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30:4, Reviews BIOGRAPHY AS SUBLIME ADVENTURE Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art. Edited with a Prologue by Stephen B. Oates. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Cloth $20.00 Paper $8.95 In his profile of G. M. Trevelyan in Men and Centuries, J. H. Plumb tells how Trevelyan in 1899 as a recent graduate of Trinity, Cambridge, had the historical world at his feet. His England in the Age of Wycliffe had been an immediate success. He had a contract with Methuen to write a textbook on the Stuart period. He was rich, likable, well-connected. But then he threw it all over: "The artist in him had dominated, and instinctively bolted from an uncongenial world, ... a curiously wilful gesture for a young professional historian to desert the citadel of his profession." He wanted to distinguish the important from the trivial: "The fine points of argumentative scholarship exercised with equal zest on the important and the trivial have no fascination for Trevelyan, and he has an even stronger distaste for the shifting quicksand of historical abstraction." The "fields of history upon which Cambridge historians were concentrating . . . offered little attraction for Trevelyan. They lacked story; they lacked drama; they lacked the warmth of human life. Because of these things, the artist insisted on escape." Is the contemporary study of biography phylogenaically about to repeat the ontogenaical experience of George Trevy? Biography as High Adventure reminds us that it may be. Our earnest cognitive efforts to understand biography can usually be divided into the commonsense and the special-sense. Michael Holroyd, A. O. J. Cockshut, or David Novarr represent the currently less fashionable commonsense school; James Olney, WUliam Epstein, and myriads of contributors to Biography and other journals tend to follow the new epistemologies of the Yale gang of four and represent the various special-sense schools; while some like Ira Nadel are useful mixes of both. But now Oates' collection of essays reminds us of what Trevelyan knew in 1899, of what Edel has reminded us of for 30 years, of what Burton Raffel has written in his work on "emotional history," and of what attracts us to literature in the first place: passion and imagination. At first glance, this collection of ten essays, all reprints, does not appear to be revolutionary. André Maurois, the biographer of many from Disraeli to Dickens, writes about biography as a work of art, which should give us "intense aesthetic pleasure" and "fine shades of feeling" (3). Leon Edel, the biographer of James and the first of our great modem theorists of biography, moving from Freud to Jung, argues that biographers need to discover the personal myth, and how we "play games . . . with our mythic selves" (29). Paul Murray Kendall , the biographer of Richard III, concludes that "biography hopes to fasten illusion upon reality, to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived" (49). Frank Vandiver— müitary historian, President of Texas A & M, and biographer of Stonewall Jackson and Pershing—writes that biography 497 30:4, Reviews is the agent of humanism, that "the biographer's goal is to evoke from the past ... the character that quickened blood and bone" (63). Catherine Drinker Bowen, biographer of Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Adams, quotes Renan to set her theme: "One should write only about what one loves" (65). Justin Kaplan, the biographer of Twain and Whitman, follows Wilfred Sheed and metaphorically limns American literary types as either "hiders" or "strippers," examples of Edel's mythic figures under the carpet (73). Mark Schorer, the biographer of Sinclair Lewis, quotes Mommsen to set the premise for his argument: "History is neither written nor made without love or hate" (91). Barbara Tuchman, the biographer of StilweU and popular historian, avers that "aesthetic pleasure in good writing or in any of the arts" has "the power to edify" (93). Paul Mariani, the biographer of William Carlos Williams, looks at the biographer as creator (104) and cites the instance of Paul Horton whose biography of Hart Crane has not been superseded because "he managed to catch the truth of his subject and wrote passionately and to the point from that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 497-499
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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