Biography

A University of Toronto Ph.D, Rollyson has published more than forty books ranging in subject matter from biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, Jill Craigie, Dana Andrews, Sylvia Plath, Amy Lowell, and Walter Brennan to studies of American culture, genealogy, children’s biography, film, and literary criticism. He has authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. His work has been reviewed in newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Sunday Telegraph, TLS and in journals such as American Literature and the Dictionary of Literary Biography. For four years (2003-2007) he wrote a weekly column, "On Biography," for The New York Sun and was President of the Rebecca West Society (2003-2007). His play, That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers, has been produced at Theatresource in New York City. His play, A Real American Character premiered at the Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon on September 16, 2016. Rollyson's biography of Amy Lowell was awarded a "We the People" NEH grant. His reviews of biography have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Raleigh News & Observer, The Kansas City Star, The Barnes & Noble Review, The University Bookman and The New Criterion. His column, "Biographology," appeared in bibliobuffet.com. He is currently advisory editor for the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. He welcomes queries from those interested in contributing to the series. He is working on This Alarming Paradox: A Life of William Faulkner

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

"Carl Rollyson is the nation's preeminent scholar on the history and theory of biography, in addition to being an acclaimed biographer."--Bob Batchelor, author of Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel

"Carl Rollyson knows more about biographies than anyone else in the world. His independent mind, his experience, and his voracious reading have equipped him to produce amazing insights into the reading -- and writing -- of biographies.
--Ann Waldron, author of Eudora: A Writer’s Life and Close Connections: Caroline Gordon and the Southern Literary Renaissance

"Carl Rollyson is to biography what Boswell was to Johnson: indispensable. An excellent biographer himself, Rollyson is also the finest critic of the art as well as a thoroughly delightful guide to the pleasures of reading biography and the perils of writing it."
--Patricia O’Toole, author of The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends and When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt after the White House

"With his high-powered and perceptive page-turners on Lillian Hellman, Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn and Susan Sontag, Carl Rollyson has shown himself to be amongst the very first rank of contemporary biographical practitioners.
--Roger Lewis, author of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (book and Emmy and Golden Globe Award Winning HBO movie), The Real Life of Laurence Olivier, and Anthony Burgess

"For anyone mad enough to write a biography, this witty, definitive book [Biography: A User's Guide] is absolutely essential reading. For anyone who merely loves reading biography, it’s a smashing insider’s guide. Mr. Rollyson is informed and passionate and fun about a subject he knows intimately. He’s also unafraid to let his personal opinions show, thank goodness. In short, he’s written a wonderfully entertaining biography about the art of biography."
--John Heilpern, New York Observer


AUTHOR'S ALBUM


Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress
Lillian Hellman: Her Life and Legend
Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn
Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic
Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl
Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon

To Be A Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews
Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography
A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan
A Private Life of Michael Foot

How my writing about biographers and biography stacks up
Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries
Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag
American Biography
Biography: A User's Guide
A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography
Essays in Biography
Lives of the Novelists

My two subjects together: Jill Craigie and Michael Foot. After writing about Jill in Tjo Be a Woman, I turned to Michael in A Private Life of Michael Foot.

Michael Foot campaigning against Margaret Thatcher, accompanied by his dog, Dizzy (named after Disraeli).
You will get the full story in A Private Life of Michael Foot forthcoming from Plymouth University Press in August, 2015

My office desk
Some of my book jackets. Dana Andrews met Marilyn Monroe and Norman Mailer (to his regret) did not.

They have just erected a memorial in Michael Foot's home town, Plymouth.

My Marilyn Wall
My wife did the needlepoint pillow. Also featured are the book jackets of my Jill Craigie and Rebecca West biographies.

Caricature in Gay & Lesbian Review of Amy Lowell Anew

A shelf of my Amy Lowell books, including her biography of John Keats. There is also a Sappho on the shelf because without Sappho there would be no Amy Lowell. I also have next to Lowell's books, Samuel Richardson's novels, Pamela and because Lowell loved 18th century novels. She was also a big fan of the novelist Dorothy Richardson and of one of my other subjects, Rebecca West.

Moon Pies: One of Amy Lowell's favorite desserts, served to me at the Massachusetts Historical Society, where I gave a talk about my biography and Lowell's letters about her lover, Elizabeth Seccombe. Their letters can be found in the Robert Grovsnor Valentine Papers.

The gravestone of Elizabeth Seccombe, Amy Lowell's lover who died on the Lusitania

Sylvia Plath's house in Wellesley, where she grew up.

Court Green, the home of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Norman Rockwell's portrait of Walter Brennan

Where Walter Brennan grew up. I took this picture of the town sign while doing research for a biography of this great actor.

Taken at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, where I was doing work in the papers of Walter Brennan.

Inside is the Margaret Herrick Library, where I did research for biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Dana Andrews, and Walter Brennan.

Taken at the Faulkner Exhibition, University of Virginia

The preface to my forthcoming biography: This Alarming Paradox: The Life of William Faulkner

Why read another biography of William Faulkner? The usual answer is new facts, new interpretations. Fair enough, and true in this case, I believe. But beyond this rationale is my desire to write a new Faulkner biography in the light and dark of previous narratives of his life. Too often his biographers have remained silent on what they do not know and have taken refuge in what "must have been," but what they cannot, in fact, document. As in a Faulkner novel, it is important to preserve the mysteries and not to pretend to know what is not or cannot be known, although like his characters I speculate, submitting questions that perhaps others will be able to answer or clarify. I have reacted to other accounts of his life—sometimes in my narrative, sometimes in my notes because I believe one biography is always the answer to another biography. I have written a book that builds on but also reveals those interstices that biographies seek to elide so as to ignore the gaps in the evidence. Those gaps often tell us as much about Faulkner as what can be sourced. In some cases, I have explored the backgrounds of minor figures in Faulkner’s life who nevertheless influenced his way of thinking or reveal sides of the man otherwise ignored in previous biographies.

Like my predecessors, I owe an enormous debt to Joseph Blotner. Some paragraphs of this biography would need a note to Blotner for nearly every sentence, and that would be tedious and counterproductive. So I have not notated facts and details derived from Blotner’s two volume and one volume biographies, but in many cases I have cited his papers, when I can access the raw data that he later transformed on the printed page. Of almost equal importance is Carvel Collins, whose immense collection at the University of Texas, is a treasure of primary sources, including interviews with many people who had passed away by the time Blotner began his work. In other cases, the Collins interviews are one more corroboration of Blotner and add a good deal of texture to this biography. Collins was unusual in many respects. Unlike many academic biographers of his era, which began in the late 1940s, he collected everything, not just what pertained to the writer's work. He wanted to speak with the notable figures in Faulkner's life but also with the staff at the Algonquin Hotel and with anyone, really, who had contact with his subject. In that respect, Collins is superior to Blotner, especially for a biographer who values the minute details that help to reveal Faulkner the man as well as the writer. As with Blotner, I cite Collins in my notes only when my reliance on his work is not mentioned in my narrative.

As for the other biographers, they all have their uses. No one wishing to understand Faulkner's Southern background should shun Joel Williamson. For acute psychological analysis, Fred Karl is the go-to biographer. Judith Sensibar often rectifies the male-centric narratives that preceded hers. No one writes more incisively about Faulkner than Philip Weinstein. In smaller measure, I have profited from my reading of biographies by Judith Wittenberg, David Minter, and Jay Parini. Of necessity, what I write overlaps with previous books, but no one, except a lazy reviewer, could not see how my arrangement of events and discussion of Faulkner's work differs from previous narratives. To do complete justice to this biography, you would need to place it page by page against the others, and who has time for that?

I began my work on Faulkner as an undergraduate, inspired by M. Thomas Inge, who taught me at Michigan State University, and then I continued my studies with Michael Millgate at the University of Toronto, where I produced a dissertation and my first book, Uses of the Past in the Novels of William Faulkner. The debt I owe to these fine scholars is immeasurable, and their continued interest in my career has been a boon. I owe many other debts to Faulkner critics, which I have acknowledged in my narrative and notes.

I abjure one primary function of the literary critic. I refrain, in most cases, from dwelling on the flaws in Faulkner's work, except in so far as contemporary reviews rendered such judgments, thus providing a view of his evolving reputation. Faulkner biographers and critics have assessed his strengths and weaknesses, but my main concern is to understand how his work functions and to explain how his life and work can be coordinated in narrative terms. I don't believe at this advanced stage in the work on William Faulkner's life and career, readers need my opinion, except to state the obvious: I believe he is a great writer, and that all of his work fascinates me and has done so for more than fifty years. Similarly, I have not tried to trace in detail Faulkner's process of composition, even though Michael Millgate and many other scholars have shown how studying various drafts of his work enriches our understanding of his genius. To replicate their work, or even to add to it, would make this long biography even longer and truly test the patience of even the most dedicated Faulkner reader. Nevertheless, I have included crucial details about Faulkner’s working methods and drafts, relying, in the main, on the Digital Yoknapatawpha site: http:/​/​faulkner.iath.virginia.edu/​

That Faulkner was a paradox, and one that should not be too easily explained, is the point of this biography. Or to put it another way: Everything you think you know about William Faulkner is probably true, and everything you think you know is also false. A fine biographer, James Atlas, has been told that this may be true of any one. Perhaps so. But with Faulkner it seems more so