The primary obligation of the biographer, according to Johnson, was finding what can be "put to use" of a man's life, what his moral example has been and how it might serve as a constructive guide for subsequent lives. It strikes me that this is also your concern as a biographer. While exploring a particular sensibility, you are concerned with revealing its larger human context.
That is very much my effort. Biography is bound up with moral exemplum, concern for some larger human outline in which both subject and reader join hands. That moral example, though, is directly linked with what someone went through. In biography, the struggle is just as important to chart as its end result. As a biographer, you would never feel a success unless you had shown this darker side. As Johnson said: "If nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." This emphasis on chronicling the struggle is what Johnson felt kept others "from despair," which for him was the chief objective of biography. In fact, that is precisely what the Victorians did not do in their biographies. They were very uneasy about showing anything but the sunny sides of a writer's life. So when you read the first biography of George Eliot, for example, which was written by her very cautious husband, you wonder where the human greatness is, how did she get those novels written, what did it take to do them?
On this line, all your biographies address themselves to a single problem, what Keats called "negative capability," how someone is capable of living amid uncertainty without capitulating to despair, but, rather, losing himself in something larger than himself.
This, for me, is the central question in any good biography: How did they manage? First, I think that just as sheer drama, it's fascinating for the reader to see the contrast between a subject's aspirations and the unpromising conditions through which he had to negotiate and safeguard those aspirations. And, second, I think it's morally -- in the broad sense of the word moral -- more refreshing and exhilarating to understand the dimension of that life contrast. A subject's triumph over himself or over his circumstances is all the more remarkable when we understand the obstacles themselves.
It seems that you are examining the struggle for wholeness, even though it might never be totally achieved.
Absolutely. Even though someone like Coleridge, for example, fell short of using his gifts to their capacity, nonetheless he struggled to do so. It's the underlying impulse in any great life: to make whole what seems most fragmented.
Your biographies twin personal struggle with literary struggle, personal triumph with literary triumph. Obviously, in your mind the inner life and its externalization in the form of literature are inextricably linked.
The great fallacy is to think self and work are two separate operations. They are very linked indeed. Problems of temperament, for example, are bound to spill over into work. This is something that a man like Johnson was aware of and spent an entire lifetime trying to resolve. For him, good literature could only be written by a decent character.
You are an unusual literary biographer in that you don't separate discussions of a writer's life from those of his work.
When I first began thinking about writing biography, which was when I was still an undergraduate at Harvard, literary biography spent little or no time on the writer's experience as a writer. There was little connection between his life and his work, how the two fit together. And certainly there was little attempt to link up a writer's life, his effort, with the larger society of which it was a part.
What, then, prompted you away from the literary criticism approach of the '30 s?
The feeling that literary studies had gotten away from the old humanistic interest in literature and were simply specializing in problems of form or style. There was no moral effect in those works, there was little that was meaningful about human experience. In my case, it was the great example of Johnson himself who believed the real value of literary biography was to show how a past life is very near to our own. In interpreting a great writer I wanted to fill out the qualities that made this person what you might call a great experiencing nature.
Is this what drew you to your particular subjects?
Yes. They're all extreme people in one way or the other, but they are great experiencing natures. I thought Keats was fascinating because here you have a great poet who died at 25, stopped writing at 24, yet had this marvelous literary growth between 17 and 24 which no one can understand. It wasn't as though he was a precocious person.You really don't get precocity except in fields like music or mathematics which, as disciplines, are relatively independent of human experience. But here is a person who for all appearances is just another human being until 17. Then suddenly this sense of the ideal, this formative ideal of greatness, descends upon him, enabling him to perform the impossible. By 24 he has become one of the greatest poets who has ever lived, and against enormous circumstantial odds.
How can one not want to know how that happened?
Johnson is another example of extremity: a man who started out with everything against him -- physical, financial and temperamental liabilities. And yet he manages to slug his way through by complete honesty to his experience. His writing is informed by his great understanding of human life, a life he himself has experienced fully.
Coleridge is another example of literary brilliance, although his life could hardly be called a happy one. I view him as a kind of a waif who was never quite able to get through in some ways and his work suffered for it.
What prevented that?
All these men understood one fundamental truth: the importance of losing themselves in something larger than themselves, in their cases, literature. Self-indulgence, or what Johnson called, "Imagination operating on luxury," is fatal for anyone, but for a writer in particular. Johnson, more than anyone, realized the dangers of self-absorption.
All your biographies are studies of the imaginative process, imagination as both a constructive and a destructive tool.
This is a very important point. I've always been fascinated with the imagination, especially poetic imagination, as someone like Keats viewed it. In fact, I wanted to write a study of the concept of imagination over the last 300 years, but I wrote it instead in the form of three biographies each of which shows imagination at work. I think that phrase by Shakespeare, "We are of imagination all compact," is very true. The imagination is capable of going in many different directions. The problem for someone like Johnson, who was very afraid of his powers of imagination, was how to control it. Keats, on the other hand, was one of those rare people who had a harmonious temperament and imagination that developed nicely by itself. The Coleridge story is, to me, a tragedy where imagination turns against itself and paralyzes creative effort.
Both Keats and Johnson had extraordinarily assimilative minds -- that ability to identify with, and for a moment become, their subjects. Is this an integral ingredient of poetic genius?
I think very much so. Without this ability to assimilate, poetry simply becomes a game, a sophisticated nursery rhyme. Poetry is traditionally one of our means of knowing and realizing human feeling and imagination. Again, if a writer is an experiencing nature, as were Keats and Johnson, then he is going to have to be open to human experience which will enable him to release his poetic genius. The poem is the poet's experience felt and then released.
Keats was the very model of what you're talking about.
Exactly. What intimidated others, especially the rich burden of our literary mentors, did just the opposite to Keats. I think the moral of his life is contained in that difficult statement -- perfect love casteth out fear. Keats loved. This is his great example. He was never afraid of his own experience, or what he had to do with it. He was someone who, in his own words, "stormed the main gate of poetry." He wasn't worried about originality. Somewhere Goethe says if you worry about originality all the time, you're certainly not going to be original. You only do that by losing yourself in something larger that will release that self.
With the premium placed on originality today, especially in the arts, it's not the easiest thing to ignore.
No, it's not. But that's why we need friends in the human spirit like Keats to remind us of what's important. In a way, a lot of things writers are facing today started in Keats' time -- all the reviewing and criticism. Keats is a very modern poet. His example is of particular value to poets today.
Biography, then, is a way to understand that example?
I think so. Every period of one's life profits from such examples in human and poetic greatness. We need the kind of companionship that lets us know we're not utterly alone in our tasks or our trials.