In Part One of our Great Biographies series, iUniverse discussed Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Today, we look at two more literary biographies: one of Geoffrey Chaucer, and another of Irish novelist James Joyce.
Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World by Donald R. Howard was first published in 1987. Chaucer is of course known for his Canterbury Tales, establishing him as the first major writer in English and one of our finest storytellers. Howard was a professor of literature at several universities during his life, and concluded his career by teaching at Stanford University.
Naturally, unlike Boswell and Johnson, Howard did not know Chaucer personally – they are separated by a distance of 600 years! Hence, Howard was faced with a more challenging task of retrieving and discovering documents that would contribute to his depiction of Chaucer.
Howard was a master researcher, and his book succeeds in illustrating the private, social, and poetic lives of Chaucer. The book is also a historical biography, as Howard informs readers about life in England in the 1300s. While we do not have the same intimacy with Chaucer as we do with Samuel Johnson, we do understand the world in which he lived and the influences on his writing.
Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, published in 1959, is also academic in nature, though with differences from the book above. Ellmann was also a professor, and ended his career at New College, Oxford. Joyce, who had become one of the 20th century’s most recognized writers with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, died in 1941. Hence, Ellmann had a subject for his book that was relatively fresh.
He certainly used the latter to his advantage. The biography contains a wealth of interviews and quotes from Joyce’s friends and family, as well as notes, letters, and even examples of Joyce’s schoolwork! Each page contains footnotes that are as interesting to read as the page itself. Throughout all of the work, Ellmann shows us the various sides of Joyce’s personality and character while also explaining the rather esoteric nature of Joyce’s writings – including the formidable Finnegans Wake. The biography is so comprehensive and exhaustive as to make the idea of writing another bio of Joyce rather pointless.
In our third installment, iUniverse will examine two non-literary biographies: one of a statesman, and one of a rock star!
If you were to write the biography of a writer, who would be your first choice for a subject? Feel free to write in and comment.