Biography, Virginia Woolf once observed, is the search for the fertile fact. The four best biographies of 2009 each approach doorstop size—which suggests that, for these authors, there’s a lot of fertility in the facts. They aren’t stocking stuffers, but, if you’re looking for a Christmas present to give this year, any of these four books will delight the serious reader.
Blake Bailey, the author of Cheever: A Life (Knopf, 770 pages, $35), has more than a few fertile facts to work with. John Cheever—the midcentury novelist and author of more than 150 short stories—was selfish, unstable, alcoholic, narcissistic, sexually compulsive, and a rotten father. Nothing new there; writers are not typically known for their successful lives. What surprises is the almost obsessive contemplation of these personal failures in this biography. At times it transcends the tell-all and veers into voyeurism.
Certainly, one can’t fault Bailey’s research. The book is impressively sourced, drawing extensively on Cheever’s journals, and Bailey writes with real insight about Cheever’s fiction. Few fiction writers better captured postwar American suburbia than Cheever, with discontent bubbling beneath the grassy lawns. Fifty years later, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the genre: story after story about suburban WASPs indulging themselves in ennui and drink. But the economy and grace of Cheever’s best work, especially the short stories, will delight and surprise cynics. One hopes that this biography will reawaken interest in a writer who has made a slow fade from the reading lists.
The danger is that it will awaken mere titillation. Cheever was a mean drunk, driven early to the bottle by a shabby-genteel mother who ignored him and a father—suspecting he had sired “a fruit”—who never wanted him in the first place. In one particularly harrowing incident, Cheever’s father invited an abortionist to the family home weeks before baby John was born, hoping his wife would take the hint.
The story haunted Cheever his whole life and was a running theme in his late novel Falconer. Yet a drunken Cheever would later scream at his own son Ben, an effeminate boy who loved bubble baths, “Who do you think you are, a screen actress?” By the time he reached his forties, Cheever lubricated his writing with early-morning gin, and by his fifties he was gulping cheap wine on the street with the homeless—though never in an overcoat, since his father had told him that overcoats made you look déclassé and, worse, Irish.
Cheever was also a compulsive philanderer who—while outwardly married—carried on affairs with both sexes. It is difficult to separate fact from self-pity or self-aggrandizement when it comes to Cheever’s sexual activities, and Bailey flatly admits that Cheever edited his own journals; though whether it was to make them more or less sensational is unclear. (For example, Cheever hints at an affair with his own brother, which Bailey considers unlikely.) But Cheever was an active, if self-loathing, homosexual whose tastes tended toward prisoners and other rough trade, and Bailey spares few details. The book is at its best in its portrayal of a man who, even while being praised as one of the greatest living American writers, was swamped by loneliness and despair.
Flannery O’Connor predicted, “There won’t be any biographies of me,” since “lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” In the half century since her death, it seemed as if she might be right. Few novelists have had as profound an influence on American literature on so slim an output, which makes the lack of a definitive biography surprising. Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (Little, Brown, 464 pages, $30) seeks to rectify the oversight.
Gooch assumes (and here he has an enormous advantage over Bailey, whose subject few contemporary readers are familiar with) that the reader of the biography already knows the fiction that its subject wrote.
What delights in this biography is that, despite little sustained comment on O’Connor’s work, Gooch brings to life O’Connor the writer. He rescues O’Connor from the myth of “Miz Flannery”: the Southern Gothic, brooding on peacocks from her sickbed and writing with the fury of a tent revivalist speaking in tongues.
Far from a recluse, O’Connor was an active participant in literary affairs, corresponding frequently with authors and editors in New York and elsewhere and traveling to lecture as much as she was physically able. She also worked tirelessly but consistently at her craft, aware that a flare-up of lupus could derail her at any moment. The best chapters in this book recount O’Connor’s time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and later at Yaddo, where she met Robert Lowell (to whom she may have felt a romantic attachment) and her editor, Robert Giroux. In both places, she honed the compact, almost spare style that, when juxtaposed with the shocking violence and strangeness of O’Connor’s work, provides much of its emotional force.
Still, it’s hard not to feel the disparity between the eruptive quality of her fiction and her somewhat chaste life. Bridging that gap likely requires a literary biographer who can trace the influence of other writers on O’Connor’s work. As neither a Southerner nor a Catholic, Gooch is uninterested in pigeonholing O’Connor as one or the other. He might profitably have explored O’Connor’s place in and influence on twentieth-century literature, and especially the way she drew on such writers as Kafka, Balzac, Henry James, and even J.D. Salinger. (O’Connor reportedly devoured Catcher in the Rye in one sitting.) But Gooch is a biographer, not a critic. Which means that there is happily still room for another work on O’Connor to accompany this excellent biography.
Early reviews of Melvin Urofsky’s Louis D. Brandeis: A Life (Pantheon, 955 pages, $40) have described the book as “magisterial,” “comprehensive,” even “stately.” One suspects these adjectives are a polite way of saying the book is boring. There’s some truth to this; Urofsky is a law professor, which almost perforce means that he’s no stylist. One also has to question the editorial wisdom of allowing a biography of a famous Supreme Court justice to meander more than 450 pages before its subject even becomes a justice—a long walk through such dusty disputes as the Ballinger–Pinchot scandal and the 1890s battle over Boston’s utility rates.
