Reaassembling the Dust
"I know of no critics in modern times," Leon Edel the biographer of Henry James, has reminded us, "who have chosen to deal with biography as one deals with poetry or the novel. The critics fall into the easy trap of writing pieces about the life that was lived, when their business is to discuss how the life was told." From scanning the reviews which greeted (in one form or another) my own biography of William Carlos Williams, I know the truth of Edel's statement. And I mention it because it is a curious phenomenon and, in an age which prides itself on the attention it has given to the critical act, a phenomenon which I find puzzling and hard to explain. It is as though, in the case of biography, the reader somehow believed that the life the biographer has assembled for us existed prior to the writing itself. I am only half playing when I say this, because it is axiomatic that the biographer must always be true to the facts -- the literary remains -- which he or she keeps finding, trying to make sense of it all in something like a final ordering.
But it is the other half of the problem which I want to look at: the biographer as creator, the dustman reassembling the dust, like the God of Genesis breathing life into a few handfuls of ashes. For the biographer is as much the inventor, the maker, as the poet or the novelist when it comes to creating a life out of the prima materia we call words, the very stuff, for example, that I am directing at you this moment. Is it not, after all, the illusion of a life which the biographer gives in the process of writing biography, something carried on perhaps over many years, a process of reassembling tapes and letters, discarded drafts and manuscripts, directives and memos, testaments and check stubs, the feel of names and places revisited, people known perhaps still among the living, words, words transcribed, written, uttered, words, words, and more words, which the biographer must shape and select and reorder, until a figure begins again to live in our imagination? It is extraordinary what the biographer feels