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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 171-173

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Book Review

Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding

Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding, by David Ellis; ix & 195 pp. New York: Routledge, 2000, $35.

In his discussion of biography as a form, Ellis points to his study as a response to the scarcity of "monographs on biography . . . and [that] none of them are particularly satisfactory" (p. 2). He further points out that "the comparative dearth of analytic enquiry into biography is surprising" (p. 3). In short, his first pages get off to a rocky start in their tatty justification of a critical study. Though a critic of D. H. Lawrence, Ellis uses the English writer sparingly, pointing out in his "Preface" what he feels is a need "to keep illustration involving Lawrence to a decent minimum" (p. viii) while concentrating on those problems which face the biographer. That said, he sets about to characterize biography as an integration of "a disinterested enthusiasm for information . . . [fashioning a] . . . compelling story in which many details with no direct relevance to the life of his subject can be considered as contributing successfully to a period atmosphere" (p. 35). Ellis is thinking specifically of Norman Sherry's biography of Graham Greene through which he has brought to the discussion his intent of pointing to an approach which concerns itself with chapters on "Ancestors," "Primal Scenes," "Body Matters," "the Sociological [End Page 171] Imagination," "History, Chance and Self-determination," "Compatibility, Sartre and Long Biographies." All are aspects of biography.

As well as the approach he suggests by these areas of concentration, Ellis draws broadly from many subjects of biography, always keeping a critical eye on its form. Anne Stevenson's approach "is towards psychological determinism" (p. 135); Ackroyd in his biography of Dickens raises "through a degree of intellectual play" the questions of when "lineage" is appropriate, that is, the extent to which it has any productive consequence. He also uses Hawthorne and Virginia Woolf as examples. Writing of the role of the historian raises difficulties for writers creating biographies from such an early period as that of Chaucer; Ellis points to Derek Pearsall's "excellent Life of Geoffrey Chaucer" (p. 121).

Ellis neither can nor should ignore Lawrence and what better chapter to include him in than "Body Matters" in its concentration on illness. Here Ellis draws on Lawrence's concern with the harm of his health on his work (p. 78). He also considers Flaubert, Sartre, and Woolf. Briefly he mentions Stendhal's imagination of his "future audience" after his death (p. 109), sensibly rejects the long ago depleted and so, parenthetically, apparently permanent speculation on what Keats's might have become had he lived a full life "in a time of drugs for treatment of tuberculosis" (p. 123) and the equally mined issue of what prompted Hemingway's suicide (pp. 132-33). Certainly he is aware of the danger that such a use of material may pander to the pleasure of mere name-hunters (what if there were no index!). At the same time, if the effect of his range of examples invites additions of our own, while keeping before us that his study is about biography as form, it is successful.

In "Primal Scenes," the fourth chapter of his book, Ellis gives what he feels is necessary space to Freud, the creator of the term. He points to Wordsworth's "spots of time" as only one indication of the difficulty--if not impossibility--of capturing biographically those moments in childhood by which the individual written about might be defined (p. 57). (Such an impossibility should not be surprising to those of us readers who recognize the nearly impossible task for ourselves in our own lives.) Surely both the biographer and autobiographer share this ignorance and frustration. In a very interesting move, Ellis points to Compton Mackenzie's discussion of a critical event in his six-year old life surrounding the interruption of an Easter evening with his parents and siblings, interrupted by the arrival of friends. Ellis writes...


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