In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Literary Biography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works

American Literature American Literary Biography
Carl Rollyson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0068


Biographies of American literary figures did not come into currency until the country began to explore the persons and conditions that made that emerging literature possible. Walt Whitman and Mark Twain appointed authorized biographers, Horace Traubel and Alfred Bigelow Paine, who began publishing multivolume works in 1892 and 1912, respectively. A depraved Edgar Allan Poe became the focus of the moralistic and deceitful Rufus Griswold in 1850, and Walt Whitman became lionized as the “good gray poet” in a pamphlet in 1866 and in Richard Maurice Bucke’s 1883 biography, as American authors deemed worthy of the attention already bestowed on public figures. Henry James’s biography of Hawthorne, published in 1879, is no more than a sketch, and it seems he could not even conceive of, say, a psychological biography along the lines of his own novels. American literary biography began to attract a mass audience in the 1920s, partly because of the rediscovery of Herman Melville, who became a major figure in biographies by Raymond Weaver, published in 1921, and by Lewis Mumford in 1929, both of whom sought to understand the troubled life and career of the author of a great American novel, Moby-Dick, who had lapsed into obscurity. Their books inspired a fascination with the possibilities of literary biography, spurred on by the wit and daring of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918), which brought to the genre a vivid style absent in the stolid biographies of Victorian worthies and sentimental, genteel depictions of American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by his brother Samuel Longfellow in 1881. That an American author could be the object of a narrative as engrossing as a novel attracted readers to biographies like that of Thomas Beer of Stephen Crane in 1923, although the biographer invented parts of his story and did not observe the standards of accuracy demanded much later, as in Arthur Hobson Quinn’s scrupulous Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (1941). The term “critical biography” became synonymous with the idea of biography as an accurate study based upon primary sources and verifiable testimony. However, American literary biography remained a modest enterprise with the notable exceptions of Newton Arvin’s Herman Melville, which won the National Book Award in 1950, or in a few more daring psychological narratives, such as John Berryman’s Stephen Crane: A Critical Biography (1950). The relative brevity of these books—compared to huge tomes produced on other public figures—reflected the tendency to focus on the writer’s work, not his life. Not until the late 1950s, with the five-volume biography of Henry James by Leon Edel were American biographers encouraged to explore the lives as well as the works of writers in meticulous detail. Edel achieved public and academic acclaim—still a rarity for biographers in higher education. No book is yet available devoted entirely to the history or the methodology of American literary biography.

General Overviews

Even though no book is devoted exclusively to the development of American literary biography, several books include chapters devoted to biographies of American literary figures and to American literary biographers. Bradford 2018 focuses mainly on the history of literary biography, with only two cases histories of American biographies, whereas O’Neill 1935 and Casper 1999 concentrate on American political figures, with the exception of one chapter in Caspar on writers. Petrie 1981 and Wilson 1991 are scholarly studies of the style and structure of American literary biographies. Serafin 1991a, Serafin 1991b, and Whittemore 1989 provide individual chapters on the careers of American literary biographers. Donaldson 2015 and Rollyson 2016 provide case histories of their working methods and address the question of biographical knowledge.

  • Bradford, Richard, ed. A Companion to Literary Biography. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018.

    Chapters on biographies of T. S. Eliot and Amy Lowell.

  • Casper, Scott E. Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

    See especially chapter 5 on the “American Men of Letters Series.”

  • Donaldson, Scott. The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.5325/j.ctv14gp3f1

    Valuable as the account of a working biographer of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and others.

  • O’Neill, Edward H. A History of American Biography, 1800–1935. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935.

    A survey that includes a discussion of Alfred Bigelow Paine, the biographer of Mark Twain.

  • Petrie, Dennis W. Ultimately Fiction: Design in Modern American Literary Biography. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1981.

    Chapters on biographies of William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, and Henry James.

  • Rollyson, Carl. Confessions of a Serial Biographer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

    Chapters on the process of proposing, researching and writing biographies of several American literary figures, including Lillian Hellman, Martha Gellhorn, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Amy Lowell, and Sylvia Plath.

  • Serafin, Steven, ed. American Literary Biographers, First Series. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991a.

    Essays on Gay Wilson Allen, Newton Arvin, Carlos Baker, Walter Jackson Bate, Van Wyck Brooks, Matthew J. Broccoli, Edwin H. Cady, Marchette Chute, James L. Clifford, Leon Edel, Richard Ellmann, Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb, Gordon S. Height, Archibald Henderson, Emory Holloway, Edgar Johnson, Leslie A. Marchand, Arthur Mizener, William Nelson, William Riley Parker, Frederick Pottle, Gordon N. Ray, Ralph L. Rusk, Mark Schorer, Louis Sheaffer, Ernest J. Simmons, Randall Stewart, W. A. Swanberg, Lawrance Thompson, Andrew Turnbull, Arlin Turner, Edward Wagenknecht, Ralph Wardle, and George Edward Woodberry.

  • Serafin, Steven, ed. American Literary Biographers, Second Series. Detroit: Gale Research, 1991b.

    Essays on Herschel C. Baker, Millicent Bell, Jackson J. Benson, Joseph Blotner, Frank Brady, Virginia Spencer Carr, Scott Donaldson, John William Halperin, Walter Harding, Park Honan, Donald R. Howard, Fred Kaplan, Justin Kaplan, Richard S. Kennedy, R. W. B. Lewis, Maynard Mack, Frank MacShane, Paul Mariano, Jay Martin, James R. Mellow, Jeffrey Meyers, Charles Norman, William H. Pritchard, Arnold Rampersad, B. L. Reid, Ernest Samuels, Richard B. Sewell, Kenneth Silverman, Francis Steegmuller, Madeleine B. Stern, Jean Strouse, Aileen Ward, Stanley Weintraub, Stephen E. Whicher, and James Leslie Woodress Jr.

  • Whittemore, Reed. Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

    A concluding chapter deals, in part, with American literary biography and the work of Leon Edel.

  • Wilson, Rob. “Producing Selves: The Form of American Biography.” In Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism. Edited by William H. Epstein, 167–192. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1991.

    Examines biographies of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, and Emily Dickinson.

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