- The American Biographical Novel by Michael Lackey
Michael Lackey's The American Biographical Novel is well worth reading for its careful scholarship and its insights into both a literary genre and a select group of novels that are often overlooked. The book has a couple of significant flaws, which I will detail as a warning to readers; however, by no means would I wish to suggest that these imperfections should discourage anyone from reading Lackey's book.
This book offers some real insights, several of which surprised me. For one, I appreciated the aforementioned fact that many of these novels are not well known; if the purpose of criticism is to encourage one to read more widely, Lackey has accomplished that. His thesis is that biographical novels offer insights into truth that historical novels might not be free to give precisely because novelists are not bound to the facts of a single life. He makes a strong case for what he calls the "dual-temporal" truths of biographical novels, truths that can simultaneously give readers "a vivid and compelling vision of the past" while saying "something substantive and relevant about the present" (179). As Lackey says, the biographical novelist does not owe his readers an accurate depiction of the historical figure's life, a reality which frees him to create a truth less likely to be found in biographical or historical treatments of the same subject.
Lackey's analysis is especially illuminating in two areas: the extent to which biographical novels reveal the complexities of German fascism and of America's racial history. The former subject is covered in two chapters, which deal primarily with Bruce Duffy's The World as I Found It and Lance Olsen's Nietzsche's Kisses. In these discussions, the author makes the point that important biographical figures like Wittgenstein and Nietzsche can become literary symbols that their authors use "to illuminate more than the individual subject's life" (68). This strategy works especially well when the portrayal of the biographical subject is balanced against a less brilliant character who understands neither the philosopher's work nor the implications of Hitler's rantings. In Olsen's novel, Nietzsche's sister Elisabeth plays such a role. Through these secondary characters the novelist helps us to see "the conditions that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazis to seemingly accept and promote Nietzsche's writings and ultimately come to power" (97).
I attribute the soundness of these interpretations to Lackey's remarkable command of scholarship: not just of literary criticism, but of German intellectual history and the many cultural debates about race in America. More effectively than any recent scholar I can remember, Lackey shows how audiences were seduced by Hitler's [End Page 774] Mein Kampf (a fact which always amazes anyone who has read the book in the aftermath of World War II). As we read of Hitler's sinister selling of Germany as a Christian nation, it is hard not to think about political debates that still surface in the twenty-first century.
The discussion of race focuses on three novels: Arna Bontemps's Black Thunder, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Barbara Chase-Riboud's Sally Hemmings: A Novel. Only the discussion of the third novel disappoints, primarily because Lackey goes off on a tangent to discuss Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. He does not take his eye off the ball when interpreting Bontemps's 1936 novel, first showing its superiority to Guy Endore's Babouk (1934) and then allowing it to illuminate his reading of Styron's Nat Turner. Here again, the use of historical background is insightful; by discussing the influence of the Enlightenment on apologies for slavery, Lackey demonstrates the way slaveholders rationalized that even a slave like Gabriel Prosser, who could read and write, was incapable of understanding freedom: "blacks can be trained to desire freedom and even to formulate arguments in favor of freedom, but they lack the intellectual capacity to know or experience freedom on their own" (174).
To be fair, I admit...