Saturday, March 24, 2007

Writing Lives: Principia Biographica by Leon Edel

I continue my study of biography as a literary form with Writing Lives: Principia Biographica by Leon Edel (1907-1997). Edel is most know for his five volume biography of Henry James and his editing of collections of that author's letters, plays, and stories. Edel also wrote frequently on the topic of biography, and this book is an expansion and revision of two of his previous books. The focus of Writing Lives is the act of writing biography about writers, so the title has a sort of double meaning.

What most readers will enjoy in Edel's book are his stories about the biographers. He has sections on Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Izaak Walton, Andre Maurois, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicolson, most of whom are also discussed in The Nature of Biography by Robert Gittings; these writers seem to be considered the key figures in the development of the literary form. Edel tells about their contributions and their shortcomings, cautioning that it is not always fair to judge them from a more modern standpoint.

There are many interesting anecdotes.

Boswell was very disappointed that Johnson signed a contract to write Lives of the Poets that stipulated that the author would include figures dictated by the publisher. Boswell believed in writing only about subjects that he admired. Johnson was more mercenary yet still maintained independence in what he wrote about the designated subjects.

Lytton Strachey urged biographers to be brief in their prose, writing "into a few shining pages the manifold existences of men." He told writers to illustrate and not to explain lives. Edel points out that while Strachey helped make biography more interesting to read, he was also very guilty of fabricating unknown thoughts and feelings for his subjects.

For the professional Edel discusses the form of the biography, stating that there are three main types:

1. the traditional documentary biography, also called a chronicle,
2. the portrait or pictorial, and
3. the omniscient narrator biography, also called the novelistic biography.

Edel favors the second type, which sketches out the character of the subject through key incidents and does not try to be exhaustive like the first type. He indicates that the third type often skates on ethical ice.

Edel warns biographers that it is usually dull for readers to find accounts of the biographical research in the biographies. (I would disagree, but I am a librarian who enjoys the paper chase.) He suggests that if they must tell stories about their work, they should save them for their own memoirs. There is a memoir aspect to Writing Lives. Edel ends the book with a 32 page story about his writing the famous series on Henry James.

Worldcat shows 666 copies of the book still available in libraries. Writers, librarians, and readers serious about literature will enjoy it.

Edel, Leon. Writing Lives: Principia Biographica. New York: Norton, 1984. ISBN 0393018822

No comments: