F. Scott Fitzgerald never invented a Jazz-Age seductress as bold, brash, and devastating as Henrietta Bingham (1901-1968), the author’s great-aunt. A biographer and historian, Bingham (Mordecai: An Early American Family, 2003, etc.) discovered a cache of love letters sent to Henrietta by two ardent suitors. One was John Houseman, not yet a noted director and producer. Most of Henrietta’s lovers, though, were women: Mina Kirstein (sister of ballet impresario Lincoln and lover of Clive Bell), who had been her teacher at Smith College; Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, who experienced “ecstasy” in Henrietta’s arms; Wimbledon tennis champion Helen Jacobs, with whom Henrietta had an affair lasting several years; actress Beatrix Lehmann, sister of novelist Rosamund and Hogarth Press editor John; and many others. Henrietta was, apparently, irresistible; she “could beguile brilliant and creative people,” the author notes, but her affairs, which “began passionately…rarely held her attention….With one lover after another Henrietta acted skittish and immature, ambivalent and distant.” Her behavior was likely shaped by her relationship with her wealthy and powerful father, emotionally, but not physically incestuous, characterized by “mutual obsession and dependency.” He repeatedly offered her careers that would have ensconced her in her native Kentucky, and she repeatedly refused. Yet when he was made Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, Henrietta reveled in aristocratic life and often served as his hostess. The “seductiveness and ambivalence” Henrietta felt toward her father contributed to a lifetime of neuroses, which she sought to alleviate through treatment with Freudian psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, who became her mentor and confidant and who freely shared details of Henrietta with Mina, also his analysand. As she aged, Henrietta succumbed to drink and assorted pharmaceuticals, suffering more than a dozen breakdowns in the decades before her death. Throughout, the author ably illuminates the character of her great-aunt, who “took freedom as far as she could.”
Deeply researched, Bingham’s engrossing biography brings her glamorous, tormented ancestor vividly to life.
An intimate but unblinking look at Gore Vidal (1925-2012), the gifted essayist, playwright, novelist, and public personality, who, for a time, seemed ubiquitous in the popular culture.
Poet, novelist, and biographer Parini (English/Middlebury Coll.; Jesus: The Human Face of God, 2013, etc.) met his subject in the mid-1980s, and he begins his chronicle with that encounter. They became fast friends as well as professional colleagues, though Parini continually reminds readers of Vidal’s often difficult personality. Petty, jealous, judgmental, and imperious—all applied to him. But so do others, as the author ably shows: Vidal was generous, brilliant, assiduous, and innovative. Like many other fine artists, Vidal worked until he could no longer do so. Parini precedes each chapter with a vignette, a focused memory from his own experiences with Vidal. They range from amusing to deeply moving. Parini is a wise general biographer of a literary figure. He tells us about each of Vidal’s major works (and the major reviews thereof) but never in prose choked with jargon or self-importance. The goals are exposition and elucidation, and he achieves them gracefully. Like other critics, Parini believes Vidal’s essays surpassed his other work. We learn some quirky details about the writer, as well—his fascination with Billy the Kid (and, later, with Timothy McVeigh), his fondness for celebrities of all sorts, his discomfort with academics, and his rivalries with Norman Mailer (with whom he reconciled) and William F. Buckley Jr. (with whom he didn’t). There is also a lot about Vidal’s sexuality (he preferred anonymous sex with male partners) and his drinking problems. Finally, the author examines Vidal’s sad decline and death. Parini uses detail in agile, unobtrusive fashion—though he erroneously reports that John Brown was killed at Harpers Ferry (he was hanged later in Charles Town).
A superbly personal biography that pulsates with intelligence, scholarship, and heart.
In which the greatest of American writers goes into the night—and not such a good night at that, and not at all gently.
Covering just the last couple of years in Twain’s long life, this is the concluding volume of the masterful University of California edition of his autobiography: unexpurgated, cross-referenced, and richly annotated. (Few modern readers would understand, for instance, that Twain was alluding to a Thackeray story in calling one unfortunate fellow “Jeames.”) The swan song reinforces things well established by its predecessors. For one, Twain lived a whirlwind life, interested in almost everything, particularly when it was cool, modern, and gadgety; he was always investing in tools and toys, sometimes losing his shirt thereby. For another, Twain, cynic though he appeared to be, tended to trust people, sometimes at great cost. A large section of this volume is devoted to an aggrieved account of a yearslong episode in which members of Twain’s staff bilked him of money, land, and jewels, taking advantage of the old man. Even when angry, though, the author puts humor to work, writing of one of them, “the first thing I ever noticed about Miss Lyon was her incredible laziness. Laziness was my own specialty, & I did not like this competition.” Elsewhere, Twain, a jet-setter before jets, writes with both humor and a certain archness of people like Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, the latter of whom he sends up for philanthropy from the supposed kindness of his heart: “He has bought fame and paid cash for it,” Twain writes, “he has deliberately projected and planned out this fame for himself; he has arranged that his name shall be famous in the mouths of men for centuries to come.”
