Ever since James Boswell jotted down the table talk of his idol, the great 18th-century author and talker Samuel Johnson, readers have been almost as fascinated by what writers say and do as by what they write. And while few biographers have ever surpassed Boswell’s immortal The Life of Samuel Johnson, literary biography has become a bestselling form of literature. It has offered judicious insights into the workings of great minds and salacious peeks into their private lives — from Samuel Coleridge’s drug habit to Ernest Hemingway’s quirky sex life. It has ruined some reputations and restored others. But one fact consistently emerges: writers are a highly individualistic lot, as original in their lives as they are on paper. A rich selection of recently published literary biographies bears that out— and yields some insights into the secrets of literary creativity.
One of the most troubled and fascinating literary figures was Leo Tolstoy, born in 1828 in Yasnaya Polyana in Russia. Most biographers have tended to approach the author of War and Peace almost worshipfully. But British novelist A. N. Wilson has written an irreverent and lively study, Tolstoy (Penguin, $35). Wilson traces Tolstoy’s life, from the debauchery of his youth —he traumatized his future wife Sofya Bers by revealing those details just before the wedding—to his final rejection of literature in favor of vegetarianism and pacifism.
Wilson argues that Tolstoy, traditionally viewed as a deeply genuine and truth-loving man, often evaded the meaning of his own more painful experiences—while turning them into art. But after the 1877 publication of his novel Anna Karenina, Tolstoy turned himself into a self-styled holy man, practising his homespun Christianity. In doing so, Wilson argues, he made “a fictitious character out of himself . . . wearing malodorous clothes and thinking peaceable thoughts.” That kind of portrayal makes for one of the most gripping biographies of the year.
The passion and tragedy of American modernist poet Ezra Pound is the focus of a thorough study, A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin, $60) by English biographer Humphrey Carpenter. Born in Idaho in 1885, Pound spent most of his life
in Europe, where he was an invaluable friend and editor to such great figures of 20th-century literature as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Like many writers, Carpenter says, Pound was an egotist who hated to be upstaged. He retells the story of a 1914 London dinner party during which Pound, impatient with Yeats’s mono-
logue, plucked tulips from the table’s centrepiece and ate them.
During the Second World War, Pound, author of The Cantos, made pro-Fascist radio broadcasts from Italy—an act that later resulted in treason charges in the United States. He only escaped the death penalty by pleading insanity—and spending 12 years in a mental hospital in Washington, D.C.
He eventually returned to Italy and died in Venice in 1972. Although Carpenter recounts Pound’s fascinating life in great detail, his lack of style and dramatic flair mars his tale.
More successful in capturing a controversial literary life is Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy (McClelland and Stewart, $34.95), Carl Rollyson’s biography of the famous American playwright. “To read Heilman, even to read about her, is to start an argument,” writes Rollyson. “She did not believe in balance.” Born in 1905 in New Orleans, Heilman made her mark on Broadway with The Children’s Hour, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine. Her plays, mostly written in the 1930s and 1940s, mixed social and political commentary with melodrama, and she came to be regarded as the social conscience of American theatre.
In later decades, Heilman’s personal life and left-wing politics provoked controversy. To many, she was the high-society radical and the compulsive seductress who had many sexual liaisons —despite a 30-year affair with novelist Dashiell Hammett.
Rollyson shares the view of some critics ö that Heilman’s mem| oirs — An Unfinished 3 Woman, Pentimento and Scoundrel Time, published two decades ago—contained a self-aggrandizing mix of invention and distortion. According to her detractors, she portrayed herself, and an unidentified woman named Julia, as Nazi freedom fighters. They said she exaggerated her heroics during her 1952 appearance before U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation into Communist activities.
Heilman’s accuracy would not have mattered so much, Rollyson writes, if through her plays and public life she “had not made truth her province.’’ Rollyson, a professor of art at Baruch College
in New York City, has produced an exhaustive study, but Heilman — angry, brilliant, manipulative and always passionate —remains enigmatic.
As the 79-year-old Heilman lay dying in 1984, Rollyson reports, friends could still rouse her to wakefulness — and fury—by saying the name “Mary McCarthy.” The two writers became ensnared in a vindictive libel suit prompted by a remark that McCarthy made on a 1980 TV talk show. McCarthy, the author of more than 20 books, including How I Grew and The
Group, said that Heilman was “a bad writer and a dishonest writer. Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” As Carol Gelderman recounts in her intriguing biography Mary McCarthy: A Life (McClelland and Stewart, $34.95), it was not the first time the novelist-critic found herself under fire for her outspokenness.
Gelderman tracks the prolific McCarthy’s 55-year writing career and the development of her reputation for what one reviewer called “bracing opinions tartly expressed.” As a
fiction writer, essayist and critic, McCarthy, who now lives in Paris, has written on everything from Gothic architecture and lesbian night life in Greenwich Village to French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the immorality of U.S. military action in Vietnam.
Gelderman sympathetically explores her subject’s turbulent personal life. Born in 1912 in Seattle, Wash., and orphaned at 6, McCarthy spent a miserable childhood with relatives. Married four times, she was involved in numerous affairs and underwent several abortions. But Gelderman also reports her own and others’ criticism of the ruthless “literary duellist.” Although Heilman’s $2.2-million suit ended with her death, McCarthy would not soften her position. “I didn’t want her to die,” she told Gelderman, “I wanted her [to be around] to lose in court.” Mary McCarthy reveals the roots and the cost of that uncompromising stance and the surprisingly warm woman who maintains it.
While McCarthy managed to preserve a private self despite her public battles, writer Truman Capote seemed determined to put himself almost totally on display. The diminutive author of Other Voices, Other Rooms, In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a famous and infamous socialite. Talented, but obsessed with drugs, alcohol and his homosexuality, Capote first attracted the New York City show-business community with his sycophantic behavior. But by the time he died of alcohol and drug abuse in 1984, he was almost friendless.
In his penetrating study, Capote: A Biography (General, $33.95), Gerald Clarke, a former senior writer at Time magazine, outlines how the author, born in New Orleans in 1924, suffered from an unstable family life—his parents abandoned him to the care of his eccentric aunts. “Something in my life has done a terrible hurt to me,” he once wrote. He seemed to be always racked by inner pain, whether he was engaged in horseplay with Humphrey Bogart or savagely mocking members of America’s high society, many of whom considered him a friend—as he did with his 1975 article, La Cote Basque.
Clark has produced a well-written, authentic portrayal of a man who was part genius, part isolated clown. And he has added an enduring volume to that branch of biography where life and art meet.
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