John Haffenden William Empson,
Volume I: Among the Mandarins.
Oxford University Press, 695 pages, $45
After working on this biography for twenty years, John Haffenden probably knows more about William Empson than Empson did, but he has lost all sense of proportion. His 570 pages of text take us only up to 1939, with forty-five years of his subject’s life yet to come. Does a mere literary critic, even a great one as Empson indisputably was, deserve such lavish attention? He left only scraps of diaries, and kept no letters; Haffenden has been indefatigable in interviewing surviving witnesses, but there is frequently more background than foreground in his book. He is notably good at fitting Empson’s writings (creative as well as critical) into a biographical context, but the analyses can be over-elaborate—fifty pages, for instance, on the writing of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Moreover, with every...