A Rich Record of Lives: How New Biographies Examine Great Legacies

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EMERSON: THE MIND ON FIRE By Robert D. Richardson University of California Press 656 pp., $30 JOHN DEWEY AND THE HIGH TIDE OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM By Alan Ryan W.W. Norton & Co. 414 pp., $30 VIRGINIA WOOLF By James King W.W. Norton & Co. 699 pp., $35 A GENIUS FOR LIVING: THE LIFE OF FRIEDA LAWRENCE By Janet Byrne HarperCollins 504 pp., $27.50 MAYNARD KEYNES: AN ECONOMIST'S BIOGRAPHY By D.E. Moggridge Routledge 941 pp., $25 GEORGE ELIOT: VOICE OF A CENTURY By Frederick R. Karl W.W. Norton, 768 pp., $30 Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien By Donald Harman Akenson Cornell University Press 573 pp., $35 The traditional purpose of biography is to furnish interested readers with the story of a famous person's life. Whether the biographer aims to expose the flaws behind the public facade, or to portray an exemplary role model, or something in between, the assumption is that readers are interested in the biographical subject in the first place. Yet in an increasingly forgetful world, it often falls to the biographer to rekindle interest in important figures in danger of being relegated to obscurity. By placing a person's achievements in the context of his or her life, a good biography helps us see its subject afresh. In this respect, one of the most outstanding biographies of this past season may be Robert D. Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Although Emerson is scarcely a forgotten figure, his very familiarity tends to disguise his amazing originality, and his protean, deliberately unsystematic mind resists attempts at classification. Even readers who love his poetically pithy essays, such as "Self-Reliance," "Compensation," and "Nature," may find it hard to imagine the man who wrote them. But, thanks to Professor Richardson's superbly written book, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) takes on the lineaments of a thinking, feeling, entirely believable human being: an awkward middle child initially overshadowed by his seemingly more-gifted brothers; the grief-stricken widower of an aspiring poetess who died at 19; a man who taught himself how to recover from overwhelming bouts of depression by relying on his spiritual inner resources. Whether he is describing the strange character of Emerson's remarkable aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, or Emerson's first meeting with Thomas and Jane Carlyle, or Emerson's responses to his wide-ranging readings, Richardson writes with a clarity, vigor, and liveliness that transform his meticulous research into a compellingly readable, highly intelligible story. John Dewey (1859-1952), another quintessentially American figure, was alas a much duller writer than Emerson, though certainly a more systematic thinker. The avowed aim of Alan Ryan's John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism is to refocus attention on a man who in his lifetime was one of America's most revered and influential philosophers. Dewey's faith in democracy and in humankind's ability to solve - or at least alleviate - problems by means of intelligently planned action may lack the dramatic allure of flashier credos, but in the long run, Ryan notes, we could do a lot worse than reconsider Dewey's open-minded yet seriously thought-out approach to political, social, and ethical questions. Ryan's admittedly partisan, but by no means uncritical, account of Dewey's life begins with a helpful "overview" of his place in American history. The remainder of the book cogently portrays both the man and the age in which he lived. A pragmatist whose chief concern was finding ways to translate ideas into reality, Dewey thought long and hard about problems that still concern us, such as balancing a belief in individualism with a commitment to public responsibilities. Ryan's reconsideration is well-timed. It's probably fair to say that Virginia Woolf has been one of the least neglected literary figures of the 20th century. Studies of her work are abundant, her diaries and letters have deservedly received much attention, and her life - along with others of the Bloomsbury group - has been the subject of intense interest. …