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This article is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

Literary Biography James Atlas

[James Atlas has recently completed a biography of Delmore Schwartz. In this essay, originally published in a longer form in The American Scholar in 1976, he considers the nature of the genre: literary biography.]

No BIOGRAPHER who reads Henry James's tale The Aspern Papers can ever feel quite the same about the moral nature of biography. That bizarre, uncanny fable, designed to fill prospective biographers with shame, remains a parable of the desire to become omniscient which is an affliction of their trade. James's unnamed narrator, having moved into the desolate Venetian palazzo of an elderly woman who had once been the lover of a famous poet, will stop at nothing to obtain the papers in her possession; and when she surprises him in the act of opening a desk where he supposes them to be hidden, and denounces him as a 'publishing scoundrel', all biographers must feel themselves accused.

Nor is this the only uneasiness biographers have to suffer. Their craft has never been securely established as a literary genre-except in rare instances, most notably Boswell's Life of Johnson or Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians. So uncertain is the state of biography that several of its most distinguished practitioners have lately felt called upon to publish theoretical discussions of their work ; and those who haven't can usually be found commenting on their difficulties within the text of their biographies. If there is a common theme in Leon Edel's Literary Biography, Richard Ellmann's Golden Codgers ...


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