Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser My rating: 3 of 5 stars Who could begin an essay like Susan Sontag? "Great writers are either husbands or lovers," starts her piece on Camus; of Simone Weil, she announces, "The culture-heroes of our liberal bourgeois civilization are anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois." Or take On Photography's first … Continue reading Benjamin Moser, Sontag: Her Life and Work

Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

James Joyce by Richard Ellmann My rating: 4 of 5 stars Biography must be the most traditional, even rigid, of the prose genres, exceeding murder mysteries or romance novels. It marches from birth to death (or from family history to cultural legacy) at the stately pace of the old three-volume Victorian novel and with the … Continue reading Richard Ellmann, James Joyce

Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life

Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple My rating: 4 of 5 stars What is the good of literary biography? I am not a great reader of the genre, possibly because every example I've ever read has had a passage like this in it, from Brenda Wineapple's popular and absorbing 2003 life of Nathaniel Hawthorne: Like … Continue reading Brenda Wineapple, Hawthorne: A Life

Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen

A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen by Morten Høi Jensen My rating: 4 of 5 stars I decided to pick up this appealing brief recent biography of Jacobsen after reading the 19th-century Danish author's masterpiece, Niels Lyhne (1880). While Jacobsen is not well-known today—I came to him through Nella Larsen, though … Continue reading Morten Høi Jensen, A Difficult Death: The Life and Work of Jens Peter Jacobsen

Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville

Herman Melville by Elizabeth Hardwick My rating: 4 of 5 stars A review with, or in, digressions: Elizabeth Hardwick, who died a decade ago at 91, is having a literary revival. Her collected essays are due later this year; articles abound, and will abound. Sentences are offered for our delectation. Sarah Nicole Prickett gives us … Continue reading Elizabeth Hardwick, Herman Melville

John Marsh, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself by John Marsh My rating: 4 of 5 stars In Walt We Trust is blessedly less reductive than its overeager title and subtitle make it sound. John Marsh is a professor at Penn State specializing in American poetry and the literature … Continue reading John Marsh, In Walt We Trust: How a Queer Socialist Poet Can Save America from Itself

Henry James, Hawthorne

Hawthorne by Henry James My rating: 5 of 5 stars This short 1879 book is Henry James's critical biography of the man who would at the time have been considered his most distinguished precursor in American fiction, Nathaniel Hawthorne. James was early in his career and was moreover writing Hawthorne as the only entry on … Continue reading Henry James, Hawthorne

David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time

J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time by David Attwell My rating: 4 of 5 stars David Attwell’s book is billed as a “literary biography,” presumably so as not to scare off the common reader, for whom it seems to be intended. But it is more like a critical study of … Continue reading David Attwell, J. M. Coetzee and the Life of Writing: Face-to-Face with Time

Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong: A Penguin Life by Jonathan D. Spence My rating: 3 of 5 stars I like the old Penguin Lives series of brief biographies; they were published between 1999 and 2002 and then abruptly discontinued. I used to read or peruse them back then—I remember reading the one on Woolf in full and maybe … Continue reading Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong