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

The Resurrection of the Author:
Why Biography Still Matters

Gary Scharnhorst

EVEN IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE OF TEXTUAL SCHOLARSHIP, AND DESPITE the oft-proclaimed “death of the author,” biography remains a viable if unfashionable approach to the study of literature. As Arnold Rampersad has noted, biography “not only survived New Criticism, it reached new heights of accomplishment and acceptance precisely because of the austerities of the New Criticism.”1 To be sure, many writers over the years have regarded literary biography as a contemptible form of voyeurism. George Eliot described it as a “disease of English literature…. It is something like uncovering the dead Byron’s club foot.”2 In a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s French and Italian Notebooks in 1872, Henry James complained that “whatever the proper limits” of biographical investigation may be, “the actual limits will be fixed only by a total exhaustion of matter.” Writers “will be likely to take the alarm, empty their table-drawers, and level the approaches to their privacy. The critics, psychologists, and gossip-mongers may then glean amid the stubble.”3 James’s prediction has been realized in the lives of many writers. I think here of such obstacles as the prohibition on publishing Willa Cather’s letters. Matthew Arnold, George Orwell, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden each forbade his heirs from cooperating with biographers. J. D. Salinger, the Howard Hughes of modern American letters, left his hidey-hole in New Hampshire in 1993 long enough to hire a New York lawyer to block the publication of Ian Hamilton’s J. D. Salinger: A Life. The field of literary biography is strewn with the ashes of burned letters. Charles Dickens, James, even the egomaniacal Walt Whitman did “the great thing,” in the words of Miss Tina in James’s tale “The Aspern Papers,” by burning private papers. Dickens even invited his children to roast onions and potatoes in the fire. Often conditions are imposed on the biographer by the heirs of the writer, most famously in recent years by Ted Hughes, the husband of Sylvia

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