- Outsider Biographies: Savage, de Sade, Wainewright, Ned Kelly, Billy the Kid, Rimbaud, Genet: Base Crime and High Art in Biography and Bio-Fiction, 1744–2000 by Ian H. Magedera
As the title suggests, Ian H. Magedera’s new study covers about two-and-a-half centuries, as well as a wide variety of figures who have been the subjects of biography and/or bio-fiction. This broad coverage is one of the most appealing features of the book—but it also, I believe, entails some shortcomings.
Magedera is concerned to compare the Anglophone and French traditions of biography. He does value biographies that seek to establish the facts about their subjects’ lives—especially when these have been occluded by myth-making. But his overall preference is for the kind of biography, increasingly prominent in recent years, that recognizes the tentative nature of truth claims, and thus acknowledges that any pretension to a comprehensive understanding of a biographical subject is very tendentious—especially any total grasp of their life from cradle to grave. In tandem with this development, he notes, there has been a tendency for biographers to discuss, in their texts and/or paratexts, their own conceptions of their biographical projects.
The biographical enterprise is complicated for Magedera when the subject is both a writer and an outsider, and this is the paradox he claims for the seven figures who are the focal points of his book. More precisely, he argues that these seven men are criminals in the legal sense. Hence they are inherently problematic as biographical subjects: their achievements as writers are what makes them admirable (and worthy of study), but their criminal activity invites censure.
This paradox is most salient for the earliest figures covered here: Richard Savage (1698–1743), memorialized by Samuel Johnson in 1744 (and much later by Richard Holmes); the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), subject of many [End Page 201] biographies; and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794–1847), treated by Oscar Wilde and then recently by Andrew Motion. Savage killed a man in a pub brawl, de Sade was accused of poisoning and perpetrated sexual abuse, and Wainewright, eventually transported for forgery, very likely committed at least one murder for gain. In particular, Magedera’s discussion of Johnson on Savage, as well as of various de Sade biographers, brings out the paradox very clearly. He demonstrates how Johnson deploys various tropes of failed parenthood to account for Savage’s failings, but is unable to reconcile the contradictory elements in his friend’s behavior and present a stable identity for him—thus foreshadowing the characteristics found in many contemporary biographies. Meanwhile de Sade has attracted numerous biographers with varying takes on the connection between crime and writing. Nonetheless, the Marquis remains ultimately inscrutable.
The two other French writers featured here, Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) and Jean Genet (1910–1986), exemplify the “Base Crime and High Art” paradox less persuasively than does de Sade. Rimbaud was an “outsider” in his alienation from bourgeois and heterosexual respectability, and eventually from France itself, but his criminal record was sketchy, while Genet’s criminal activity largely preceded his activity as a published writer. Nonetheless, Magedera’s chapters on both these writers are very rich, and full of fascinating insights. He covers numerous versions of Rimbaud, from the early, whitewashing family accounts to the significant biography by Jean-Luc Steinmetz and the bio-fiction by Pierre Michon, which appeared at the centenary of the writer’s death in 1991. As a scholar who has already published extensively on Genet, too, Magedera is very familiar with the biographical material on the writer in both French and English. Genet is a remarkable biographical subject, not because of his criminal past as such, but because Jean-Paul Sartre produced the extraordinarily extended biographical apologia for him, Saint-Genet, in 1952—and this was the first of several biographically oriented works on the writer published well before his death. So immersed...