Of considerable interest to all readers of Twain but especially to working writers following Twain’s habit of tracking his astonishing writing income—even though, as he writes, “if I should run out of all other nourishment I believe I could live on compliments.”
An eloquent work on the life of Joan Didion (b. 1934), fashioning her story as no less than the rupture of the American narrative.
Didion’s works of fiction, nonfiction, and journalism relentlessly probed the times in which they emerged. In this wonderfully engaging biography, Daugherty (English and Creative Writing/Oregon State Univ.; Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller, 2011, etc.) wisely sticks to Didion’s near obsession with making sense of an increasingly incoherent narrative during the tumultuous decades of the waning 20th century. Showing the “construction of persona” of the California-raised author, Daugherty examines Didion’s exploration of the concept of the Western-moving pioneer, resilient and stoical in the face of any calamity, a trope underscored by her mother’s somewhat depressed motto, “what difference does it make?” The author also discusses Didion’s journal keeping, which fed her penchant for eavesdropping; her early stylistic training under Berkeley instructor Mark Schorer and his “channeling of [Joseph] Conrad; her “frailty” and devotion to being the outsider; and her maddening “elisions,” first honed from reading Hemingway. Didion’s early pieces of New Journalism for Vogue—where she spent her early formative years, until the mid 1960s—reveal the “helter skelter” process that shaped her work: the contingency and chance, rather than the deliberation that critics assumed. In book reviews, movie-star profiles, and political reporting, she was struggling to find an “effective American voice.” Enter Time writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she married after the publication of her first novel, Run, River, in 1963, and with whom she moved back to California to work in the more lucrative industry of TV and film. Daugherty devotes much of the later pages of his biography to their remarkable literary partnership, which ended with his sudden death in 2003—an event that inspired her haunting memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (2003).
A dogged biographer elicits from Didion’s life much more than tidy observations of “morality and culture.”
The lives and legacies of two influential environmentalists.
Gessner (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, 2011, etc.) weaves together biography, cultural criticism, travel and nature writing in this engaging record of a journey to discover the American West and two of the region’s most prominent celebrants: Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) and Guggenheim Fellow Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Besides reading the two men’s published works, Gessner visited the places in which they lived; interviewed family, friends, co-workers and students; and mined their manuscripts. Although both men felt passionately about the West and their commitment to environmentalism, they were starkly different: “Saint Wallace the Good” was the “intellectual godfather” of Western writers, “the man of order, the man of culture.” He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, founded Stanford’s creative writing program, patiently sat on environmental committees, and was a devoted husband and father. “ ‘Radical,’ ” Gessner discovered, “was a word he came to despise.” Abbey, scruffy and combative, was the “the man of wildness, the counterculturalist…serious about his anarchism,” who carried out—and incited—acts of environmental sabotage. Married five times and a desultory father to five children, he was “more beatnik than cowboy…right down to the jugs of wine and many women.” Yet for all their differences in style, they converged in recognizing the increasing vulnerability of the West to drought, fires, fracking and overwhelming tourism. They both battled romantic Western myths of cowboy culture and rugged individualism. Those myths and a “lyric celebration of nature,” Stegner argued, undermined effective environmentalism, which should be focused on practical steps for ensuring responsible land use.
Stegner and Abbey “are two who have lighted my way,” nature writer Wendell Berry admitted. They have lighted the way for Gessner, as well, as he conveys in this graceful, insightful homage to their work and to the region they loved.
A monumental biography of the larger-than-life loner who fought for the acceptance of black music and discovered an extraordinary group of poor, country-boy singers whose records would transform American popular culture.
