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Sample Chapters and Articles

Faulkner said that some of his townsmen did not believe he had an occupation. The relationship between Faulkner and his community is one I will explore in great detail in my Faulkner biography.
Faulkner banner at Mississippi State University. This banner set of a twitter storm when Joyce Carol Oates retweeted my tweet with her comment that if there were readers in Mississippi Faulkner’s books would be banned. I will have more to say about his subject in my Faulkner biography.
Michael Foot, Amy Lowell, William Faulkner, and the Romantics

In graduate school at the University of Toronto I had the splendid opportunity to study with Kathleen Coburn, the great Coleridge scholar who was then editing his notebooks. If I had not already committed myself to writing a dissertation about William Faulkner under the guidance of Michael Millgate, I would gladly have turned to a Romantic subject under Coburn’s supervision. Even so, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats have in so many ways informed my work and that of the subjects of my biographies.

Faulkner, to begin with, was entranced with Keats–as anyone can see in the great fourth section of “The Bear” when Cass Edmunds explains to the kinsman, Ike McCaslin, why Ike did not shoot Old Ben, the Moby Dick, you might say, of the hunters’ quest. Cass quotes “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “She cannot fade, though thou hath not thy bliss . . . Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” The she for Ike is not a woman but the wilderness itself, which is his first love. But that love, Cass implies, will, in time, recede just as the wilderness recedes in the advance of civilization. Ike’s wilderness experience has been out of time–as he acknowledges when he relinquishes his watch as part of his search for Old Ben. Ike, who fails to adapt to the changing times, becomes irrelevant because he tries to live the poem Cass quotes. Ike, in other words, is beguiled by a dream of perfection, which exists, in truth, only in Keats’s poem. Ike is caught between the ideality of art and the reality of life. Art is permanence and unity; life is change and multiplicity. So much of what Faulkner learned about art and life stems from his reading of the Romantics, as I will explore in my biography of Faulkner, which I have just learned will be published by University of Virginia Press.

As I show in Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography (2013), she was steeped in the Romantics and began her career writing poetry derived from Keats and other Romantics. Her first published book of poetry, A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass is, of course, an allusion to Shelley. If Lowell had to break herself from too close of a fealty to Keats’s verse, he nevertheless presides over “The Green Bowl,” included in her first book, which shows her emerging as a modern poet, adapting the formal grandeur of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a far more relaxed musing on art’s extension of nature’s impact on human consciousness: “A quiet place, still with the sound of birds,/Where, though unseen, is heard the endless song/And murmur of the never resting sea.”

Lowell wrote poems about Keats, she collected Keats, and she ended her life producing a prodigious two-volume biography of the poet. What should still amaze readers is her astounding ambition, which she announces at the outset: “I have attempted to write a biography, a psychological novel, and a book of poetical criticism, all at once, and not let any of these three aspects of my subject override the others.” It is as if Dorothy Richardson, whose novels Lowell loved, and Rebecca West, whose criticism Lowell found bracing, had combined to do justice not only to Keats but to Fanny Brawne, whose presence in the poet’s emotional life had been seriously misunderstood before the advent of Lowell’s work.

Among Keats’s contemporary biographers, only Walter Jackson Bate and Stanley Plumly have acknowledged her pivotal role in Keats biography. She embodied a twentieth century sensibility and married it to a neoclassical style reminiscent of Samuel Johnson writing about Richard Savage–as can be seen in this passage of balanced antitheses:

Insufficiently equipped, uncertain of his way, not even thoroughly aware of his own goal, unwisely guided by his friends, ignorantly and cruelly criticized by his enemies, buffeted by the hurricanes of his own changing ideas, Keats died at the age of twenty-five still unformed in many ways, profoundly discouraged and dissatisfied, but leaving behind him a body of work in his poetry which does not die because of qualities in it even more important to mankind that those which appear on the surface, and in his letters a possibly no less valuable legacy to the student of psychology and a volume of perennial charm to the ordinary reader.

