Ultimately Fiction: Design in Modern American Literary Biography

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Purdue University Press


During the past twenty-five years, a tremendous boom has occurred in the publishing of biographies, especially literary biographies-that is, lives of creative writers. Yet, according to this critical study, literary biographers have most often focused their efforts merely upon presenting historical facts while being generally unaware of artistic possibilities in the subgenre. Criticism of biography frequently quotes Desmond MacCarthy's dictum that the biographer is "an artist who is on oath." Undoubtedly, every biographer must be "on oath" not to deny or change the "truth" of historical facts. But the literary biographer who aspires to be an "artist" must include in his or her biographical design aesthetic truth as well. And good biography, like good fiction, is shaped by that individual point of view which alone may make it art. Through an analysis of Steven Millhauser's satiric novel/biography, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, Jeffrey Cartwright, Petrie outlines a technique fo judging specifically literary biographies as aesthetic objects-works revealing purpose, structure, and style. He then applies this technique in extensive discussions of three types of literary biography; illustrated here primarily by works about four modern American novelists; Joseph Blotner's Faulkner, Andrew Turnbull's Scott Fitzerald, W. A. Swanberg's Dreiser, and Leon Edel's Henry James.