A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography

"We used to canonize our heroes," Oscar Wilde wrote. "The modern method is to vulgarize them. Cheap editions of great books may be delightful, but cheap editions of great men are absolutely detestable." Since Wilde's condemnation of modern biography, the genre would appear to have accelerated its descent into bad taste. As Carl Rollyson points out, writers as various as Rebecca West, Ted Hughes, and Joyce Carol Oates have deplored biographers' tendency to cut up lives and render the bloody data so as to make their subjects seem unhealthy, unwholesome, and unsound. Janet Malcolm has compared biographers to burglars; modern novels feature the biographer as grave robber and victimizer. Exactly when did biography take this turn for the worse? Inquiring into the history of the art, and examining his own practices as well as those of biographers from Samuel Johnson to Richard Ellmann, Jeffrey Meyers, and many others, Mr. Rollyson casts considerable doubt on the indictments handed down by Oates, Malcolm and Co. By its very nature, Mr. Rollyson argues, biography is a problematic and controversial genre. That contemporary critics believe it has gone astray only reveals their ignorance of history and their hostility to the biographical enterprise itself—an animosity born of a misguided modernism and a rejection of Enlightenment values. A Higher Form of Cannibalism? explores the nexus between scholarship and biography, and demonstrates how the similarities of method between Leon Edel and Kitty Kelley outweigh the differences. Viewed through the prism of biography, the scholarly and the popular may not be as clearly separated as people suppose.

A candid and revealing account, by an expert in the minefield of the biographer’s contentious work. I’ve been writing lives for thirty years and learned a lot from it.-- Jeffrey Meyers, author of biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, and many others.

Carl Rollyson is not only the author of several accomplished biographies of major American cultural figures, he is also a discerning critic of the art of life writing. These witty and wise essays help explain some of the reasons we find biographies such compelling and engaging reading, especially in the area of conflict between the interests of the biographer and the rights of the resistant subject. Boswell would be delighted.-- M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell Professor of Humanities, Randolph Macon College

A first rate and successful biographer himself, Carl Rollyson here takes us along on an audacious and daring tour...of the art and craft of biography, past and present (and always bravely personal).... Bright, witty, persuasive, this is a book worthy of our best attention.-- George Garrett, renowned novelist, poet, and critic

Speaking as a biographer, I wish Carl Rollyson had shown a touch more restraint when exposing certain details about our profession. But as a reader… Oh, dear, I must confess to lapping up every single one of his stories and wanting more. ...A witty, informative, and hugely entertaining book that is chock-full of food for thought, especially if one happens to be a biographer.-- Marion Meade, author of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? and Lonely Hearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

This book does an excellent job of illuminating the process and criticism of this popular form of writing.
-- (Peter Terry Foreword Reviews

Carl Rollyson...is in the perfect position to provide an insider's perspective on the subject he knows best.
-- (Bookwatch

The greatest virtue of A Higher Form of Cannibalism...is in its honesty.-- Martin Simpson Salem Press Online

Rollyson’s discussion of writing and evaluating biography is revealing and stimulating, making this a good read.-- J.J. Benardete, New School University, CHOICE

The book is so uninhibited...that most readers will find plenty to...admire. -- Mark A. Heberle Claremont Review Of Books