On the Uses of Biography: A Note
David Lehman wrote the following statement in May 1998, at the request of the Bennington MFA program's alumni newsletter.
There is a large biographical component—perhaps it is the central component—in two of my books, Signs of the Times (1991) and my forthcoming The Last Avant-Garde (Doubleday, October 1998). Signs of the Times addressed the academic phenomenon known as deconstruction and the major scandal that ensued when it was posthumously revealed that deconstruction's leading American exponent, Paul de Man, had been a Nazi sympathizer as a young man in his native Belgium but had conveniently forgotten about this during the years of his American eminence. (He was the most influential professor of the world's most influential English department, Yale's, during the 1970s and early 1980s.) Here was an extraordinary instance of the intersection of intellectual history and biography. I felt I could best present deconstruction, in a way that would render it intelligible to a general reader, by drawing upon the particular case of de Man. And the converse was true as well: de Man's decisions, explained in the context of European history, shed quite a bit of light on theories that many had found forbidding to the point of utter intimidation.
Again in my new book, The Last Avant-Garde, I found it exciting and inspiring to combine biography with other disciplines, other goals: cultural history, the history of ideas, and literary analysis. The book is about the New York School of poets and in particular the movement's four founding figures: John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and James Schuyler. There are chapters on each of them as individuals, since of course each differs from each of the others; there are also chapters in which they are considered as a coherent and cohesive group. I want to convey something of what it was like to be young and brilliant and ambitious in New York City in the postwar era. I want to convey something of the glamour that adhered to the very notion of the avant-garde even as I ground that term in its historical context and make conjectures about its future. The city of New York is, in a way, a character in the book, and so are the painters with whom the poets collaborated at that exhilarating moment when New York supplanted Paris as the world capital of modern art.
It seems to me that the biography of a great poet or a controversial thinker, in addition to being intrinsically interesting, can help illuminate a specific text, a current of thought, or a cultural phenomenon—in some cases, all three. The use of biography has what you might call a functional advantage: the strong narrative drive that comes with the turf helps sustain the reader's attention. In American unviersities, biography as a tool of literary criticism has been out of favor for about sixty years, which may make me something of a maverick. But books as different from one another as Lionel Trilling's study of Matthew Arnold (1939) and Janet Malcolm's book on the Sylvia Plath biography industry (1994) show several imaginative ways of combining biography with the study of literature and ideas.