Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Today is Emily Bronte’s birthday (thank you, internet), which reminded me that I have just a few more chapters to read in the Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson. One of the gems of this book—which is a quick read, as Introductions usually are—is the mention of how much Dickinson was influenced and affected by Bronte. Until recently, I did not always pay attention to timeline and it hadn’t really occurred to me how many of the authors I consider classic were contemporaries. Anyone born in the 1800s or earlier I’ve often lumped into one great category called Dead Writers and had not bothered with the fascinating way in which these writers interacted or influenced one another.

But what this really got me thinking was that without realizing or intending to do this, I’ve read a good number of literary biographies recently. And thoroughly enjoyed all of them. This all started with Lyndall Gordon’s Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, and then her Charlotte Bronte: A Passionate Life, and then I read Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose. (Although come to think of it, it actually all started with Houellebec’s long essay on H.P. Lovecraft.) I started reading Benjamin Moser’s biography of Clarice Lispector, but had to return it to the library and haven’t gone back to get it again. I’d like to finish this, but other projects got in the way. I will, perhaps strangely, go ahead and put Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and Anne Carson’s Nay Rather into this category as well. I then read Catherine Dubuis’s A Femme Entre les Lignes: Vie et Oeuvre de Clarisse Francillon. And somehow made my way to Wendy Martin’s Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson.

But what I’ve noticed is how much I enjoy reading these, and I’d love some suggestions. I’ve made a short list already, but please do leave a comment if any of you have a favorite literary biography you think I’d enjoy. I admit that I’m really only interested in biographies of “dead” writers at this point, so with that in mind…

  • Lyndall Gordon – Lives Like Loaded Guns: A Life of Emily Dickinson
  • Barbara Johnson – A Life with Mary Shelley
  • Elizabeth Hardwick – Seduction and Betrayal
  • Benjamin Moser – Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector
  • Nancy Milford – Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Milley

I’ve seen there is a biography of Frantz Fanon by David Macey – has anyone read this? Or what about Lawrence Jackson’s book on Ralph Ellison? If someone has the inside scoop that there is a biography out or coming out on the Haitian writer Marie Vieux Chauvet, I’ll be forever grateful.

18 Responses to “Looking for literary biographies…”

  1. Jess

    Hi Michelle,

    If you’re a Hardy fan, try Michael Millgate’s biography, originally published in 1982, republished in 2004 as ‘Thomas Hardy: A Biography Revisited’.
    Muriel Spark’s biography of Mary Shelley is worth a look too.
    And – she may not be long enough dead – but the Sylvia Plath biography industry is fascinating, too.

    • Michelle

      Hi Jess, I might be a little scared of the Sylvia Plath biography industry, but equally fascinated. And I do love much of her work, so that is a great suggestion. And I will check outthe other two as well. Thank you!

  2. Karen Brown

    I bought a copy of Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy by Carolyn Burke some years ago because I taught Loy and she intrigued me. I just searched and found it again after reading your post. I never read the book but plan to now. It looks just as fascinating as it did to me then!

  3. Rebecca H.

    I want to think about this further, because it’s a favorite topic of mine, but for now I want to mention Richard Holmes. His biography of Coleridge (two volumes!) is great, and I want to read his biography of P. Shelley as well. But something shorter and less daunting (particularly if you aren’t super excited to read about the Romantics) is Footsteps, a favorite book of mine, that takes up several lives and is sort of memoirish as well. Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf is great. I also really liked Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Janet Malcolm’s biography of Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman is unmissable (in my opinion!). Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, on Montaigne? Okay, that’s a start 🙂

    • Michelle

      Rebecca, I was thinking you would be the perfect person to ask. Have noted all of these and will happily take more suggestions if you have them. (And I cannot believe I haven’t yet read the Blakewell, that’s an oversight).

      • Rebecca H.

        Very glad to be helpful! Claire Tomalin on Pepys and Jane Austen are both good. For something unconventional, I’d recommend THE QUEST FOR CORVO. Judith Thurman on Colette is good too. Now I kind of want it read another biography!

  4. Scott W.

    So far, though I’ve only read part it, I’m finding Artemis Cooper’s biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor to be great. The last literary bio I read was Robert Greenfield’s Dreamer’s Journey: The LIfe and Writings of Frederick Prokosch, on a writer obviously not up everyone’s alley, but I thought this was an exceptionally well-researched and fascinating biography.

    • Scott W.

      My apologies – I should have read your post more carefully. These are both “dead” writers in the sense that they’re, um, dead, but they don’t fit your expanded definition of dead writers.

      • Michelle

        I think they’re great recommendations! I’ve actually never heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor, but am interested to see both his work and now Cooper’s biography of him. And the same goes for Prokosch, whom I have atleast heard of but have not read. Thank you for adding to the list!

  5. Jess

    Just popping back to second the recommendation for Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman! For full effect you really need to read alongside Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame and Jacqueline Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (which isn’t a biography. Although it sort of is. Anyway, it’s wonderful.)

    • Michelle

      I’ve heard of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath and have been meaning to read it forever – so thank you for reminding me. I am crossing my fingers the library here will have some of these. Thanks so much, Jess!

  6. --

    Hi Michelle, I’m sure you’ll get more than you asked for when all is said and done…so for starters–and since you’ve asked for ‘literary biographies’ of dead writers–I offer these:

    “Windows of Memory: The Literary Career of Thomas Wolfe.” “Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of e e Cummings.” “The Dramatic Imagination of Robert Browning: A Literary Life.”

    These three are written by the late Professor Richard S. Kennedy–without question, the world’s greatest Wolfe scholar. (And more.)

    I’m going to add one book on the outchance that it has slipped past you. “Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation.” by William H. Gass. Now you may not believe this is a ‘literary biography,’ in one sense, it isn’t; however, because it is much more than that, well…I believe that, in passing, it is that–‘a literary biography–as well. Gass is a novelist and philosopher, an essayist of the first rank.

    So, four dead guys sent your way.

    I won’t include “The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage,” by Paul Elie. This is a very pointed literary biography of another four writers, two women–Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day…and two men: Walker Percy and Thomas Merton. (Four more dead guys.)

    Hope you had a nice vacation.

    Best regards, David Appleby

  7. Stefanie

    I love a good literary biography. I hope you get the one on Lispecter back from the library. I read it last year and it is really good. If you are looking for recommendations, Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton is top notch and Robert Richardson’s bio of Emerson is really excellent.

  8. Ethan Robinson

    Barth David Schwartz’s “Pasolini Requiem” is excellent (though huge), if you’ve any interest in Pier Paolo. And I second the recommendation of Muriel Spark’s book on Mary Shelley. She also has one on John Masefield, I think, but I haven’t read it.

  9. james b chester

    Looks like you already have plenty of reading suggestions here. I’ve read the first chapter of Juliet Barkers The Brontes which is conisidered THE book on the Brontes. I enjoyed it and do intend on reading the rest one day.

    What I really enjoy though, are critical biographies of painters. I’ve read one on Modigliani, Judy Chicago and Andy Warhol and loved each.

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