In her day, in 1925, Lowell commanded a wide readership that should be the envy of any poet/biographer writing now. Like Faulkner, she found in Keats, the man and the poet, a powerful harbinger of a modern sensibility but also a spirit beyond not only his time but any time.

There is in Keats, and of course no less in Wordsworth, and in quite a different way in Byron, a kind of therapeutic imagination and art that we simply cannot live without. So Michael Foot put it to me in many conversations we had over a very intense three years while I worked on the biography of his wife, Jill Craigie, and then on my memoir of him, just published as A Private Life of Michael Foot. “We read Byron’s letters there [in Venice] together. Then we were going up in the world, having the bloody government pay for our holidays. . . . Venice revived him [Byron]. It restored him,” Michael insisted to me. And of course Michael was thinking of himself–of not only his opportunities to get away from Cabinet worries during the administrations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan but also of how through Byron he re-created his love for Jill Craigie on trips that were nothing less than romantic revivals.

During the terrible accident that nearly cost him his life and left him lame, Michael read Byron, telling me “When I went through Don Juan the first time [in hospital], every time I got to a part I wanted to read it to Jill as soon as I got back here [his Hampstead home].” Brought up a strict Methodist, Michael reveled in Byron’s mocking tone about sex and said Jill thought sex was often treated too seriously and should be the subject of satire. She was not, in fact, a great reader of the Romantics, but as Michael would say, she sure knew how to join in the spirit of the thing.

Michael credited the Byron Society with helping him to recover from his disastrous electoral defeat in 1983. “Byron helped me,” Michael said. “He never gave in. The only way to read Don Juan is right through and that’s what I did. I spent the whole of Christmas doing so–leader of the Labour Party I as supposed to be [he laughed] . . . it [Don Juan] put me in a good temper.”

Michael was as possessive of his Byron as the most devoted scholar can be. At a Byron Society meeting he grumbled about Benita Eisler’s Byron biography. “Terrible book.” He grunted through her talk.” Eisler later told a friend of mine that Michael stood up and said, “Worse book ever written.” He was as passionate about his literary likes and dislikes as he was about his politics. On a trip to Bermuda, he considered one of its main points of interest that Byron’s great friend, Thomas Moore, had visited the island. Jill could get quite put out with Michael’s Romantic obsessions. When a friend was visiting, Jill said, “Michael do be quiet. I don’t want to hear you about Byron. I’ve heard it so many times. I want to know what Lizzie has been doing.”

Michael never could believe that anyone could have enough of Byron and wrote a whole book about him. I watched Michael and his nephew Paul, who had written a book about Shelley, go at it. Did Paul think Shelley a greater poet than Byron, I asked Michael. “No,” Michael assured me. “He doesn’t think so at all. He’s converted the other way around in my opinion.” When I laughed, Michael said, “Better ask him.” But then Michael assured me that Paul now realized that Byron had a sharper wit and a better sense of humor than Shelley. Paul would just laugh in such a way as to imply doubt about his conversion.

Given enough time, Michael believed he would win the world to his side. Is there anything more Romantic than that?


“The Birds That Stay”

Emily Dickinson was born, lived, and died in the same house. Although she did visit Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia, she rarely traveled, spending most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts, a college town that in the first half of the nineteenth century consisted of some 3,000 people. She was named after her mother, who was then a full participant in the life of Amherst, winning cooking contests and doing her part to aid the poor and perform other charitable services. The younger Emily had a narrow but stimulating circle of friends--many of them important writers and prominent citizens. She liked to stay at home. Home was her natural habitat, and she had no urge to migrate to other places. Neither did her older brother, Austin, or her younger sister, Lavinia, with whom Emily always lived. As Emily put it in one of her poems, “We are the birds that stay.”

Emily Dickinson’s retirement from the world had . . . a tradition behind it . . . it has always been a possible way of life for New England spinsters and widows . . . .--George Frisbie Whicher, Emily Dickinson biographer.

