A few days after I published my blog, The Intentional Fallacy, (blog 8/8/14), a friend sent me a page from the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review. (July 29, pg. 31.) It contained two articles, one by Thomas Mallon and the other by Adam Kirsch, each taking different views on the same question: Does knowing about the personal life of an author help interpret his or her work? Mallon took the view that biography was irrelevant. Kirsch thought it gave readers insights, not for the purpose of gossip, but to reveal themes that may dominate an author’s work.
“Good Heavens!” I cried after reading Kirsch’s remarks. If biography isn’t about gossip then why did I drag myself through Samuel Pepys’ Diary in college? Without the promise of gossip, what red blooded 19 year-old would choose to pour over 17 century scribblings rather than sip lattes in the school coffee shop with some gorgeous, moody poetry major?
Gossip notwithstanding, I’m afraid Mallon has it right. Literary biography has little value when coming to grips with art. What’s more, I give him credit for raising a point which had escaped me: that literary biography may soon be as dead as boom boxes. The reason? Because manuscripts are no longer written in longhand or typed with multiple carbon paper copies, for the most part. Today, the click of a mouse erases any record of previous versions of a work. Gone, too, are the notes and scraps of paper a biographer used to sift through in the hope capturing a glimpse of the genius behind the art. Unfortunately, Hemingway didn’t write with a computer. Otherwise, we might have been spared an entire library dedicated to his banal notes which included instructions to his cook about the contents of his salad. (Blog 10/11/ 2011)
As Mallon suggests, most writers lead plain lives. Most days, you’ll find them sitting at their desks, working their craft. Their adventures lie not in their biographies but in their heads. As a writer, I know I make a dull friend and admit to loathing most social engagements. What I like to do is write and after that I read. “That is all ye know of me on earth and all ye need to know.”