Fashions of literary criticism seem to have a half-life of about ten years. Interestingly enough, through all the changes of schools and approaches, the biography of writers has continued to compel an undiminished interest. Read not only by literature professors but also by interested nonprofessional readers, the lives of novelists rival in popularity the great novels themselves.

What sustains this interest? At times, something resembling high-level gossip is at work, as we learn of the sex lives, foibles, jealousies, and petty actions of the great. Or biographers indulge the desire to take the writer down a peg or two by “explaining” his achievements as the product of some psychopathology, as a mere apology for some heinous social practice, or as the predictable result of shoddy intellectual influences. Such explanations fail to convince, because there are always many people who suffer from a given complex, want to apologize...


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