Forster, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin Through the Lens of Biography

WHAT draws a biographer to a particular subject? Hero worship? Infatuation? A more temperate kind of admiration or affinity? Or, at very least, some sort of fascination, based on attraction or perhaps even repulsion?

James Boswell's landmark ``The Life of Samuel Johnson'' and Mrs. Gaskell's ``Life of Charlotte Bronte'' were products of devoted friendships. Equally insightful biographies have been written by scholars carefully reconstructing the lives of people they never met.

Nicola Beauman did not know E.M. Forster (1879-1970), but, as she explains in her introduction to ``E.M. Forster: A Biography,'' she felt a great love and affinity for the man and his work.

Author of a life of Lady Cynthia Asquith and a study of the ``woman's novel'' between the wars, Beauman deems Forster the best novelist then working in that tradition. ``Howards End and A Passage to India are among the great novels of the century,'' she writes, ``but only for those who can see that lightness of touch, humour, domestic observation and psychological perception do not preclude insight into the weightiest, the most crucial aspects of our society.'' Her laudable aim in writing Forster's life is to enhance our understanding of his novels.

Her approach (in contrast to Forster's earlier biographer, P. N. Furbank, who did know him) is ``intuitive,'' perhaps too much so. Beauman has a way of fussing over ``Morgan,'' as she overfamiliarly calls him, as if she somehow knows him better than he knew himself.

Contradicting the general perception that he was unhappy at prep school, she equips him with two previously unsuspected boyhood chums on the strength of a rumor and the still less convincing ``evidence'' of an analysis of young Forster's handwriting and her own reaction to a photograph of one of the alleged chums: ``He looks the kind of young man one would imagine Morgan wanting as a friend,'' she declares.

On even flimsier evidence, she also concludes that Forster's father (who died before Morgan's second birthday) shared his son's homosexual orientations.

Not only do Beauman's overconfident tone and proprietary attitude undermine one's ability to accept her intuitive insights (even on occasions when she may in fact be right), but in an odd way her boundless sympathy seems to blind her to the less appealing aspects of her subject's personality: his fustiness, timidity, and listlessness.

She is so certain that the reader shares her enthusiasm for ``Morgan'' that she does not take adequate pains to convey what made him so special: to reveal, beneath his staid surface, the sensitive and thoughtful man who gave us such fine work.

In the case of Jeffrey Meyers, who's written lives of Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, and Edgar Allan Poe, the question is not so much ``why F. Scott Fitzgerald?'' as ``why not?''

The quintessential Jazz Age couple, Scott and his wife Zelda have been the subjects of many previous biographies, from Arthur Mizener's classic ``The Far Side of Paradise'' to Nancy Milford's feminist ``Zelda.'' But in Meyers' view, none of those provides a sense of a coherent personality.

Meyers' account of Fitzgerald's tragic life (1896-1940) in ``Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography'' focuses on the aspects of his personality that made it hard for him to achieve his full potential as an artist: his narcissism; his marriage to the beautiful, bright, but destructive Zelda Sayre, whose madcap antics masked the symptoms of real madness; and his continuing abuse of alcohol.

Although Fitzgerald managed, amid severe financial and emotional difficulties, to produce works like ``The Great Gatsby,'' ``Tender Is the Night,'' and ``The Last Tycoon,'' he was forced to devote much of his time to Hollywood and magazine writing (hack work, as he deemed it) to support his family.

Meyers's Fitzgerald is not really all that much more (or less) coherent than previous versions. It is hard to reconcile the vain, pretentious, self-absorbed young man presented in the first part of the book with the dedicated family man searching for the inner strength to write his self-critical, finely-wrought masterpieces who is movingly depicted in the latter part. Still Meyers is at least content to tell Fitzgerald's story unflinchingly and allow the pathos and curious heroism of his subject to merge for themselves.

David Leeming's biography of the late James Baldwin (1924-1987) is the work of a friend. (Three previous biographies of the writer were also by personal acquaintances.) Currently a professor at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Leeming served as Baldwin's secretary between 1963 and 1967 and was sometimes humorously introduced by Baldwin as ``my Boswell.''

In ``James Baldwin: A Biography,'' Leeming tells the poignant story of Baldwin's childhood and youth with a lively empathy that makes his portrait of the Baldwin he did not yet know as vivid as the later sections drawing on his firsthand experience of living and working with the man.

He focuses on the special problems faced by a brilliant young writer - poor, black, and homosexual - who managed to forge his identity as an artist and prophet in a world rife with prejudice.

Even when he becomes part of the story he's telling, Leeming remains a relatively unobtrusive narrator, straightforward and unselfconscious, letting Baldwin's magnetic personality shine through: impassioned, sometimes angry, but always profoundly compassionate and humane.

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