Significantly, the home Emily was born in was called the Homestead. It was one of the grandest houses in town, an imposing brick structure that looks--and still looks--almost like a government building--the kind you might see in Philadelphia if you visited the Liberty Bell and the Independence Hall area. The house and the atmosphere of the town could easily make Emily feel that she lived in an important place. Ideas and religious beliefs were taken seriously in Amherst. Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, was as imposing looking as his house. His approach to life was equally formidable. In his proposal to his wife he wrote: “My life must be a life of business, of labor and application to the study of my profession.” Educated at Amherst College and Yale University, he became one of Amherst’s most prominent lawyers as well as a member of the United States Congress.

The village of Amherst was famous for having more ministers per capita that any other town in the United States.--Jay Leyda, a scholar of Dickinson’s work.

Emily respected her father, but relations between father and daughter were rather strained. Edward Dickinson may not have known what to do with his bright, imaginative daughter. There was little place in 19th-century America for independent-thinking women. Women were expected to marry and to raise a family. Those who did not became spinsters, single females usually supported by their families. A few women had careers, but they were definitely not to be found among the citizens of Amherst. Of her father Emily observed: “He buys me many Books--but begs me not to read them--because he fears they joggle the mind.” It is a revealing sentence. Edward realized that his daughter deserved an education, yet he held the notion, a common one for that time, that too much study might rattle a woman’s brain, which was thought to be smaller than a man’s. No one knows for sure what Emily thought of her father’s rather confused attitude towards her, but her comments suggest she kept some distance from him--as she did from most males who treated her as an inferior. She was not rebellious. But she did not fear exercising her mind or finding a way to her own beliefs. With words she could take the measure of anyone, and the precise use of words became a kind of daily discipline for her. Emily’s father’s imagination could not stretch as far as her own. In a letter she observed: “Father says in fugitive moments when he forgets the barrister and lapses into the man, says that his life has been passed in a wilderness, or an island. . . .” In other words, when Edward Dickinson was not being a man of the world and accomplishing things, he lapsed (briefly) into a rather grim view of existence that isolated him from other people. Emily may have shared some of her father’s sense of isolation, but she had wit and an empathy for others that made her life anything but sad or lonely. She knew all about human society, and if she participated in it sparingly, she did so by choice. Emily’s father sent her to Amherst Academy, which was founded by her own grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, and Noah Webster, the author of one of the first American dictionaries. At Amherst Academy, Emily studied four subjects, which she called “Mental Philosophy, Geology, Latin, and Botany.” She also went to Mount Holyoke Female Academy in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she stayed for one year. For her time, she was well educated--particularly for a woman--and she did much studying beyond the basic subjects she took at school. Emily thought of herself as pretty. At fourteen, she told a girlfriend, “I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17rh year.” The one existing photograph of her was in fact taken when she was 17 years old, but it conveys an impression of plainness. Both Emily and her brother objected that it did not do her justice. The photograph shows her to have an oval face, rather full lips, and dark, inquiring eyes. She once gave this flirtatious description of herself to a male correspondent: “I am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur--and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” Clearly, Emily felt closest to birds. Their quick movements and darting flight find their counterparts in her delicate but bold writing. As a bird that stays, she customarily reserved her high spirits for her poetry and for her friends. As one critic of her work says, she thought of poetry as the house she lived in. She felt safe, comfortable, and courageous when she was writing. Poetry is what rooted her in Amherst, and Amherst in turn grounded her poetry.

From the Introduction:

Thurgood Marshall was a pathfinder. He was one of the original forces behind the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP), one of the organizations that helped to advance the rights of African Americans in the 20th century. His pursuit of civil rights reached a high point when, as a lawyer, he helped the NAACP win Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that ended racial segregation in education in American public schools. Afterward, Thurgood became only the second African American to be appointed as a judge in the United States Court of Appeals. This appointment led to him becoming the first black United States solicitor general and, finally, the first black justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Unlike some other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Thurgood worked within the American justice system. While the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. employed civil disobedience and Malcolm X swore to achieve equality for African Americans "by any means necessary," Thurgood referred to himself as "the original gradualist." Believing that the best way to gain equal rights for minority groups was to change the law, which he knew changed slowly, he dedicated his life to making American society recognize the fundamental truth that "all men are created equal.” Later in his career, he also worked specifically for women’s rights.

