The art of the biographical set was established at the end of the first century AD by Plutarch when he contrasted pairs of biographies of Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators, and statesmen in Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Whittemore does not pair his subjects with each other as Plutarch did, one Greek and one Roman. Instead, he selects writers who, like himself, experienced and wrote of their "contradictory feelings about the culture and what writers should do in it." Thus it is as biographer and as poet that Whittemore justifies comparing himself to six of America's leading literary men: Henry Adams, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, and Allen Tate.
This collection of brief biographies is based, like Plutarch's Lives , on research rather than on firsthand knowledge and it displays impressive learning. However, both Whittemore's scholarship, which is haphazard at best, and the book's lack of a bibliography reflect a lackadaisical concern on the part of the author for the hunting down, evaluating, and selection of sources. One cannot help but wonder why the more recent and reliable biographies of these literary figures are not cited in the occasional footnotes which appear at the beginning of each chapter and are found scattered throughout the rest of the text. In the chapter on Jack London, for example, Whittemore refers to a four volume edition of The Letters of Jack London (1988) which in fact consists of only three volumes. He cites the fictionalized biography of London by Irving Stone (1938), and relies on the biased and largely inaccurate biographies by Richard O'Connor (1964) and Andrew Sinclair (1977) while neglecting to mention the excellent and readily available ones by Russ Kingman (1979) and James Lundquist (1987). He perpetuates rather than corrects popular and critical misconceptions about London's death in claiming erroneously that London took his own life. He further stirs the already muddied waters when he claims that London must have been [End Page 152] thinking about suicide when he wrote The Assassination Bureau Ltd. Unfortunately, this kind of sloppy research and scholarship will likely cause many readers to doubt the judgment, seriousness and wisdom of the author.
In spite of his bungling of the scholarly aspects of the biographies, Whittemore does manage to convey a sense of each writer's life as progressively unfolding. He is best acquainted with Williams, having gotten to know members of his family in the process of writing William Carlos Williams: Poet from Jersey (1974). The brief biographies are conversational in tone and full of lively anecdotes. Included with the introduction and separate chapters on each of the six writers' lives is a supplementary essay on three naturalists, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau and Gerard Manly Hopkins, who shared the impiety of being skeptical inquirers of the late nineteenth century which is the center of Whittemore's focus in this book.