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In D efen se of Western Literary Biography G a r y S c h a r n h o r s t According to a saying popular in the nineteenth century, “God created men and women, and then the Devil made biographers.” I do not propose to dis­ cuss the ethics or aesthetics or epistemology of literary biography, mostly because I do not know anything about those topics, partly because I could not make them inter­ esting if I did. Any of you can read Hayden W hite’s “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact” as well as I can. Instead, I want to discuss something more elementary— in the sense of both “simple” and “basic.” In a word, I want to describe my own brand of scholarship. When I am asked what it is I do, if only to save a good deal of long-winded explanation, I reply I am a teacher and a literary biographer. I believe, in fact, that the two are related, that teaching, like scholarship, is at its best a form of storytelling. Perhaps that is what we all do, at its lowest common denominator: we tell stories. Western American literature has, after all, always been about storytelling, from Native American oral traditions to the folktales of such humorists as John Phoenix and Artemus Ward and the yarnspinning of Mark Twain to the narratives of Willa Cather and John Steinbeck and Wallace Stegner. My plea here is for a particular form of western story, literary biography, at the so-called decadent end of literary studies. In the midst of an academic reformation whose most ardent protestants declare the death of the author, I plead the case of GARY SCHARNHORST© 1998, Andrew Smith 3 4 6 W A L 3 3 ( 4 ) WINTER 1 9 9 9 the literary biographer, especially of the western literary biog' rapher. I sail in the backwaters of the mainstream. I am so old-fashioned, I am an unreconstructed believer in the idea of authorial intention— which is not to say that I think a liter­ ary text means only what its author meant, but that its many possible meanings may include what its author intended. To be sure, I do not presume to defend what might be called the mausoleum school of biography. Thomas Sargent Perry once disparaged this traditional method of memoir. ‘“The biogra­ pher,’” he complained, ‘“gets a dustcart into which he shovels diaries, reminiscences, old letters, until the cart is full. Then he dumps the load in front of your door. That is Vol. I. Then he goes forth again on the same errand. And there is Vol. IF” (qtd. in Edel 18). The subject of this brand of biography is embalmed like a fly in amber. Or as Thomas Carlyle once remarked, “a well-written Life is almost as rare as a well-spent one” (3). Nor would I defend only the magisterial or the monumental brand of literary biography. The late Mark Schorer allegedly lost much of his reputation, if not his mind, as the result of his long labor on the biography of Sinclair Lewis. It was, according to his col­ leagues, behavior unbecoming a Berkeley professor. Or in his aptly titled book Inventing Mark Twain, Andrew Hoffman speculates that Samuel Clemens had a series of homoerotic experiences, including a love affair with Dan De Quille, in the mining country of Nevada and California in the early 1860s. In rhetoric familiar to readers of super­ market tabloids, Hoffman allows that his speculation “can never be proven” (518)— but then it cannot be disproven either. Here’s hop­ ing he never writes a book about the Kennedy assassination. Still, I believe the western American literary landscape must include western biography as both literature and history. As better scholars than I have argued, western writers are regional historians and may even be better at recounting western history than the pro­ fessional historians are. In any case, we have inherited and helped to promote a tradition of new western literary biography which fits hand in glove with the new western history, revisionist in its assault on the myths and codes of westward expansion. Certainly western...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 345-353
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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