Wednesday, February 02, 2011

books beneath contempt

The gradations of a hero's life are from battle to battle, and of an author's from book to book.

Success and miscarriage have the same effects in all conditions. The prosperous are feared, hated and flattered; and the unfortunate avoided, pitied and despised. No sooner is a book published than the writer may judge of the opinion of the world. If his acquaintance press round him in publick places, or salute him from the other side of the street; if invitations to dinner come thick upon him, and those with whom he dines keep him to supper; if the ladies turn to him when his coat is plain, and the footmen serve him with attention and alacrity; he may be sure that his work has been praised by some leader of literary fashions.

–Samuel Johnson, Idler 102 (1760)
The last of the big Amazon Marketplace order – practically a dozen books on biography & biographical theory, bringing my collection in the field to probably the best in south Florida – arrived today. There have been some excellent things coming in the last few days: Hermione Lee's volume in the OUP "very short introductions" series (if I'd known this book existed, it would have certainly been on the syllabus for this semester's seminar); Richard Altick's classic, straightforward, but very intelligent literary history, Lives and Letters: A History of Literary Biography in England and America; intelligent collections of essays by various hands; AndrĂ© Maurois's airily lyrical Aspects of Biography; and David Ellis's Literary Lives, which promises to be one of the more thoroughly & smartly theorized takes on the genre.

A shame that the last arrival would leave such a bad taste in my mouth. I'd read Carl Rollyson's A Higher Form of Cannibalism?: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography 4 years ago, & thought it a ghastly, slapdash book. Now the letter carrier has delivered his latest, Biography: A User's Guide (Ivan R. Dee, 2008). I'm glad it was dirt-cheap – tho probably expensive at the price. The book's in the form of an eccentric encyclopedia, which could, in the hands of a writer like Julian Barnes or Richard Holmes, be stimulating & provocative. Instead one gets the sense that Rollyson has swept all of his off-handed musings of the past few years into a manuscript. In the midst of a pedestrian discussion of Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – maybe the single most penetrating meta-biographical study of recent years – he comes to the lovely conclusion that Malcolm's animus against much Plath biography – and the genre in general – can be traced to "her obviously romantic attachment to Ted Hughes, her Heathcliff, who has been done dirty by a legion of biographers."

Maybe it's a sign of general Spenglerian cultural decline that Rollyson's major competitor in the field of "books about biography for general audiences" is Nigel Hamilton, author of the dreary but beautifully designed couple Biography: A Brief History and How to Do Biography: A Primer, both inexplicably published by Harvard UP. To get an idea of how classy Hamilton's own sensibility is, reflect that the 2001 augmented reissue of his massive "official" life of Field Marshall Montgomery got retitled – yes – "The Full Monty."

The biography seminar is headed into the vast shoals of Johnson & Boswell. On the home front, I'm rereading Ray Monk's Wittgenstein (with even more admiration than the first time around), and tackling the various essays he's published on philosophical biography over the past few years. Smart guy. And Robert Richardson's William James, a splendid book indeed. Once again, my own book on biography begins to take shape in my head – I only hope I don't head off my own writing impulses by bogging myself down in too much preparatory reading, as I did last time around.


Archambeau said...

"...inexplicably published by" is gold. Gold!

I'm going to use it in otherwise mixed reviews to give the things a tinge of acid. Sort of like squeezing a lime into a shrimp cocktail or something.


Vance Maverick said...

Ugh. I take it your point in quoting Johnson is that his image of virtue rewarded doesn't apply to the literary world today -- if it ever did.

Mark Scroggins said...

Alas, Vance, I've come to read Idler 102 as so saturated with irony (bordering sarcasm) that it's probably hard to hear the venom with which I pronounce "he may be sure that his work has been praised by some leader of literary fashions."

bill sherman said...

re: biography...for what it's worth: "Before advancing very far into biography we are asking ourselves the old question of intent: from what point of view is the book written? Robert Martin writes: 'Lord David Cecil used to say that he finally judged the quality of a biography by whether it had prepared him for instant recognition of its subject if he were to walk into the room and begin talking.' .... For me...the key to writing a good biography: Love...the love that is the advocacy of another standing beside you at the portals." ---the late Jack Clarke, in his brilliant essay "Olson: The Book" in INTENT. (vol.2 no.4/vol.3 no. 1 (Winter /Spring 1991) Double Issue, pp. 14 & 18.

Vance Maverick said...

You're right, Mark -- careless reading on my part. He's not treating of literary virtue at all, simply of success.