In The New York Sun, Carl Rollyson reviews Nigel Hamilton's new book, Biography: A History, and quotes Mr. Hamilton about the lack of any study of the form, despite its long existence and recent popularity: "So why is there 'no single, accessible introduction to the subject, either for the general reader or the specialist?' Mr. Hamilton asks."

My first response was, well, then what in the world was Leon Edel's Literary Biography from 1957? Admittedly, it's a series of lectures. But if nothing else, it's a detailed look into the ways Edel himself (in photo) thought and worked -- no small insight into the field, obviously, considering Edel's landmark biography of Henry James. Edel devotes an entire chapter just to the influence of psychoanalysis on modern biography. The book was also partly cannibalized for Edel's later masterful collection-cum-manifesto, Writing Lives: Principio Biographica.

But then I went out and got a copy of Mr. Hamilton's book. The two words missing from the quotation -- "in print" -- there are no such studies "in print." Ah well, true. Upon further delving into Biography, however, I was surprised that although Mr. Hamilton can certainly make the point that such books are currently lacking, you'd think he'd still reference them. He never mentions the Edel or Catherine Parke's Biography: Writing Lives. Or Michael Holroyd's Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography Writing. There's also much to learn about biography-making from Richard Holmes Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer.

Surely, Mr. Hamilton didn't overlook all of these books. But not a single one is indexed and I can find no citation as I go through the book. And one might think Mr. Rollyson might bring up this odd oversight in his review -- after all, he wrote American Biography and A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography --both of which are also never mentioned, it appears.

I'm not even particuarly well versed in the art of biography, but I've read several of these and it took me all of 15 minutes to look up the others.

[I posted an early version of this as a comment on the Critical Mass website.]

March 17, 2007 5:16 PM |



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