A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography by Carl Rollyson
The title comes from Rudyard Kipling's colorful characterization of biographies. A Higher Form of Cannibalism is a lively, anecdotal, loosely organized survey of the challenges faced by biographers in their attempt to collect, shape, and publish what they have come to regard as the truth about their subjects. Carl Rollyson, an English professor at Baruch College and a successful American biographer whose subjects include Rebecca West and Lillian Hellman, not only accedes to the charge that biography has become a "bloodsport" but claims that it has always been, and must be, so. Whether or not the biography is "authorized" by the subject (or the family or estate), his interests and those of the biographer are fundamentally in conflict. While the former wants a positive portrait or no biography at all, the latter seeks to produce a book that conforms to what he has discovered from more sources than the subject is aware of-or would wish to divulge.
Rollyson demolishes many of the pieties surrounding what is, after all, a popular and commercially successful genre whose most severe critics tend to be journalists, academics, and writers intent on separating their written works from their private lives. The "adventures" that illustrate his points include disputes between Boswell and Johnson, between J.A. Froude and Thomas Carlyle's admirers, between Richard Aldington and those interested in preserving the legendary T. E. Lawrence, and between Ian Hamilton and J.D. Salinger. Rollyson also looks at the works and methods of Richard Ellmann, who has written on James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yeats, and who is nearly unique among biographers for being admired and respected by writers and critics who are not themselves life-writers.
Though shamelessly self-promoting and filled with the writer's harsh disapproval of other biographers and his own reluctant subjects, the book is so uninhibited in both defending and indicting what Joyce Carol Oates has labeled "pathography" that most readers will find plenty to detest and to admire.
—Mark A. Heberle
University of Hawaii at Manoa
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This article appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books