minor aristocracy and educated at home by eccentric and perennially cash-strapped parents, Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah Mitford hardly seemed the types whose exploits would generate endless fodder for the sensationalist press. But when Diana left her wealthy young husband to take up with and eventually marry Sir Oswald Mosley, infamous leader of British fascism; when Unity became close friends with Adolf Hitler and a proponent of Nazism; when Jessica, a vocal Communist, eloped with a notorious cousin who was also a nephew of Winston Churchill; when Deborah married the Duke of Devonshire; and when both Nancy (Love in a Cold Climate) and Jessica (The American Way of Death) became acclaimed, bestselling authors, the world responded with avid, insatiable and at times alarmingly intrusive curiosity. But whether adored or reviled by their public, all the Mitford sisters were engaged with (and at times embodiments of) the major social and political issues of their time..."

(just an idea from Pam)

TT said...

A couple possibilities:

Sartre's St. Genet I think is amazing.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (as a fly in the ointment, maybe?)

I'm very fond of Ray Monk's The Duty of Genius biography of Wittgenstein.

If poetry is allowed in, Penn Warren's Audubon: a Vision is stellar.

Peter O'Leary said...

Biography is one of my favorite genres; some of my all-time favorites are these:

Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life

John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography

Deidre Bair, Jung: A Biography

Porphyry's Life of Plotinus

Hayyim Vital's Book of Visions (which is a mystical autobiography / life of Isaac Luria)

but at the top of my list - until your LZ comes out! - is Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Darwin: the Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, which is exactly as good as it sounds, the best biography I've every read.

I dig the idea for this class!

Anonymous said...

Steven Nadler's Spinoza: A Life may be something to look at for your class, Mark, simply from a methodological perspective. Almost nothing is known about Spinoza's life -- no real "facts" to work with, no previous biographies -- so Nadler sets about reconstructing Dutch life in the 17th century, particularly Jewish cultural life in Amsterdam at that time -- in order to deduce a life of Spinoza. It's something of an object lesson in how culture studies can (or can't, depending on how successful you think the book is) construct its subject.

John Latta said...


Terrific idea. What about one of the “oral biographies”? The first one I recall coming across was Wiktor Woroszylski’s Life of Mayakovsky, probably hard to find now. As a teenager I thought it the bee’s knees. (Others in the genre: the Jean Stein Edie, the Wallace Stevens one.) And, if you cross gingerly into autobiography: Roland Barthes’s Roland Barthes.


Steven Fama said...

Biography's too borad, professor. Consider narrowing the subject. E.g., literary biographies, or baseball biographies, music biographies, etc. I think there are subsets of conventions and thwartings thereof within particular genres of bios.

The literary biographies which stick in my mind are Wolff's Black Sun (on Harry Crosby) and Hamalian's bio on Kenneth Rexroth (which is reamrkably well done, and nicely if often uncomfortably illustrates teh difficulties that arise when the biographer discovers or must report that the subject wasn't nearly as "good" a person as perhaps was expected, or whose work at least was sometimes at extreme variance with the life as actually lived).

And Jarnot's book on RD, coming this fall from UC Press, will be to die for, if the published excerpts are any indication.

Anonymous said...

How about Strachey's 'Eminent Victorians'? Not only is it a great read, but it illustrates beautifully changes in the thematics and structure of life writing that occurs with the Modern Movement.

Anonymous said...

Tough one -- I don't like the genre. But besides Eminent Victorians, which does its nasty job early and briskly, these mean something to me:

* The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons.
* The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell.
* The embedded Strachey-like biography of Nikolay Chernyshevski in The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov. Would Thomas Nashe's Have With You to Saffron-Walden be stretching it?
* If third-person autobiography's allowed, then I submit The Memoirs of the Count of Grammont.
* Oh, yeah, Boswell really is good reading. Along similar lines (how similar?), I'm looking forward to Ron Padgett's Joe. But again I'm getting close to autobiography, letter collections, and so on, where I'm generally happier....
* If Henry Adams's biography of Aaron Burr had survived, it would be on the list. Maybe you could have your students reconstruct it?

Archambeau said...

If you want to get a little weird at the end, you might think about doing a biography-in-poetry, like, say, Ed Sanders' The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg (actually, I can't think of any other examples right now). It would be an occasion to talk about form, creative intervention, and all that jive.

Back to the Lake Forest Lit Fest. I've misplaced Albert Goldbarth, and he's dining with the dean and president tonight!


Anonymous said...

It was Calvin Trillin's OFF THE WALL (before M.J.) that turned me on to Robert Rauschenberg...

-kaplan said...

Some great suggestions above that I am eager to track down.

My favorites from the recent poetry world:
-Ron Padgett's Joe, Ted, and Oklahoma Tough
-Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian's Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance
-Tom Clark's Robert Creeley and the Genius of the American Common Place (which would probably lend itself well to classroom constraints...)

And speaking of KK, his Amazon reviews feature a fair number of biographies which might break out of the usual. Without his prodding, I would have never learned about the great Doc Pomus or Lois Moran.

One non-literary biography that is awesome:
The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley by Lee, R. Alton. (University Press of Kentucky, 2002)
This is about the goat-gland doctor who helped lots of aging men before he was run out of the country by the red-baiting American Medical Association. See the review.


Anonymous said...

Yes, the Spicer does its job well -- I wrote a pseudo-review for a friend's little magazine. But as far as utility goes, the best literary biography I've read in the last decade was probably Jackie Wullschlager's Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, which handles a very difficult subject with considerable grace. I'm wonder, though, how well either would fit Mark's pedagogical goals. And it bothers me that I can't think of a truly great example with a politician or a scientist -- or even an actor! -- as subject.

Anonymous said...

From a recent assignment:
Memoirs present history from the individual’s perspective. But is it an accurate representation? Within your groups, research the society, politics, and culture related in the memoir you are reading; and create a 4-7 minute documentary that explores whether history supports the accuracy of the perspective presented in the memoir.

You'd still cover genre info and research methods, but you would also have them argue the stylistic decisions, project reception, intercept (or incite!) practical problems, etc.