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Biography and Bulletins

I am a University of Toronto Ph.D. I have 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. I have authored more than 500 articles on American and European literature and history. My 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) I wrote a weekly column, "On Biography," for The New York Sun and was President of the Rebecca West Society (2003-2007). My plays, That Woman: Rebecca West Remembers and A Real American Character: Walter Brennan Remembers have been produced at Theatresource in New York City and at the Josephy Center in Joseph, Oregon. My biography of Amy Lowell was awarded a "We the People" NEH grant. Two other NEH grants have supported books on biography and RebeccaWest. My reviews of biography have appeared in The Weekly Standard, 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. My column, "Biographology," appeared in bibliobuffet.com. I am advisory editor for the Hollywood Legends series published by the University Press of Mississippi. I welcome queries from those interested in contributing to the series. The Life of William Faulkner, Volume 1: The Past is Never Dead, and Volume 2: This Alarming Paradox and The Last Days of Sylvia Plath were published 2020. I am now working on, William Faulkner Day by Day and Sylvia Plath Day by Day as well The Making of Sylvia Plath, which will present new material about her early life that alters what we know about how she ended her life. Another forthcoming project: a book on presidential biography, arising out of two decades of reviewing biographies of American presidents.

I review biographies and biographical novels every Wednesday and Friday in The New York Sun

My Plath-related podcasts: anchor.fm/carl-rollyson: #1: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath; #4: A Tale of Two Bioraphies; #5 Sylvia Plath Meet Rebecca West; #8 How to end a biography; #23 Reviewing Biography: The Case of Sylvia Plath; #26 What is a definitive biography?

My Faulkner-related episodes: 2: Why care about William Faulkner. #3 Faulkner Preludes. #6 Building a Better Biography. #18 Biography: The Historical Present. #26 What is a definitive biography? #27 What a biographer knows.

The Biography Quartet: I had four of my books on biography bound into one volume.

A fifteen-volume shelf of my biographies.


"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

"A biographer's biographer."—Anne Heller, author of Hannah Arendt: A Life in Dark Times and Ayn Rand and the World She Made


In the home of Faulkner's mother, volume 1 of my biography on the table where Faulkner sat writing his greatest novel, Absalom, Absalom!
Catalogue page, University of South Carolina Press. American Literary Scholarship (2016): "Rollyson's volume stands as the best work yet to involve Sontag with the fictive innovations of her era."
Side by Side, for the first time.

The Life of William Faulkner

Jacket copy:

Integrating Faulkner's screenplays, fiction, and life, Rollyson argues that the novelist deserves to be reread not just as a literary figure but as a still-relevant force, especially in relation to issues of race, sexuality, and equality. The culmination of years of research in archives that have been largely ignored by previous biographers, The Life of William Faulkner offers a significant challenge and an essential contribution to Faulkner scholarship.


The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

I'm still reading Malcolm Gladwell's chapter on Sylvia Plath in Talking to Strangers, but I can already tell that, like me, he has rewritten the end of Sylvia Plath's life, showing the show and why her life ended that overturns the common thinking about suicide. Much more than her psychological profile has to be considered. Other biographers have gone part of the way toward changing the narrative, but we still have a long way to go. We are at the beginning, not the end, of understanding why Plath took her own life.

The Life of William Faulkner is the lead title in the University of Virginia Press spring catalogue.


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 office desk at Baruch College, The City University of New York.  I retired in 2017.

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

My Marilyn Wall

My wife did the needlepoint pillow. Also featured are the book jackets of my Jill Craigie and Rebecca West biographies, and the poster Audrey Flack signed, which is now in my collection at the University of Tulsa.

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

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

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

This volume include my essay on biographies of Amy Lowell and why I decided to write one.

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
Taken at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, where I was doing work in the papers 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.
My Faulkner garage wall and bookcases: A Work in Progress
Taken at the Faulkner Exhibition, University of Virginia

A collaboration of two of my subjects, William Faulkner and Walter Brennan, directed by Howard Hawks. Faulkner beefed up the role of Eddie (played by Brennan) in one of the great anti-fascist films I discuss in detail in The Life of William Faulkner.

The preface to my forthcoming biography: The Life of William Faulkner, Volume 1: The Past is Prologue, 1897-1934 (forthcoming spring 2020)

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.


Preface to Volume 2: This Alarming Paradox, 1935-1962 (forthcoming fall 2020)


After 1932, and the publication of Light in August, both race and history were no longer a given, a prologue to William Faulkner's life and work, but, instead, became a problematic part of his inheritance as a Southerner and as a writer with a claim on the world's attention. He had to write a new kind of history in which history itself is the intense focus of his attention in Absalom, Absalom!, Go Down, Moses, and Requiem for a Nun, or a community's past has to be retold and reshaped and debated, as in the Snopes trilogy. A Fable and The Reivers may seem to stand aside from this historiographical dynamic, but A Fable applies the Yoknapatawpha novels' approach to historical understanding to a world changing event, the First World War, which motivated Faulkner in the 1920s to see his native region in terms of global events, and The Reivers not only recapitulates much of Yoknapatawpha history, as do Collected Stories, The Town and The Mansion, Faulkner's last novel also returns to the motive force of The Unvanquished and Intruder in the Dust, as part of his recalibration of history and its impact on several generations that are embodied in The Reivers' first words: "Grandfather said." Intruder in the Dust, the novel and the film, brought new audiences to William Faulkner. 


Hollywood had a significant impact on the trajectory of Faulkner's fiction after 1932. Novelists of his generation often worried that Hollywood would change them, which usually meant for the worse, capitulating to the factitious demands of scripts made to order for an industry that used writers as disposable and interchangeable at the command of producers and studio heads. Hollywood was never home, where the writer went when he was through with the picture business, or it was through with him. Faulkner might mount a seemingly invincible facade, but Hollywood got to him, forcing him to improvise and sometimes to take his screenwriting back to Oxford—but also to write novels like Pylon and The Wild Palms that took the measure of Hollywood, creating a new kind of history that arose out of his collaborations with other writers. They do not appear by name in the novels, except for Eisenstein, but those writers' room meetings about story values, dialogue, and characterization had their impact on the scenarios that characters like V. K. Ratliff, Gavin Stevens, and Chick Mallison concoct. Faulkner did not publicly concede to Hollywood any of his fictional territory, but Yoknapatawpha characters and settings appear in his screenplays War Birds, Revolt in the Earth, Country Lawyer, and A Fable grew out of his Hollywood work and talks with a Hollywood director and producer. Faulkner described screenwriting as an interruption of his novelist's mission. But in truth that mission gradually changed the more time he spent in Hollywood, so that when he went out into the world again he produced a different sort of fiction. This is the story of how those changes got made and how the man and the artist emerged recognizably the figure he had always been and yet a transformed writer all the same.

Faulkner adapted the novel in a screenplay written for Howard Hawks.  The movie was never produced, although Hawks tried to get Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox to do it.  I write about Faulkner's excellent script in my forthcoming Faulkner biography.

Gloria Burgess's book about her father, Earnest McEwen, Jr. and how Faulkner helped him to get a college education.  I tell more about this episode in my forthcoming The Life of William Faulkner.

At work on my Faulkner biography in Huntsville Texas hotel room, on my way to the Carvel Collins Papers at the Humanities Research Center in Austin for more work on Faulkner