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Biography 24.4 (2001) 933-935

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David Ellis. Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding. New York: Routledge, 2000. 195 pp. ISBN 0-415-92847-8, $35.00.

David Ellis notes at the outset of Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding the "surprising absence of work on the theory or method of biography" (ix). Even biographers who write about the form, he observes, typically offer "behind-the-scene secrets of the craft without attempting sustained analysis" of how this genre ought to function and why (2). Ellis, himself a practicing biographer (author of Volume 3 of the Cambridge biography of D. H. Lawrence, The Dying Game 1922-1930), has written Literary Lives to fill this gap by examining the responsibilities and principles of literary biography. Because the author aims to "say something meaningful about biography" without writing a review of its history (11), he selects biographers, chiefly recent practitioners, not for the sake of coverage, historical or otherwise, but in order to remain focused on his intent to illustrate and analyze principles of life writing.

Life writing, by virtue of its defining movement--first to establish reliable facts, then to propose plausible explanation and interpretation--requires of its writers and readers alike constantly searching examination (and self-examination) of how one discovers and measures the significance of various factors in the subject's life. These factors include ancestry, childhood, the body, social affiliation and definition, chance, history, and self-determination. These topics function in Ellis's study to open and continually refresh our minds to the defining challenges of biography and, as in life itself, to alert us to the serious dangers of complacency.

Ellis's method of analysis is not philosophical in the formal disciplinary sense of this term. But his method and manner are in good company with such strong interrogatory thinkers as Samuel Johnson, William James, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who in their different yet overlapping ways all committed [End Page 933] themselves to clearing the mind of cant by instilling healthy habits of biographical inquiry and self-inquiry in the individual and society. The biographer's only real responsibility, Ellis observes in order to underscore this point, may be "to properly understand and make clear the questions one is asking" (140).

Ellis's commitment to exploring the fundamentally characteristic interpenetration of life writing and life drives this study. This commitment expresses itself in remarks such as his assertions that the "ideal biographer" is the "ideal gossip" (18-19), and what "troubles biographers," or at least should trouble them into self-consciously principled speculation, troubles "everyone else" (95). These remarks may seem, at first glance, naïve and all too easy to dismiss in our post-humanistic age. But by the end of Literary Lives, the author has given these observations a heuristic sophistication, utility, and heft that earn this reader's trust. Ellis is scarcely naïve about the current episteme, but he takes biography very seriously--unlike, he observes, all too many biographers and critics. He believes that biography's importance is fundamentally related to its perduring popularity, and that, in turn, this popularity takes the measure of a belief generally held in this genre's pragmatic relevance to issues of individual and social good health.

It would be difficult to imagine a serious writer or reader of biography (the common reader included) who would not find matters of engaging interest and use in this book, which is not to say that one might not disagree with the author from time to time. Ellis's praise of Leon Edel as the only recent well-known practitioner of biography who "has attempted a Principia Biographica" (2) draws what is to my mind an erroneous distinction between accounts of biographical practice that significantly address issues of principle and poetics--one thinks of James L. Clifford and Virginia Woolf as especially adept practitioners--on the one hand, and analysis, on the other. I find Ellis's certainty sometimes suspect, as for instance in his apparent agreement with Ray Monk about Bertrand Russell's passion for Ottoline...