The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography

By Kale, Verna | The Hemingway Review, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography


Kale, Verna, The Hemingway Review


The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. By Scott Donaldson. University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 2015. 296 pp. Cloth $39.95.

Scott Donaldson's study of literary biography, The Impossible Craft, crossed my desk the same week that I surrendered the manuscript of a biography of Hemingway I have been working on for the past three years to the production team at my publisher. Because I could not make any substantive changes to my own manuscript after this point, I approached Donaldson's book with a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

Donaldson's study of the practice of literary biography is simultaneously erudite and confessional, objective and personal--and he thus models for the reader the inherent contradictions of this "impossible craft." The biographer's task is archaeological: she must sift through the detritus of another's life--not only rejected book titles, manuscript drafts, letters sent and received, but also letters written but not sent, books and magazines read, maps, medical records, fishing logs, an order for take-out barbeque, and other, stranger, ephemera--and from these articles formulate a personality with all its complications and inconsistencies. In the case of Hemingway, the biographer is building upon and competing with other biographers and memoirists, as well as with the public persona that, in the last two decades of Hemingway's life especially, acquired a life of its own.

The first chapter, "Beginnings," introduces the reader to Donaldson's own experience as a literary biographer. For a reader unfamiliar with Donaldson's work, this section serves to establish the author's expertise on the subject; however, this section is of far greater interest to those who have heard Donaldson speak at conferences and read his books. Written in an engaging first-person narrative style, we come to know Donaldson on a personal level (in this sense, the book makes a foray into another form of life writing, that of autobiography/memoir), and it is a refreshingly honest glimpse at not only Donaldson's successes but also his disappointments. Donaldson is candid, too, about the strengths and weaknesses of his predecessors, colleagues, and competitors--there are enough eyebrow-raising remarks about well-known scholars to make The Impossible Craft feel simultaneously like a necessary addition to one's library and a guilty pleasure. Biographies give the reader the inside scoop on the person behind the work; thus, The Impossible Craft is the inside scoop on the inside scoop.

The second chapter, "Topics in Literary Biography," is more theoretical and considers a wide variety of approaches to life writing, citing numerous practitioners of the craft. The takeaway point is that "truth" is highly subjective, and all biographies present one life filtered through another--that of the biographer herself. Moreover, "the biographer, like the novelist, is first and foremost a storyteller," Donaldson points out, and biographers "dig and dig to unearth a great deal of data and then hope and pray that a pattern emerges" (49).

Though there are exceptions--Donaldson cites Carlos Bakers invaluable Hemingway: A Life Story among them--the best biographies do more than simply present the events of a life and the contents of an archive in chronological order. The biographer can and should give shape--life--to her subject. However, the biographer is also beholden to certain ethical responsibilities. Essentially, Donaldson explains, the ethical biographer will make a good faith effort to find out everything she can and to employ that source material responsibly: "You subtract, but must not add anything that cannot be verified" (69).

Donaldson then goes on to address in detail two of the essential sources for biographers: letters (or, when writing about twenty-first-century lives, other extant forms of communication) and interviews. These sections offer not only the theory of biography, but also information on its practice. …

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