Contemporary critical theory is in no small measure responsible for the renewed interest in literary biography and autobiographical fiction. Deconstruction has, among other things, brought into focus the limits of textual self-representation; various forms of feminism have described the patriarchal structures controlling the construction of the gendered selves; the social and materialist bases of the concept of selfhood have recently been rearticulated by the New Historicism; and the levels of authorial refraction have been well discussed in the work of Mikhail Bakhtin.
In view of this sharpened critical apparatus, it is surprising that Jeffrey Meyers and John Halperin—two well-established practitioners of the art of literary biography—not only refrain from taking advantage of these new modes of inquiry but actually speak out against them. Meyers criticizes "the currently fashionable abstractions of critical theory" and "the sterile infatuations with structuralism and semiotics," and Halperin similarly suggests that a text can be understood "well enough without having to 'deconstruct' it." The dustcover of his book, in fact, announces his study as "a salutory counterblast to the arid abstractions of much modern literary theory." Instead, in lieu of theoretical complication, both critics propose a return to traditional literary criticism, especially to the genre of biography which they see as the supreme form of scholarship. Meyers proclaims that "a thoroughly researched biography, which is firmly based on extensive archival evidence and presents a massive quantity of new material . . . is perhaps the most valuable contribution to modern scholarship." More modestly, Halperin suggests that "the tasks of the literary critic, the literary historian, and the literary biographer are often the same tasks."
Such vehement opposition to contemporary theory, and a concomitant recuperation of traditional criticism, has recently become fashionable in its own right within a segment of the academy. And although this resistance to the undoubtedly rampant obfuscations of some literary theory is certainly not unjustified—quite salubrious in fact—Meyers and Halperin would, also undoubtedly, have enriched their studies had they chosen to engage in some of the current theoretical issues. Neither book, for example, addresses the question of linguistic representation; they assume the implicit "essence" of an author's identity that is fully present in language. And Halperin, in particular, although masterfully exposing the erasures in the autobiographical narratives of Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, rarely questions the trustworthiness of the personal memoir, as it recollects, over the space of decades, intention and emotion in tranquility. Nevertheless, given these blind spots of their mode of inquiry, their work can be interesting, insightful, and productive.
The Spirit of Biography is a melange of essays that delineates Meyers' many commitments to biography. Published over a span of almost two decades and now collected in book form, these essays achieve what they set out to do: namely "to suggest the mood of the modern age" by focusing on biographical aspects of major and minor modernist figures. These range from E. M. Forster and T. E. Lawrence to André Malraux and the lesser-known Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement. In the first and most stimulating essay of the book, "Freud, Hitler and [End Page 826] Vienna," Meyers carefully delineates the fin-de-siècle Zeitgeist in the Austrian metropolis and shows the tragic conjunction of two of the Western world's most influential men. The intellectual climate of Vienna, as is generally known, had a formative impact not only on Freud's psychoanalysis but, what is generally less known, also on Hitler's antisemitism when he stayed in Vienna during his youth. Other interesting essays, such as "Murry's Cult of Mansfield" and "Memoirs of Hemingway: The Growth of a Legend," reveal the myth-making practices of early personal recollections that good biography is called upon to rectify.
Such a project of identity-restoration, as one could call it, is the second animus of this collection. In addition to providing an overview over his wide range of subjects, Meyers in this book also defines the essentials of his craft. The essays...