Sylvia Plath letter to Gordon Lameyer, November 6, 1954:
"I feel damn lovable and good and scrubbed and my hair is washed and soft and my mouth is red and I am in my rough old Navy sweater and suave oxford gray Bermuda and knee socks and oh how agreeable I am but I need fifty blazing brutes to tell me so and how drastically I need to be appreciated…"
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Emily Dickinson exemplified the virtue of self-discipline. She wrote poetry largely for her own pleasure and to exercise and increase her creative talents. She met no publishing deadlines. She did not write for a patron who sponsored her creative efforts. She did not expect the world to acknowledge her poetry as soon as it was written. Yet now she is considered one of the greatest poets ever to have written in the English language. She valued the labor and the results of a job well done. Emily Dickinson is a model not only for writers, but for anyone who wishes calmly and determinedly to pursue a goal, even without the prospect of an immediate reward.
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Confessions of a Serial Biographer
My 35 years as a biographer in one book
A Private Life of Michael Foot
A Private Life of Michael Footadopts a no holds barred approach to biography, leaving a political figure stripped bare, and revealing a deeply complex, introverted man for all to see.
A Real American Character: The Life of Walter Brennan
The first biography of the prodigiously hard-working actor who embodied the Western ideal
Walter Brennan (1894–1974) was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. He won three Academy Awards and became a national icon starring as Grandpa in The Real McCoys. He appeared in over two hundred motion pictures and became the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, which celebrated the actor’s unique role as the voice of the American Western. His life journey from Swampscott, Massachusetts, to Hollywood, to a twelve-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Joseph, Oregon, is one of the great American stories.
Marilyn Monroe: Day by Day
A documentary approach to the life and legend. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies.
Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography
A riveting examination of Amy Lowell’s private life and lover, Ada Russell, who did so much to make Lowell’s career possible
The startling discovery of a new Amy Lowell lover who perished on the Lusitania. A compelling window into Lowell’s gregarious character. Concise readings of Lowell’s most important poems reveal the depth and range of her erotic imagination. An astute analysis of the way biographers and critics have maligned Lowell as a person and poet.
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Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries
An alternative title for this volume might be “Justice to Amy Lowell.” Although she has been the subject of several biographies, her image and reputation seemed fixed in the biographies and memoirs of others. As a result, Lowell appears almost exclusively through the perceptions of her male biographers and their subjects. A tempting target—as I explain in “The Absence of Amy Lowell”--she is often skewered, or at the very least distorted by insensitive writers who never seem to pause and question the stories about her. In this series of essays, beginning with a look at how her own biographers have behaved, I have tried to re-conceive the familiar anecdotes and episodes, circling back again and again to certain incidents and contretemps, as the point of view shifts from one writer to another. As a kind of coda to my quarrel with biographers is an essay, “Remembering Amy Lowell,” in which I assess the varying degrees to which the memoirs of her present a credible person and poet. I have not paused to define in any great detail terms such as Imagism, although I’ve included an essay on the Imagists in an appendix as well as the full texts of the poems discussed in this book. These appendices provide a context for the discussion of Lowell and her contemporaries and serve, I hope, as an inviting introduction to her work.
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews
A biography of the great film noir actor
Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews
A biography of the great noir actor who perfected the male mask of steely impassivity
Dana Andrews (1909–1992) worked with distinguished directors such as John Ford, Lewis Milestone, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, William A. Wellman, Mervyn Le Roy, Jean Renoir, and Elia Kazan. He played romantic leads alongside the great beauties of the modern screen, including Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson, Merle Oberon, Linda Darnell, Susan Hayward, Maureen O’Hara, and most important of all, Gene Tierney, with whom he shared five films. Retrospectives of his work often elicit high praise for an underrated actor, a master of the minimalist style. His image personified the “male mask” of the 1940s in classic films such as Laura, Fallen Angel, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, in which he played the “masculine ideal of steely impassivity.” No comprehensive discussion of film noir can neglect his performances. He was an “actor’s actor.”
Here at last is the complete story of a great actor, his difficult struggle to overcome alcoholism while enjoying the accolades of his contemporaries, a successful term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the love of family and friends that never deserted him. Based on diaries, letters, home movies, and other documents, this biography explores the mystery of a poor boy from Texas who made his Hollywood dream come true even as he sought a life apart from the limelight and the backbiting of contemporaries jockeying for prizes and prestige. Called “one of nature’s noblemen” by his fellow actor Norman Lloyd, Dana Andrews emerges from Hollywood Enigma as an admirable American success story, fighting his inner demons and ultimately winning.
American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath
Here, at last, is the true story of Sylvia Plath's last days and her estate's efforts to shape her husband's role in her death and the world's understanding of Plath and her work. Here, too, is a new Sylvia Plath, immersed in popular culture and proto-feminism, presaging the way we live now.
I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life.
Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress
In American popular culture Marilyn Monroe has evolved in stature from Hollywood sex symbol to tragic legend. Most books about Monroe stress the sensational events that surrounded her-this book is the first to deal honestly and critically with Monroe as an actress, evaluating her moves as crucial forces in the shaping of her identity. Through careful examination of her performances, from her small appearances in The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve to her memorable roles in Bus Stop, Some Like It Hot, and the The Misfits, the author traces her development from cover girl innocent to an actress devoted to her craft. Based on extensive interviews with many of Monroe's colleagues, close friends, and mentors, this comprehensive, critically balanced study describes her use of Method acting as well as her instruction with Michael Chekhov and, later, the Strasbergs. Carl Rollyson has written a refreshing analysis and appreciation of Marilyn Monroe's enduring and, until now, underestimated gifts as a creative artist.
Lillian Hellman: Her Life and Legend
Through diaries, letters, government files, and interviews Carl Rollyson draws a vital and vibrant portrait of the life, the work, and the legend of Lillian Hellman, America's most controversial radical playwright. Rollyson explores the sources and backgrounds of her best-selling memoirs, the development of her politics, her successful screenwriting career, and her famous appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He provides entertaining and informative accounts of her feud with Mary McCarthy, her many love affairs and surprising friendships. He also provides a provocative and compelling portrayal of this complex and brilliant woman, who was called everything from a "viper", "a goddam liar" to "an empathetic genius with a highly original and penetrating mind." Near death, Hellman spoke of being blocked; this biography will show what got in her way.
Beautiful Exile: The Life of Martha Gellhorn
Martha Gellhorn died in February 1998, just shy of her 90th birthday. Well before her death, she had become a legend. She reported on wars from Spain in the 1930s to Panama in the 1980s, and her travel books have become classics. Her marriage to Ernest Hemingway and affairs with legendary lovers like H. G. Wells, and her relationship with two presidents, Roosevelt and Kennedy, reflect her campaigns against tyranny and deprivation, and her outrage at the corruption and cruelty of modern governments. This controversial and acclaimed biography portrays a vibrant and troubled woman who never tired of fighting for causes she considered just.
She has never ceased to fascinate the public: as brilliant wunderkind, bringing the latest in French thought to America; as sophisticated analyst of her own experience with cancer in Illness as Metaphor; as champion of free speech in the Rushdie Affair; as theater director in besieged Sarajevo; and, with the publication of The Volcano Lover, as best-selling historical novelist. Yet she has both courted that fascination and insisted on holding it at a distance, demanding control over her public image.
This first -- and most definitely unauthorized -- biography delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Susan Sontag an international icon. Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock explore her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves and missteps. Above all, they show how the life of Susan Sontag reveals to us the way we live now.
Reading Susan Sontag
The first book to survey the broad range of Sontag's work, including full discussions of her fiction, nonfiction prose, plays, and interviews.
"Reading Carl Rollyson's reading Susan Sontag is like reading Susan Sontag through a prism of a clear and articulate sensibility. One can ask for no better guidebook to an appreciation and understanding of a major American public intellectual and literary figure." --M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell Professor of English and Humanities, Randolf-Macon College
Female Icons: Marilyn Monroe to Susan Sontag
This volume represents more than twenty-five years of writing about female icons and biography. Rollyson provides the bits and pieces that resulted not only in his biography of Marilyn Monroe but also in much of the work he has subsequently done on Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Susan Sontag, and on the nature of biography itself.
This book includes a selection of Rollyson's New York Sun book reviews dealing with female icons such as Mary Stuart, Mary Wollstonecraft, The Brontës, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Plath. Rollyson's writing about icons has provoked him to question the process by which selves are defined. Discovering the shaping mechanisms of the self is simultaneously a way of understanding how biographies are built.
In the end, this book should be of interest not merely to devotees of Monroe, Sontag, and other icons but also to anyone curious about the nature of biography and the biographer.
Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl
What is new in this second edition of Carl Rollyson's standard biography? It begins with a portrait that attempts to evoke the living person in all her dimensions. It concludes with an interview with one of her favorite secretaries, Elizabeth Leyshon, who eluded him in the 1990s but provided new insights into her employer's character for this book. The biography's new title emphasizes that Rebecca West was a prophet-one not always appreciated in her own day. As early as 1917, she understood where the world was headed and realized that the revolution in Russia held out false hope. Because she took this view as a socialist, those on the left scorned her as an apostate, whereas she understood that Communism would result in a disaster for the British left. Readers wishing to gauge the range of West's fiction and nonfiction should read Woman as Artist and Thinker, published by iUniverse. Rollyson has read his words anew, sharpening sentences, omitting words and paragraphs-sometimes entire sections-in order to provide a refreshing, more engaging, and spirited account of one of the world's major writers.
Rebecca West and the God That Failed: Essays
After completing his biography of Rebecca West in 1995, Carl Rollyson felt bereft. As his wife said, “Rebecca was such good company.” He had already embarked on another biography, but Rebecca kept beckoning him. He felt there was more to say about her politics—a misunderstood part of her repertoire as reporter and novelist. And had he done justice to her enormous sense of fun and humor? He regretted excising the portrait of her he wanted to put at the beginning of his biography. His editor kept cutting away at what he called Rollyson’s doorstop of a book. And then after years of waiting, Rollyson received her FBI file. He kept running into Rebecca, so to speak, when he was working on his biographies of Martha Gellhorn and Jill Craigie. Interviews in London often turned up people who had known West as well.
