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The Life of Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of National Biography, Eminent Victorians, Elizabeth and Essex

life literary lives biographical

modern biography begins with James Boswell's comprehensive attention to his subject's character and habits in The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), which bears out his preface's claim that ‘I profess to write not his panegyrick, … but his life’. Throughout the Victorian era, however, biography was largely given over to memorializing the great and good as examples of the link between virtue and achievement, an ethos culminating in the foundation of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1882. Reaction against the conventions of nineteenth-century biography came in the form of Lytton Strachey's iconoclastic accounts of Matthew Arnold, Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, and General Gordon in Eminent Victorians (1918). He also produced a wittily irreverent life of Queen Victoria (1921) and the melodramatic Elizabeth and Essex (1928), the latter initiating the Freudian mode of biography in its attention to psychological dimensions of experience. Strachey's selective procedures, his energetic, if occasionally erratic, spirit of free enquiry, and his careful narrative constructions provided a working example for many succeeding writers. Among the books which sustained the development of biography from the late 1920s are The Stricken Deer (1929), David Cecil's imaginative life of William Cowper, and Peter Quennell's Four Portraits (1945), dealing with Boswell, Edward Gibbon, Laurence Sterne, and John Wilkes. The succession of popular biographical studies published by Hesketh Pearson from 1930 onward indicates the increasing interest of a general readership in biography. Richard Aldington's Portrait of a Genius, But … (1950), his treatment of D. H. Lawrence, and the especially vitriolic Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (1955) both exemplify the frequent tendency of post-war biographies to shock venerators of their subjects. The Untried Years, the first part of Leon Edel's five-volume Henry James (195372), and Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther (1958) established the value of a directly psychoanalytical approach; the markedly clinical nature of Erikson's work is reflected in his designation of it as ‘psychobiography’. Freudian theory was evident in the procedures of many biographers throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Oedipus complex often constituting a central device; latterly, the approach has been discredited for its reductive questing after conclusive explanations for the courses of lives and works.

The ascendancy of biography as a literary form in more recent decades may be dated from Richard Ellmann's James Joyce (1959) and George Painter's Marcel Proust (two volumes, 1959, 1965). These extended studies combined strong narrative development and penetrating critical intelligence with assiduous detailing of their subjects' lives and socio-cultural situations; they set the pattern for numerous distinguished works, among which are the following: Michael Holroyd's life of Lytton Strachey (two volumes, 19678); Robert Gittings's John Keats (1968); Jon Stallworthy's Wilfred Owen (1974); Anne Thwaite's Edmund Gosse (1984); Maynard Mack's Alexander Pope (1985); Humphrey Carpenter's A Serious Character (1988), the fullest available life of Ezra Pound. The steady chronological progression, naturalistic procedures, and crowded casts of protagonists of such books suggest that biography's present marked popularity may result from its surrogacy for the traditional long novel at a time when prose fiction frequently aspires to innovation.

Experimental strategies have been repeatedly employed in the writing of lives. The compendious Dickens (1990) by Peter Ackroyd succeeds in fusing scholarship of the order that won acclaim for his T. S. Eliot (1984) with audacious imaginative departures. Written in the authorial first person, A. J. A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (1934) is dramatically effective in emphasizing the investigative nature of biographical research. In a similar vein, Richard Holmes's Footsteps (1985) alternates between biography and autobiography in its account of the travels through Europe which preceded his writing of Shelley: The Pursuit (1974). Ian Hamilton's In Search of J. D. Salinger (1988) also draws on its author's subjective experiences in its description of the protracted legal conflicts with his reclusive subject; the book finally appeared after litigation led to the withdrawal of two previous versions.

Numerous critics view biography as the primary mechanism of the cult of literary personality, fostering interest in authors' lives at the expense of attention to their works. Apologists for the genre maintain that it represents the tradition of descriptive criticism in an age dominated by modes of literary theory which are often considered aridly abstract; through the identification of connections between the life and the works, texts are firmly related to the social and cultural conditions prevailing at the time of composition and their implications for the present may be more clearly discerned. In an age of ethical and aesthetic pluralism, the remarkably wide readership for scholarly biographies is a welcome index of the continuity of a common literary culture. Informative discussions of the subject are contained in Robert Gittings's The Nature of Biography (1978); The Biographer's Art, edited by Jeffrey Meyers (1989); and The Troubled Face of Biography, edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley (1988).

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