The patient but steadfast pursuit of a goal that is hard won is known as perseverance. It is a quality that Thurgood had in abundance. The grandson of a freed slave and the son of a waiter and a schoolteacher, he managed to obtain an excellent education despite the racial segregation that marred the American school system when he was growing up. Early in his career as a champion of civil rights, he found it hard to make a living, and he endured not only legal setbacks but also threats on his life. Eventually, after making a name for himself as "Mr. Civil Rights," Thurgood achieved high office, but even as a Supreme Court justice he continued to fight for the rights of those whom society continued to regard as inferior: blacks, women, poor people, and those accused of crimes whose guilt had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

As the Supreme Court, and the country as a whole, grew more conservative during the 1980s, Thurgood continued to feel a duty to supply one of the only remaining liberal voices on the Court. Until the day it became physically impossible for him to do so, he used his role as one of the country’s premier lawmakers to speak out in support of those who were powerless.

DOCUMENTARY FILM: EXPANDED EDITION includes the complete texts of Documentary Film: A Primer and Documentary Film: Contexts and Criticism while also augmenting certain sections: Readings, Model Reviews, Student Reviews, and Topics for Discussion. In a new third part, Backgrounds and Settings, discussions of biography and history will help students of film evaluate works such as Triumph of the Will, Olympia, documentaries on the former Yugoslavia, and on mockumentaries such as Best in Show and exposés such as Pedigree Dogs Exposed. The expanded edition includes a succinct introduction to the nature of the documentary, drawing on examples from the work of Robert Flaherty, Dziga Vertov, Leni Riefenstahl, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Spalding Gray, Cindy Sherman, Susan Sontag, Jill Craigie and others. The documentaries discussed cover a range of subjects including the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, the wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the worlds of fashion and sports. This dialogic text captures some of the actual give-and-take of the classroom and the range of opinion that even the best critics cannot convey. What should emerge from the reading of this book are the different voice (mindsets) through which the films are viewed.

From the introduction:

