Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

Introduction

Robert D. Habich

THROUGHOUT HEMINGWAY’S DEATH IN THE AFTERNOON, THE “OLD LADY” who peppers the author/narrator with questions grows increasingly exasperated until, tricked into hearing yet another apparent digression about human cruelty, she says, “You know I like you less and less the more I know you.” The narrator’s answer ought to be fair warning to anyone who reads or writes literary biography: “Madame, it is always a mistake to know an author.” But it’s a warning unheeded, by the Old Lady or by most of the rest of us. As Richard Altick points out, attention to the lives of authors—expressed variously as respectful veneration or “impertinent” curiosity—is an enduring fact of our literary history, stimulated by a nagging sense that writers are somehow different from common folk and thus their lives make some claim on our attention.1

This collection of essays addresses two questions central to American literary biography: how documents (usually private ones) help construct satisfying narratives about literary lives, and how those lives in turn may inform the documents (usually public ones) that we call literature.2 In academic circles, particularly in the twentieth century, the efficacy of literary biography has of course been widely contested. New Critical suspicions of the “intentional fallacy,” and post-structuralist formulations about destabilized texts, socially constructed interpretation, authorless authority, and “literature” as a readerly negotiation with language—all threaten to make literary biography irrelevant, inconsequential, maybe even impossible.3 Yet the genre of literary biography continues to weather every theoretical storm.

The centrality of documentation to the debates over literary biography can be illustrated with two examples, published barely three decades apart. The first, Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852), was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Freeman Clarke, and William Henry Channing, close friends who had access to Fuller’s letters and other material, much of it no longer extant. Published two years

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