Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction

Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction

Article excerpt

Hermione Lee. Biography: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-953354-1. 144 pages.

In Biography: A Vend Short Introduction, biographer Hermione Lee uses British literary biography as a springboard to explore the evolution of life-writing from its ancient origins to present day. This tidy little text, part of Oxford University Press's series of "very short" pocket-sized introductions, provides a compelling overview of the biographical genre in 140 pages, eight chapters, a brief index, and twenty illustrations. Launching her introduction with a description of common metaphors and rules for biography and concluding with reflections on biographers' diverse narrative approaches, Lee demonstrates in her treatment of the genre the very authorial "expertise and judiciousness" (2) and the breadth and detail that she argues is imperative for biographers to exercise in their craft.

Legible throughout this parsimonious text--a striking contrast to Lee's acclaimed biographies Virginia Woolf (1996) and Edith Wharton (2007), which each stretched to more than 800 pages--is Lee's awareness that representing the richness of the biographical genre, like biographers' efforts to represent the richness of lives, is a partial, situated enterprise that can never fully reflect "the subject." Ushering the reader along with a contemplative tone and engaging excerpts from diverse biographies, Lee explores changes in the genre, its laudatory and "predatory" (2) aspects, and its fraught political and moral dimensions. Indeed, biography is "never just the personal story of one life " but has "political and social implications" (63). Biographers (and subjects) pursue political agendas, ferret out secrets, privilege certain lives over others, and, inevitably, wrest narrative power from subjects' control to inscribe their own interpretations, "warts and all" (39), into the historical record. To Lee, these implications seem to underscore biographers' fundamental "duty of responsibility to the 'helplessness of the dead'"(69). This short, smart, and sophisticated overview will provide seasoned biographers with new insights into the field of literary biography and inform newcomers of central debates and issues in biographical practice.

Hermione Lee has produced a range of incisive biographical studies, including critical biographies on Woolf, Wharton, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, Philip Roth, essays on life writing, and edited collections of women's writing. She draws from her extensive experience and previous publications to construct the Very Short Introduction. Lee is an internationally-recognized scholar in English Literature who has taught at the University of Liverpool, the University of York, and, most recently, at Oxford University. In 2008, she was appointed as President to Oxford's Wolfson College.

A Very Short Review

Lee organizes her text into eight chapters that each focus on a particular theme in the evolution of biography, but like the genre's relationship to such fields as philosophy and literature, are overlapping and fluid. In so doing, she works to convey the spirit and history of life-writing without concretizing its boundaries and constructing an authoritarian narrative that might seem misplaced in an era of blurred genres and methodological proliferation. Lee opens Chapter One, "Biography Channel," with two provocative metaphors, "autopsy" (1) and "portrait" (2) to capture the "gruesome" (2) aspects and detailed artistry of life writing. These metaphors also seem fitting for Lee's analytic efforts to track the painful betrayals, adulation and vitriol, and humility and self-aggrandizing impulses woven throughout the history of biography, as well as biographers' efforts to paint, with vigilance and "heart" (57), the contours of a given life.

In Chapter One, Lee also mobilizes--and unpacks--a list of "ten possible rules" for biographies to ground her discussion: that biographies be truthful, inclusive of a "whole life," forthcoming with private details, precise with source material, written by someone who knows the subject personally, objective, a form of history, an exploration of "identity," and valuable for the reader. …

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