A WRITER AT LARGE: Confessions of a Long-Distance Biographer ; It Was Only Meant to Take Two Years. but in the End It Took ROBERT SKIDELSKY 30 Years to Complete His Life of John Maynard Keynes: Nearly Half the Time It Took His Subject to Live It. He Explains Why the Great Economist Has Absorbed So Much of His Life
Skidelsky, Robert, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
It is no secret that I have spent a large chunk of my life writing about the economist John Maynard Keynes. In 1973, a few months after my son Edward was born, he got a postcard from my mother-in-law. She clearly believed in encouraging early habits of reading. It was of Gwen Raverat's famous watercolour of Keynes as a young man. "This is a gentleman whom you and Mummy and Daddy will soon grow to hate v. enormously I expect. He looks a bit furtive to me." My son Edward is now 30.
My original 1970 contract with Macmillan was to write a single- volume 150,000 word biography to be delivered "not later than 31 December 1972". This must rank high in the annals of contractual fantasy. The first volume was published in 1983, the second in 1992, and the third in 2000. Last week the single-volume abridgement was published. As I put it, I hope disarmingly, in its introduction: "The single-volume life of John Maynard Keynes has been delayed by the publication of my three-volume life."
I would like to relate some of the highlights of the writing of the life of this remarkable man and to convey something of the flavour of the subject and the challenges of the enterprise. It will be partly at any rate an explanation for my prodigious achievement in tardiness.
The first part of the defence is familiar to most biographers: I could not get access to the necessary papers. Although Sir Geoffrey Keynes, my subject's brother, had given me permission to see the personal papers held at King's College, Cambridge, the economist Richard Kahn, who held copyright of Keynes's economic papers, refused me access. The reason he gave was that a research student of his, Don Moggridge, was editing them for the Royal Economic Society's Collected Edition of Keynes's writings and nothing must be allowed to slow down this valuable project. No less a figure than Harold Macmillan, who had returned to publishing after an interlude as Prime Minister, interceded on my behalf, but to no avail.
Moggridge tried to cheer me up: he would not be long in finishing, and then I would be able to read the material I wanted in the published Collected Writings. "Rest assured," he wrote to me in July 1970, "it is not my life's work - not even half a decade's." However the volumes of his edition were still being churned out 12 years later, the last one of all in 1989.
My contract with Macmillan stood, but the completion date was tacitly dropped. Since I was frustrated on the Keynes front, I took a university teaching job in the United States. I returned to an English academic job only in 1976, and set about reviving the Keynes project. I would start work on the personal papers and the few already published volumes of the Collected Writings and hope that by the time I had finished writing about the early Keynes, the papers of the later Keynes would be open to me.
Only gradually did I realise what a mad undertaking I had let myself in for. The trouble was that Keynes inhabited many different worlds: his curiosities, his sympathies, his ambitions ranged over much of the thought, letters, arts, and practical affairs of his time: he even, fortunately briefly, hoped to make a contribution to genetics. He touched almost nothing without leaving a mark on it. How was a biographer to cope? In the introduction to my first volume, I wrote: "One learns as much as one can in the time available; and for the rest, one hopes, like Bernini, to create an illusion of solidity."
My serious learning started in the King's College, Cambridge, library in 1977. Some diary entries from that summer capture the terror, excitement, and pitfalls of research:
12 July: "To Hershel Road to see Richard and Anne Keynes. I was dreading it, but they were very friendly, and offered me several large sherries. He suddenly said: `I want you to see Maynard's letters to Lydia' - so I arranged to start …
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Publication information: Article title: A WRITER AT LARGE: Confessions of a Long-Distance Biographer ; It Was Only Meant to Take Two Years. but in the End It Took ROBERT SKIDELSKY 30 Years to Complete His Life of John Maynard Keynes: Nearly Half the Time It Took His Subject to Live It. He Explains Why the Great Economist Has Absorbed So Much of His Life. Contributors: Skidelsky, Robert - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: November 23, 2003. Page number: 18,. © 2009 The Independent on Sunday. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.