Celebrated music historian Guralnick (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2005, etc.) recounts the life of Sam Phillips (1923-2003), an Alabama farmer’s son who founded Sun Records in Memphis, where, during the 1950s, he first recorded the music of Ike Turner, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and others. In earlier books, including a two-volume Presley biography (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love), the author has written about such artists and the rise of rock ’n’ roll, “this revolutionary new music that combined raw gutbucket feel with an almost apostolic sense of exuberance and joy.” Now he turns to “unreconstructed individuali[st]” Phillips, who opened the door to untutored talents, recognizing their originality and mentoring them with “patience and belief.” A sickly child who became enamored of African-American music while picking cotton alongside black laborers, Phillips was bright, observant, and much influenced by a blind black sharecropper who lived with his family. He started out as a radio DJ and engineer and realized when he recorded Ike Turner’s hit “Rocket 88” (1951) at Sun that black music had potentially universal appeal. His discoveries—related here with contagious excitement—were not happenstance but rather the result of his dedication to finding the “pure essence” of performances. Guralnick met the charismatic Phillips in 1979 and became a close friend, and he makes no secret of his affection and admiration. However, he also covers his subject’s problems and foibles: his early mental breakdowns, his troubled marriage and affairs, his financial difficulties, his later drinking, and his penchant for bragging about his (rightful) place in music history.
A wonderful story that brings us deep into that moment when America made race music its own and gave rise to the rock sound now heard around the world.
Coming on its 50th anniversary and just after the band’s farewell tour, an engaging, near-comprehensive oral history of the Grateful Dead.
If “the Grateful Dead” and “disco” are not phrases that go together, it’s not for want of their trying. As Jackson (Grateful Dead Gear—The Band's Instruments, Sound Systems, and Recording Sessions, from 1965 to 1995, 2006, etc.) and musician Gans (Conversations with the Dead: The Grateful Dead Interview Book, 1991, etc.)—collectors and archivists who know as much as nearly anyone alive about the storied band—chronicle, midway into the 1970s, with albums such as “From the Mars Hotel” and “Wake of the Flood" under their belts, the Dead were enough under the sway of Saturday Night Fever to attempt a disco-ish take on “Dancing in the Street.” Chalk it up to Mickey Hart, one of the many thorns in this thorny narrative hide, whose return to the band wrought big changes. “We had to tell him [what to play],” said guitarist Bob Weir in 1977, “which means we had to be thinking about it, which means while we were thinking about it, we might as well rethink things in general.” As fans already know but will further note, the superficially peace-and-love demeanor of the Dead disguised all sorts of tensions, from personality clashes to money worries and differences over musical direction. But it all worked, despite Jerry Garcia’s drug use and increasingly erratic behavior. Says sound tech Bob Bralove, “The energy around [the last tour with Garcia] was kind of confusing, because there was this really positive energy coming from the band, but it was missing a key ingredient.” For all that, there’s plenty of peace and love here and lots of smoke and psychedelia, as well as the usual Altamont regrets, all voiced by people in and close to the band.
Worthy of Studs Terkel and an essential addition to the books of the Dead.
The author of The Life of Kingsley Amis (2007) returns with the first installment of a two-volume biography of Saul Bellow (1915-2005), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.
Leader (English/Univ. of Roehampton) is a believer in the hefty biography (Amis’ nears 1,000 pages), and his new volume—which takes us to the publication of Bellow’s Herzog—will bend a hardwood shelf, as well. The research underlying the text is formidable. Leader certainly read everything, talked to everyone relevant who would talk with him (not everyone would), and visited numerous significant sites. Throughout, the author expresses his gratitude to the (few) Bellow biographers who have gone before, occasionally pausing to disagree—especially with James Atlas, although Leader later provides some praise in source notes. In structure, this volume is traditional. After an introduction that praises Bellow, he takes us to Russia (Bellow’s ancestral home) and then marches steadily forward chronologically. In many places, the author stops his narrative to explore fictional analogs among Bellow’s actual experiences, friends, and lovers. This occurs in every section and sometimes goes on for quite a while, occasionally trying even an indulgent reader’s patience. But what a busy life Bellow had. He taught at the University of Minnesota, Bard College, the University of Chicago, and at other venues, including Puerto Rico, where he found the heat oppressive. Among his students were William Kennedy and Donald Barthelme. Bellow also traveled around Europe, and he hung out with Ralph Ellison, partied with Gore Vidal, dined with Marilyn Monroe, attended a Kennedy White House tribute to André Malraux, had sex with myriad women—but was stunned to discover that his second wife had been having a long affair with one of his friends, writer Jack Ludwig. Some violence ensued. The volume ends with some pages about Herzog, the novel that propelled Bellow into celebrity.
Will now stand as the definitive Bellow biography.
Elegiac, gracious literary ponderings that group and compare 12 giants of American literature.
