The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography

The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography

by Scott Donaldson


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In The Impossible Craft, Scott Donaldson explores the rocky territory of literary biography, the most difficult that biographers try to navigate. Writers are accustomed to controlling the narrative, and notoriously opposed to allowing intruders on their turf. They make bonfires of their papers, encourage others to destroy correspondence, write their own autobiographies, and appoint family or friends to protect their reputations as official biographers. Thomas Hardy went so far as to compose his own life story to be published after his death, while falsely assigning authorship to his widow. After a brief background sketch of the history of biography from Greco-Roman times to the present, Donaldson recounts his experiences in writing biographies of a broad range of twentieth-century American writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charlie Fenton.

Donaldson provides readers with a highly readable insiders’ introduction to literary biography. He suggests how to conduct interviews, and what not to do during the process. He offers sound advice about how closely biographers should identify with their subjects. He examines the ethical obligations of the biographer, who must aim for the truth without unduly or unnecessarily causing discomfort or worse to survivors. He shows us why and how misinformation comes into existence and tends to persist over time. He describes “the mythical ideal biographer,” an imaginary creature of universal intelligence and myriad talents beyond the reach of any single human being. And he suggests how its very impossibility makes the goal of writing a biography that captures the personality of an author a challenge well worth pursuing.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780271065281
Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication date: 03/03/2015
Series: Penn State Series in the History of the Book
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,150,006
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Scott Donaldson is an accomplished biographer and the Louise G. T. Cooley Professor of English at the College of William and Mary, emeritus. His publications include Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days (2009), Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship (1999), John Cheever: A Biography (1988), and Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1983). His Archibald MacLeish: An American Life (1992) won the Ambassador Book Award for biography.

Table of Contents



1 Beginnings

Biography: A Background Sketch

Becoming a Biographer

And Then I Wrote . . .

The Editor’s Hand: Hemingway

Fitzgerald and the Craft

The Amazing Archibald MacLeish

A Dual Biography of Fitz and Hem

Recovering Robinson

Other Chores, On to Fenton

2 Topics in Literary Biography

Fact and Fiction

Writers as Subjects

Ethical Issues

Sources: Letters

Sources: Interviews

3 The Impossible Craft

The Issue of Involvement

Trying to Capture Hemingway

The Mythical Ideal Biographer

What Biography Can’t Do

And Yet . . .

4 Case Studies

Telling Robinson’s Story: The Fight over a Poet’s Bones

Summer of ’24: Zelda’s Affair

Hemingway’s Battle with Biographers, 1949–1954

5 The Cheever Misadventure

Writing the Cheever

The Lawsuit

The Next Biography


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