Possession, or the Biographer’s Temptation

Unfortunately, we needed Madonna to tell us that “[w]e all live in a material world.” Our possessions confer status upon us, just as our actions and proclivities do. Some scholars pursue the foci of their research with rabid ferocity, scrounging through dusty volumes for any link, any insight, that could bastion their authority. What better possession to have than the authoritative account of an influencer’s life? Less scrupulous scholars can construct—on the surface—an innocuous narrative studded with the biographer’s own personal agenda. British novelist A.S. Byatt gives us reason enough to fear this possibility.


A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession, winner of England’s 1990 Booker Prize, follows the discovery of letters between two (fictional) Victorian poets, Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte. Mortimer Cropper, an Ash scholar and the novel’s antagonist, has transmogrified the poets into mere relics, possessions that are meant to be stored behind glass in Cropper’s Stant Collection at Robert Dale Owen University (also fictional). Cropper has written a biography of Ash entitled The Great Ventriloquist, which chronicles Cropper’s pursuits as much as it chronicles Ash’s life. Cropper, in writing about Ash’s Yorkshire venture, notes that Ash carried an ash plant, a metaphorical extension of the poet. Cropper laments, “It is a matter of regret to me that I have never been able to procure an authenticated exemplar of this Wotanstave for the Stant Collection.” Cropper continuously weaves his own experiences with his account on Ash.


Recent book reviews in the New York Times suggest that a biographer’s self-sycophantic appropriations of a subject are not limited to Byatt’s postmodern novel. In a review of A. David Moody’s biography of Ezra Pound, Charles McGrath lambasts Moody’s pedantism: “Moody is more concerned with cramming in information than with fashioning a narrative….He has little gift for characterization, so that the key people in Pound’s life…flit through these pages like disembodied presences, sometimes introduced in footnotes or sometimes not at all.” Moody uses his education to give us his Ezra Pound and tell us what his Ezra Pound means to us: “He knows more about Pound’s poetry than probably anyone else alive….” Biography allows obsessing scholars to possess their favorite authors, a temptation, indeed. And then the biographer and the subject are irrevocably linked, as suggested in Dan Chiasson’s review of Mark Scroggins’ biography about Louis Zukofsky: The biography “never strays far from Zukofsky the poet.” But Chiasson later writes, “A poet needs a myth of origin.” Here is the postmodern irony: the poets’ lives constitute the myth’s foundations, but the biographer refurbishes the legend. But knowledge should not eclipse the biography’s subject, freezing it into a still life like Mortimer Cropper’s depiction of Ash.


I have couched my arguments in a skepticism learned from Byatt’s provocative novel, but I believe that Byatt has asked us to doubt the biographers’ intentions. A.S. Byatt quotes Edmund Gosse (an actual Victorian author and critic) in Mortimer Cropper’s Ash biography when describing the destruction that befell the Yorkshire rock-basins: “An army of ‘collectors’ has passed over them, and ravaged every corner of them.” I fear that an army of collectors has launched a similar assault on the life stories of our greatest writers. We may live in Madonna’s material world, but our greatest literary minds are not dusty knickknacks.


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