AUTHORS' LIVES: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language by Park Honan

AUTHORS' LIVES: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language

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KIRKUS REVIEW

From the author of Matthew Arnold (1981) and Jane Austen (1988), 21 illuminating essays on the art and craft of biography. With insight, candor, and lucid scholarship, Honan (English/Univ. of Leeds) deals with the major challenges awaiting the prospective biographer: the right and wrong way of researching the subject, for example, or the crucial differences between merely knowing your prey and applying the psychological fine-tuning necessary to bring him or her to life. Although Honan argues that a writer may be ""too objective"" in his pursuit of, say, Jane Austen, contrarily, Honan asserts, writing emotively goes too far in the opposite direction. What is needed is a ""fine accuracy"" because ""we tend to crush out lives as we write about them."" Honan is as equally sensible and scrupulous when he warns against the current and popularized rush of ""quick and superficial"" biographies. He uses as his own inspiration the example of Richard Ellmann, the author of major biographies of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde. Noting that this writer never ""Freudianized"" his subjects nor ""emotionally patronized"" them (he has in mind Leon Edel's voluminous life of Henry James), Honan shows how Ellmann instead accounted for Joyce's and Wilde's emotional growth and psychological change by turning each life into a flexible narrative, into a ""biographical story."" Honan ends his book with a rousing and speculative chapter on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, feeling quite tenderhearted about them because they helped to break the ""retrospective mold"" by which the past was judged. Their genius, he says, was to see that the recent past at least could be re-created in shifting moods and immediate sensations: ""The Beats have brought literature closer to the texture of life, and their influence has not ended."" A superbly written intellectual treat, to be consumed with quick delight by any avid reader of biography.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1990
Publisher: St. Martin's