Perhaps Urofsky was emulating Brandeis who was known for his meticulous mastery of facts and who had, even his closest friends admitted, no sense of humor. The wise reader will skim the first 450 pages and move directly to the vicious fight over Brandeis’ nomination and his years on the Supreme Court, where both the story and Urofsky’s prose gain speed and interest. Brandeis was among the first justices educated in the new “case-law method” pioneered by Harvard’s Christopher Langdell in the 1870s, and he was the first justice to reach the Court with a long record as an advocate for progressive causes.
While he joined his elder colleague Oliver Wendell Holmes in a series of famous dissents, Brandeis employed a quite different method of legal reasoning. While Holmes frankly admitted that he hated facts and used them only as pegs on which to hang legal principles, Brandeis, as a practicing lawyer, immersed himself in the facts of a case to show that a particular outcome was the more just. To this day, lawyers call a fact-intensive argument a “Brandeis brief.”
The approach made Brandeis a deadly effective advocate and earned him the sobriquet “the Peoples’ Lawyer.” But Urofsky never fully explicates the apparent tension between Brandeis the lawyer and Brandeis the judge, one of the foremost architects of “living constitutionalism.” As one example, before he took the bench, Brandeis and his legal partner Sam Warren penned “The Right to Privacy,” one of the most influential law-review articles in history, in the Harvard Law Review. The authors narrowly defined this proposed new right as one protecting the persona against unwanted publicity or appropriation for commercial ends. (The impetus for the article, apparently, was the irritation Warren—a wealthy Boston socialite—felt at seeing his name in the papers.)
While the article wove together a few strands from the common law, it largely built its case for such a right on “recent inventions and business methods” such as “instantaneous photographs and . . . numerous mechanical devices [that] threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’”
Within a few years, tort plaintiffs began to win judgments in cases built largely on Brandeis’ “right to be let alone.” But by the time Brandeis memorialized his arguments in his famous dissent in Olmstead v. United States, the first wiretap case, the focus on factual circumstances has disappeared, replaced by a broader appeal to constitutional “values”:
The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings, and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure, and satisfaction of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions, and their sensations. They conferred, as against the Government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.
Even Brandeis’ narrow right to control one’s persona has rested uneasily against the First Amendment. His broader “right to be let alone,” announced in Olmstead, comes almost totally untethered from both common-law tradition and constitutional text. It has become the shadowy penumbra of later decisions such as Roe v. Wade (which cited Olmstead at a key point)—decisions it is not at all clear that Brandeis, a personally conservative man, would have supported. Still, Urofsky’s biography is a valuable guide to the life and thought of a man who, for better and worse, profoundly shaped modern constitutional law.
It is perhaps instructive that the best of the best biographies of 2009—actually published in 2008, but late enough to be on this list—is also the slimmest. Thomas P. Slaughter’s The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition (Hill and Wang, 448 pages, $22), is a gem of the biographer’s art. Woolman was an eighteenth-century Quaker minister and spiritual writer who is often considered the founding father of abolitionism. His Journal, a spiritual autobiography, found admirers as diverse as William Wilberforce, Charles Beard, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb, who said it was the only book by an American worth reading twice. His Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was the first antislavery tract in American history and, until Uncle Tom’s Cabin, probably the most important antislavery work in existence.
Beyond his strict antislavery views, Woolman was perhaps America’s first animal-rights theorist and a prominent conscientious objector and tax protestor. He is best described as a prophet, a mystic, and an ascetic, and even among eighteenth-century Quakers, he was something of a purist. Woolman made few accommodations with life; he walked great distances rather than ride “on animals groomed by slaves or in commercial coaches whose teamsters drove the horses too hard.” A running theme in his spiritual writings is that parents should not love their children too much, lest that love divert them from love of God. He was a tailor by trade, but requests from slaveowners to sew clothing for slaves caused Woolman to ask for “time to consider the proposal [and] pray in silence, seeking a resolution true to his principles”—a resolution that would balance his dual concern for the slave’s comfort and the master’s spiritual fate. If he delivered the clothes, they often were at cost and accompanied by a plea to the master to divest himself of his human property. Not surprisingly, he got few such orders.
Slaughter describes his biographical approach as one of “critical empathy,” and the phrase is apt. He is frank in assessing Woolman’s less pleasant qualities: The man could be petty in his demands on others, hyperscrupulous, judgmental, confrontational, and shockingly distant from friends and family. (His marriage merits one line in the Journal, added as an afterthought in a blank space in the manuscript and accordingly dropped accidentally from the first printed version. Woolman’s wife fared better than his daughter, who was not mentioned at all.)
Slaughter also maintains a respectful distance from Woolman’s descriptions of his personal experience of the divine, noting dryly that such claims “cannot be resolved by the biographer.” But Slaughter does not dismiss Woolman’s mystical claims either, since neither unthinking acceptance nor unthinking skepticism is appropriate; and he intriguingly adds that “belief at least has the merit of engaging the historical figure on his own terms.”
Throughout this book, one truth reasserts itself again and again: How profoundly different John Woolman was from you and me. More than years separate us from this Quaker preacher and prophet who is our secular and spiritual forebear. We are a cultural and intellectual worldview apart from him, and, while one cannot but admire the intensity and purity of Woolman’s faith and convictions, it is doubtful that any of us would want to live as he did, or be his spouse, child, or colleague. Thomas P. Slaughter’s stunning achievement is that he makes this man, otherwise so far away, so very real.
Justin Torres is an attorney and writer in New Orleans.