Pairing these seminal authors of the “American Sublime” sometimes by influence (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James) or because they are contemporaneous (Walt Whitman and Herman Melville) or populist and ironical (Mark Twain and Robert Frost), literary titan Bloom (Humanities/Yale Univ.; The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, 2011, etc.) lends his enormous, shaggy erudition to their works. Now 84, the author examines the poems of Whitman or of Hart Crane (his avowed favorite), as well as such characters as Isabel Archer from James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady, Candace Compson from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Wildness might be another way of characterizing the “daemonic” elements in the works of these authors, a ferocious unbounded self-reliance, as espoused in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was full of ambivalence, pageantry, and “heroic erotic vitality.” With each author, Bloom carefully considers his or her specific work (Emily Dickinson is the only female), cited in fairly robust extracts, in terms of “tricks, turns and tropes of poetic language,” which he delights in tossing up and playing with—e.g., Shakespearean influences and great American tropes such as the white blankness of Ahab’s whale. Yet as gossamer as Bloom’s pearls of literary wisdom are, his personal digressions seem most true, striking, and poignant. He characterizes himself as the “Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarian” who arrived at Yale at age 21 and was not made to feel welcome. He brought with him a boundless enthusiasm for Hart Crane and uneasiness with the “genteel anti-Semitism” of T.S. Eliot (one of Bloom’s “Greats,” but grudgingly so).
As always, Bloom conveys the intimate, urgent, compelling sense of why it matters that we read these canonical authors.
A frank memoir of Spender’s problematic poet father and his emotionally remote pianist mother.
Growing up among a generation of brilliant, creative British men who had to overcome enormous obstacles to their embrace of homosexuality left poet Stephen Spender’s only son, sculptor and writer Matthew, with both a deep reverence for the creative act and a nose for self-deception. When his mother, Natasha Litvin, died in 2010 at the house in St. John’s Wood where she had lived for nearly 70 years, the author recognized that he felt angrily ambivalent about his mother, who accused him of not properly guarding the rather romantic legacy of his father, who died in 1995. In his tremendously honest memoir, Spender explores his mother’s absurd attempts to keep up appearances whiles her husband’s work was devoted to truth, both in word and in politics, into which he plunged with his magazine Encounter. Spender traces the early life and career of his father and his important friendships with W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, who all influenced each other. Dallying with communism briefly and between romances with men and an early marriage, the poet married the classically trained Natasha in 1941. A pianist “who lived on her nerves," according to her son, she was continually devastated by her husband’s dalliances with men, which began to dawn on the son when he read his father’s autobiography. Gaps and silences pervaded the household, especially when his mother took off to care for Raymond Chandler in Palm Springs and his father took up with a young Reynolds Price. In the latter part of this touching memoir, the author looks at his father’s political naiveté over the CIA’s bankrolling of Encounter and his own youthful romance with Maro Gorky, whose elusive father would become the subject of his first book, From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky (1999).
A pointed family memoir from a writer keenly attuned to and reverent of genius.
Acclaimed scholar and biographer Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, 2013, etc.) brings decades of study to this analysis of William Blake’s art, poetry, religion, and philosophy.
Those with little experience with the 18th-century poet will probably benefit the most from this fascinating work. As the author writes, Blake’s poems are undeniably strange, and his genius has always challenged the focus of his readers (he was overlooked during his lifetime). Especially difficult is tracing the complications of the unpublished poem “The Four Zoas” and their feminine emanations. Blake’s outlooks on the divine, which is contained in all nature, and institutional religion, which he loathed, show in his invented symbols and unique myths. He sought the incarnation of the divine spirit of the human in the everyday, and he looked at conventional marriage as institutionalized prostitution and conventional religion as theatrical performance. In “London,” nothing is sacred as Blake indicts church, law, monarchy, property, and marriage. He produced his own engravings and writings, and those who bought them tended to ignore the text. The author’s study of the man and clear style make this much easier to read and tempt readers to seek out more. Blake was a complicated man, given to visions and paranoia, and he often heard voices, and Damrosch guides us through the paths of Blake’s mind to ease our journey. Blake’s poems and art were used to challenge and inspire, never to preach, and his first works had a social message. His long prophecies were not epics, however; a better analogy is music, as they resembled oratorios with key changes and tempo contrasts. Damrosch expertly navigates Blake’s “question imagination,” which “has never ceased to startle and inspire.”
General readers looking for a challenge will love this book and will dive into Blake’s work. Many will find him just too far off the beam, but they, too, will enjoy the many color illustrations included in the text.