Thus piece by piece, Rollyson accumulated what is now another book about Rebecca West. This new collection tells the story of how his biography got written, of what it means to think like a biographer, and why West's vision remains relevant. She is one of the great personalities and writers of the modern age, and one that we are just beginning to comprehend.
To Be A Woman: The Life of Jill Craigie
Jill Craigie-filmmaker, writer, pioneering feminist and devoted wife to former Labour Leader Michael Foot-led an extraordinary life. Strikingly attractive, fiercely independent and politically radical, Craigie established a reputation as a filmmaker with her 1944 film, Out of Chaos, becoming the first female director to gain national attention. Talented and versatile, she wrote several film scripts, numerous articles, radio plays, and successful columns, but she always struggled as a woman and a socialist in a male-dominated, conservative industry. Her fifty-year marriage to Michael Foot, the love of her life, involved her in politics at the highest level. The couple's mutual interest in literature and the arts made their Hampstead house a meeting place for artists, writers, actors, and politicians alike. Carl Rollyson has created an intimate and honest portrait of this charismatic figure, who never ceased to push the boundaries of what it meant to be a twentieth-century woman.
Essays in Biography
Pieces about the history of the genre and in portrayals of biographers (Plutarch, Leon Edel, and W. A. Swanberg), literary figures (Lillian Hellman, Jack London), philosophers and critics (Leo Strauss and Hippolyte Taine), political figures (Winston Churchill and Napoleon), and artists (Rembrandt and Rubens).
"Carl Rollyson reads biographies. He writes biographies. He writes about reading biographies. He writes about writing biographies. Writers are the subject of many of the biographies he reads and writes. Whew! Add up this reading and writing and you arrive at a sum of literary arithmetic called “On Biography,” Rollyson’s regular column for The New York Sun. Part book review, part essay, always timely and interesting, “On Biography” covers biography’s subjects and the subject of biography in a two-for-one deal. Reading Biography is Rollyson’s first collection of these essays, which he began writing in Spring 2003.
Emerson wrote that “There is properly no history; only biography.” Disraeli: “Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” Carlyle: “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Rollyson knew he was onto something when he took up the subject of biography. But why biography now? “Historians distrust biography,” Rollyson writes in a review of two books on Stalin. “Modern historiography has rejected Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory of history in favor of complex explorations of historical process, of the forces and factors that shape the world regardless of its individual players.” True enough, but social history doesn’t exactly lend itself to page-turner reading, and increasingly it is biographers who have taken up the slack of writing accessible history. Rollyson settles on a quote from Louis Fischer to best describe his interest: “Biography is history seen through the prism of a person.”
As a biographer himself, Rollyson has more than a few ideas about its mechanics. He writes of Michael Barber’s Anthony Powell: A Life, for example:
I like the feel of Mr. Barber’s book, and the sense that he is aware of how to manage his own narrative. Thus he writes: “This is probably the place to summarise Powell’s athletic record at Eton.” Rarely does he succumb to the bane of biography, the “must have been” and the “reasonable to suppose,” which are no more than oblique confessions of ignorance.
With more than a concern for tricks of the trade, Rollyson clues us into becoming—if not better writers—better readers of biography. Reading Biography has a production value that can best be described as “cut-and-paste.” The upside is that it contains reviews that are still quite timely—covering many of the same books reviewed recently in these pages." --James Panero, New Criterion, March 2005
This collection of reviews, selected from Rollyson’s New York Sun column, is as much about the romance of biography as it is about the American lives. Certain concerns resonate throughout the book: the American left’s failure to reckon with Communist subversion, McCarthyism, and Stalinism, the problematic nature of authorized biography, the history of American biography, definitive biographies, literary biography, the differences between autobiography and biography, the importance of interviews in biographies of contemporary figures, the differences between history and biography, comparative biographies, the virtues of short biographies and of biographies for children, the tendency of biographers to fictionalize and of novelists to biographize, psychology and biography, Rollyson’s own experience as a biographer, and the way biographers treat one another’s work. Too many biographers, he believes, evince no interest in the biographical tradition. Concerned only with possession of their subjects, their proprietorial attitude deforms not only their biographies but also the genre itself. If biography is reviewed badly (receiving hardly more than a summary of the subject’s life with a perfunctory nod to the biographer), it is because the biographical tradition has been disregarded or discounted. This book, in other words, has been written on the behalf of biography, a genre that still awaits a full vindication.
A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography
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 )
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 )
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 )
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 )
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 )
Biography: A User's Guide
Carl Rollyson's Biography: A User's Guide is an informative and entertaining text for those interested in biography. No aspect of the genre, from A to Z, goes uncovered: issues around authorized and unauthorized biography, censorship, libel, fair use, public domain (referred to as "PD" by publishers and editors), and a great deal more-including examples drawn from published biographies, as well as general and specific assessments of the biographer's art. Mr. Rollyson demonstrates that biography has more dimensions than are generally gleaned from book reviews and academic discourse. In a lively and provocative style, he argues with other biographers and critics, avoiding the polite and vague tones of many reference books on the subject.