Documentary film is a form of reporting about the world. Like a newspaper, a documentary provides information about events, people, places, and virtually any subject of interest to the public. In words and pictures, documentaries show us what has happened, or is still happening, in our world. Whether we watch a documentary about a war or a biography of a famous figure, we presume that we are absorbing a presentation of fact. Of course, documentaries are no such thing: to assemble a film—or a newspaper for that matter—is an act of interpretation. What should the headline be? Which photographs appear on the front page? Whose story will be featured? These are all editorial decisions. Like newspapers, films are edited. Stories get left out or shortened. In a film, scenes are shot from certain angles. Interviews with subjects are reshaped to fit the framework of film. There is an opening sequence of a documentary about Lillian Hellman in which the phrases from several interviews are merged into shots of several speakers who seem to be contributing to one succinct statement about the film’s subject. The film has thus created a dialogue between the speakers that in fact never occurred. Is such a film dishonest? No, because documentaries are inevitably interpretations; the documentarian, like a newspaper editor, is picking and choosing the items that suit the film’s style and point of view. Hellman, a controversial figure, demands the solicitation of many perspectives, and yet, the filmmaker implies, those perspectives can be melded into a unified statement. The very earliest films lacked this kind of coherent vision. They simply put a stationary camera in front of what was to be recorded. In part, the stationary camera simply reflected the state of technology. As cameras became lighter in weight or were mounted on rails or wheels, so that they could move with the action, filmmakers became more selective—or rather, camera movement by definition meant that interpretation, as well as reportage, became possible. As soon as the camera could move, filmmakers had their choice of close-ups and medium and long shots. Better lenses meant the human face could be brought closer to the audience’s eye than faces that appeared outside of film. Film stimulated an involvement with the human figure that was unprecedented. A face—just the face—could occupy an entire screen; a close-up could fasten on a hand making an expressive gesture. And what could be shown of figures could also be shown of objects—of anything that was susceptible to the camera’s scrutiny. The expanded technological resources of film had an aesthetic and moral result: film became, in a sense, its own reality. Rather than just reporting on the world; it created a world. Film was still a document but of a very peculiar kind. Montage, the juxtapositions of different images on pieces or frames of film, can in itself create meaning. Thus a man with tears in his eyes might appear either sad or happy depending on the images that preceded and succeeded the shot of him crying. One can, after all, cry with joy or sorrow. Reverse the succeeding and preceding images and the interpretation of the man’s emotions changes. Cameras and the editing of what cameras record can also speed up or slow down the action of a scene. For example, in Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s camera lovingly tracks in slow motion the athlete’s ascent over the bar in the pole-vaulting event. We have an intimate and prolonged attachment to the athlete unavailable to the spectators in the Olympic stadium. This kind of shot excites the viewer, who is enjoying a privileged point of view. Riefenstahl’s style is seductive. She wants her audience to revel in the beauty and suppleness of the human form. Although she is recording an event, she is also creating a kind of poem. This development of film as a way of not only knowing the world but of creating and enjoying it is reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s famous statement that we half-perceive and half-create our universe. We do not merely see the world; we project our sense of how it impinges on us. Projection, of course, is the perfect word for film. It projects a world and in the process changes it. This is what filmmaker Robert Flaherty discovered when he decided to film the Inuit people in Canada’s Hudson Bay region. He began by simply doing a travelogue, recording the manners and customs of a culture that he hoped would not only appeal to the curiosity of filmgoers but also cause them to reflect on the temper of modern life. The Inuits lived in the raw, so to speak, without labor saving devices and the array of inventions that included, of course, the movie camera. But Flaherty found he could not simply record Inuit life. For one thing, their way of life had changed by the time Flaherty showed up. They had abandoned many traditional customs and no longer hunted, for example, with bow and arrow. Inuits had guns. What to do? Flaherty actually helped the Inuits to recover their old ways of doing things. So we see Nanook in Nanook of the North hunting without the aid of firearms. Flaherty also includes a scene in which Nanook teaches his child how to use a bow and arrow. The scene is charming but in a sense false. The child will not grow up to hunt in this way. The traditional life the film purports to record was in fact fast disappearing. Is Flaherty, then, a fraud? Well, the people he films are real. The actions they perform were once a part of Inuit life. How else to show what that life had been without re-enacting scenes that evoked a past way of life? It could be argued that Flaherty was engaging in an act of restoration or restitution, showing not only his audience but also the Inuits themselves a way of life that would otherwise be left unrecorded. Documentary film, after all, stems from an urge to commemorate, to honor the lives of others. But the filmgoer should never forget that film is a medium, a means of conveyance, and even of transformation, not the thing itself. This is Dziga Vertov’s point in Man with the Movie Camera. We see scenes of the Soviet Union in 1929, but the film repeatedly reminds us that they are all “shot,” captured in the camera eye, edited in a studio, and scored with a sound track that seems to build and build in tempo and yet never quite comes to a resolution. The film itself is unresolved—as if the filmmaker is resisting the very seductiveness of the medium, making us realize, again and again, that we are watching a movie. Woody Allen aims at a similar self-conscious examination of the documentary in Zelig. Critic Susan Sontag, together with Nobel prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim, critic Irving Howe, and Professor John Morton Blum, were chosen, Allen said, to endow his film with the "patina of intellectual weight and seriousness." This group of notables provide commentary on the bizarre career of Leonard Zelig, who could change color, body shape, even ethnic and national identity, blending into whatever company he sought. In mock-documentary mode, with voice-over narration, expert testimony, and faked photographs, Allen superbly constructed an amalgam of Citizen Kane and Reds--with Zelig also acting a kind of Jay Gatsby figure.