- Lives of the Literary and Famous, and the Life of Their Biographer
As someone who has found her career unexpectedly moving into the realm of literary biography, I was eager to read Scott Donaldson’s new book in the hopes it would bring some insightful advice and guidance to a newcomer to the field such as myself. I was not disappointed. However, in addition to learning more about the field of literary biography and gaining valuable advice, I was pleased to find that Donaldson’s book also expanded my understanding of how biographies influence our understanding of writers and their lives. The dual benefits for both practitioners of the field as well as students and scholars makes Donaldson’s book a valuable contribution to literary studies.
Donaldson begins his book with an interesting and informative section describing his own initially unexpected foray into writing literary biographies and summarizing his experiences with seven different biographical subjects: Winfield Townley Scott, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Charles Fenton. Donaldson includes personal details where relevant, and his reflections on his experiences make this section incredibly engaging and fun to read.
For practitioners of biography, the sections on “Topics in Literary Biography” and “The Impossible Craft” are highly instructive. In “Topics in Literary Biography,” Donaldson details the various challenges that biographers [End Page 260] encounter—from the continual need to sort between fact and fiction in choosing what details to include and what to leave out, to the ethical issues of how much of a person’s life should be revealed and what should perhaps stay private. He also highlights the difficulties of using letters and interviews to re-create the author’s life, particularly the challenge that arises when interviews and remembrances conflict in their portrayal of an individual or moment. The section titled “The Impossible Craft,” which is a phrase that Donaldson uses to describe the unachievable aim of literary biography to recreate lost lives, discusses the struggles faced by all biographers. Donaldson sagely notes, “Just as there can be no work of biography so splendid and comprehensive, so valid and insightful, so attuned to the past, in harmony with the present, and anticipatory of the future as to merit the term ‘definitive,’ neither can we conjure into existence any single ideal practitioner of the craft” (100). Quoting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “there never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good,” Donaldson describes the complex roles of a biographer as “drudge-critic-artist-historian-investigative reporter-polymath” and psychologist (100–101, 103). Taking on such a wide range of roles leads to the varying strengths and weaknesses within multiple biographies of a single subject. Donaldson notes that biographers struggle to do the best they can in trying to manage all these roles simultaneously and that this continual evolving balance, along with new findings and information, makes each biography unique and a product of its time.
For practitioners and also students and scholars, the case studies are extremely valuable. Donaldson has three sections—one each on Edwin Arlington Robinson, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway—that contrast varying biographical approaches. In his section on the Fitzgeralds, Donaldson focuses on the ways that various biographers have dealt with Zelda’s alleged affair with Eduoard Jozan in 1924. While these sections are informative for practitioners of the biographical craft, they are also of significant interest to students and scholars of the Fitzgeralds, as the discussion shows how each biographer exhibits a degree of interpretive difference or bias that can color our understanding of the historical moment more than the factual evidence itself. This does not discount the efforts of the individual biographers, but it does provide a strong argument for students and scholars to consider more than one portrayal as they seek to understand the authors they are researching.
Beyond the grammatical or factual errors that have made it into various biographies of the Fitzgeralds regarding this incident...