Like Samuel Johnson, his lifelong subject, W. Jackson Bate is considered by many to be the finest literary biographer of his age. His bioggraphies of Keats , Coleridge, and Johnson -- themselves great works of literature -- are hallmarked by their penetrating literary and psychological insight, their rigorous but accessible scholarship, and their vivid narrative style. Uniting a writer's inner life with the often difficult external realities that challenge it, Bate's biographies are moving studies of human trial and achievement. Moreover, each work is an examination in the workings of the creative imagination, what helps and what hinders its release.
Twice the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (in 1964 for "John Keats" and in 1978 for "Samuel Johnson,") Bate is also the winner of innumerable awards including the coveted Christian Gauss Prize for the best work of literature. He is the only person to have won it three times.
The author of several books on literary criticism, Bate has also edited four volumes in the new Yale Edition of Johnson. Currently Abbott Lawrence Lowell Professor of the Humanities at Harvard, Bate continues to lecture on Johnson, a course that draws 400 students a year. Alexandra Johnson interviewed Professor Bate recently at Harvard. The following is part of that interview.
The first half of this interview appeared on yesterday's Home Forum Page. Dr. Bate is speaking:m
Good biography provides us with companionship and example. The demise of the great novel -- Dickens, for example -- and the demise of the great histories such as by Gibbon, have left us hungry for narrative: for that telling of the human tale of which we are such a vital part. I'm of the conviction that one reason for the enourmous interest in biography today is the novel as a whole has lost its magnificent hold on that panoramic vision of life we used to find it Eliot or Dickens. If you go back to any of the great 19th-century novels, nine times out of ten they are stories about the experience of growing up within a vast social context. So many novels today have lost that view of the whole life , the individuals and his society, that biography alone fills.
Biography is not unlike fiction in that the biographer must steep himself in his story and, to some extent, be his subject or character.
There's a great analogy between the writing of fiction and biography. Both are intensely creative: the fragments link, form a pattern, surface in the imagination; a subject takes on like and its own independence. A really excellent biography cannot be written except with that kind of fidelity, that kind of emotional commitment fo the subject. Biographies which fail to win the public are often those written out of a kind of detachment. The same might be said of certain novels. People sense what's emotionally phony, what doesn't ring true. I never understand those biographers or novelists who are consciously unsympathetic to their subjects. If you don't like your subject, it's not going to open the sluice gates to your imagination or your responses because you can't possibly internalize it.
Must the biographer himself have experienced, at least emotionally, what his subject has experienced in order to write convincingly about him?
Yes, I think so. The best biographer always share some strong common bond with their subjects. Their respective lives may have been quite different, but, somehow, the emotions and the outlook are the same.
When writing a biography, do the edges of your own identity blur with those of your subject?
That is true for me -- and continues to be as time goes on. Even before I wrote the Johnson biography, for example, I had taught and written shorter things on him for so long that at times he and I are very much one person. He has affected me for 30 years, been a great solace and friend. Now in the case of Coleridge I had a very hard time writing about him because his is a story of a man gradually going to pieces. That's just how I felt while writing about him. In Johnson there is always hope. No matter what he was up against, he emerged on the other side. That other side for Coleridge was quicksand.
Are you subjects still with you, then?
Yes, especially if you tend to choose subjects you admire. In the case of Johnson, who was essentially a moralist, it's hard not to have the feeling that he's watching over your shoulder -- if one has grasped that side of him -- nodding here and there as you write along. The great French critic, Sainte-Beuve, once wrote something that I often reflect on. When asked what we feel about the great writers, he replied we might ask what they feel about us. That's a very salutory thing to think about -- especially as a biographer.
Do you think your subjects would be happy with the way you've written about them?
I hope so. I'm so imbued with their lives -- I spent 30 years thinking about Johnson -- that I can't be too far off. Or, as Edmund Burke said afte writing his long essay on America, "If I don't know America by now, my ignorance is incurable."
Is Johnson's "Common Reader" your ideal reader?
Yes, in the sense Johnson meant it, a sympathetic and intelligent reader. I always think of three types of reader: someone who already knows the details of a subject and must be given fine scholarship, someone else who's interested in the subject but needs more detail to exemplify it, and the common reader, which covers a wide range of people.
What do you most want to communicate of your subject's life to that common reader?
Hope. The condition of human kind may not be rosy, but it's never hopeless. Look at Keats who was an orphan, or Johnson who was afflicted by every possible obstacle one can imagine: they made life work for them. How they did what they did is the most important thing a biography can show. That they did it should confer some sense of hope. In addition to this, I want the reader to understand that these great spirits are our companions, our friends, our guides. If a biography has been successful, these great men will be a part of the reader long after the book is finished.
What if, as in the case of Coleridge, hope isn't readily discemible?
Biography's moral task is honesty. A biographer must be as honest as possible in trying to show and understand what really happened in someone's life even if that life was tragic. Honesty and sympathy contain their own form of hope. All tragedy, if sympathetically understood, contains catharsis, a kind of emotional release. So how a man's life fell into ruin and disorder can actually serve as a kind of parable from which we might learn the lessons the man himself was never able to learn.
When writing a biography do you always keep the modern reader in mind?
Constantly. I don't see how you can avoid your own time if you yourself are an experiencing nature who wants to relate what the past has taught others. Biography looks at what's true, what's still applicable to human nature. The questions that plagued Keats nag the modern poet; the problems that afflicted Johnson afflict us. So the biographer must ask of his subject the kind of questions people today would ask about themselves.
You have often said that the 18th century, the century of your biographers, holds many parallels to our own. What do you mean?
The first half of the 18th century is a long period in which the arts, especially in literature and poetry, became highly stylized and formal, creating a narrow audience. In a similar way, the first half of the 20th century saw the avant garde trend. In both centuries, art and literature became very hard for most people to grasp and relate to their everyday experience. In the late 18th century, there was a turn away from that elite, formal literature and art toward what's common in experience andemotions. Romanticism is one of the products that grew out of this rebellion against such detachment from life. A word that surfaces in the late 18th century, and certainly a favorite word of Johnson's, is "the familiar." This has also become an important word for us in the late 20 th century. We may admire the genius of the high modernistic mode, the poetry of Ezra Pound, for example, but people today want something that ties up with their experience, a more open art.
Another way we are like the late 18th century is that, especially in the arts , we are no longer afraid of emotion. We want direct and powerful emotion in literature and art, what the late 18th century called "the sublime," where something reaches out to us as did the music that followed that period, the music of Beethoven and Shubert. Another word that was a plus- word in the late 18th century, and certainly is today, is "sincere." Sincerity -- in art, in literature, in life -- is very important to both periods. So you see, there is a lot to be understood about our own times by studying another.
Is biography an act of self-definition as well as the definition of another person?
Like all forms of expression that are going to touch the imagination, biography also reveals a lot about someone's character. The kind of subject he selects, the values it reflects, even the phrasing of those values, tells one a lot about the biographer himself. So, yes self- definition is involved. But if a biographer starts out with the idea that self-definition is important, then it's fatal because that's just posing. Yet by imaginatively identifying with your subject, you indirectly reveal something about yourself.
Were you to write an autobiography, would you approach it with the same questions you bring to a biography?
If I were, though I wouldn't want to, I certainly would think I ought to approach it with the same questions. But instead of doing it willingly and joyfully, as I would with someone else, I would have to force myself. Honesty is so important in writing about a life. It's much easier to be really honest about someone else's life. But perhaps that's why biography is so important to and for us -- it's a kind of road back to ourselves, a vehicle that presents the questions that a past life, as well as our own, faces.