Posted by: zhiv | May 31, 2010

Reading Notes: The ODNB, Literary Biography, and Robert Gottlieb on Dickens

Interesting library trip the other day. I was taking some Thackeray books back, unread for the most part. My first stop was the new DNB, which I saw cited somewhere as the “ODNB,” apparently differentiating it from the original, and giving Oxford a nod in the process. I wanted to do a quick check on the authors of a couple of entries. This was a follow up to noticing that Michael Slater wrote the Dickens entry, and my search showed that Peter Shillingsburg did the Thackeray entry (one of Shillingsburg’s books was returned), and Rosemary Ashton wrote up George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans. I was struck by how many people named Evans there are in the ODNB, which gives a sense of its scope. I looked at Milton too, but didn’t note the author. It makes obvious sense that leading specialists would compose these entries, but it does seem to highlight Leslie Stephen’s accomplishment in writing the lives of almost all the major figures of 18th and 19th century English Literature.

As these are “reading notes” I’ll make an aside and mention that I’ve been thinking about what a course in Literary Biography might look like. I’m looking for a hook, and Creative Nonfiction is a common buzzword these days, one that might suffice to draw interest. The prompt for these idle musings was the syllabus for an Age of Johnson course that my friend is wrapping up right now. The course began with the Life of Savage (great book!) and includes a sampling of the Lives of the Poets and a reading of the abridged Penguin Boswell, along with Boswell’s London Journal too I think. My immediate thought was that you could pull out the London Journal, Thomas Gray and Fanny Burney and Johnson’s poetry and Edmund Burke and whatever else was on there, and make the second two-thirds of the course the 19th century development of biography, wrapping up with a glance at Woolf and Strachey. Would this be a good class? That’s probably matter for its own post at some point, working out the details.

Along these same lines I should also note that the same day I also read Robert Gottlieb’s review of Michael Slater’s biography of Dickens, in the NYRB. It’s an interesting piece, a review of the general development of Dickens biography, tracing the evolution from Forster through Edgar Johnson to Peter Ackroyd, Fred Kaplan, and Claire Tomalin, and placing Slater on the list. It’s very similar to the digest I recent read in The Dickens Industry, and I had a satisfying sense othat I knew where Gottlieb was going at every turn. Since the main prompt is Slater’s book, Gottlieb adjusts his focus through the original book that established Slater’s credentials (at least I think it was, though there might have been earlier works), his 1983 “Dickens and Women.” It appears that a primary adjustment to Edgar Johnson’s account was necessary with regards to Dickens’s treatment of his wife Georgina Hogarth, and Gottlieb’s (and Slater’s) Dickens is more passionate, driven, selfish and dismissive than before. Gottlieb covers Ellen Ternan and fits Ackroyd and Kaplan’s accomplishments into his review, but I was a bit surprised that he doesn’t mention the Staplehurst accident, which seems to have been so significant in the last part of Dickens’s life. He also doesn’t mention Jane Smiley’s brief biography, which is the one that I’d like to look at next. I can’t say that the review made me want to read Slater’s book any time soon, though I ‘m thinking of it as something which will be great to mosey towards over the course of the decade. It feels like there’s no rush.

Gottlieb’s own effort is interesting here, given his background. Mainly a super big time editor and publisher, who had a 1987-92 stint as editor of The New Yorker (where David Remnick seems to have settled in for the long haul, surpassing the relatively brief post-Shawn tenures of Gottlieb and Tina Brown), Gottlieb declares a keen general interest in literary biography, and shows that he’s just as good an English major as anybody else, and tells us he’s always excited to read about the lives of the Dr. Johnson, the Brontes, and Lord Byron. The life of Dickens is as good as it gets, as far as literary biography is concerned. The interest in biography makes some sense coming from some one who built a career making and editing and buying and selling books, rather than criticizing them. If literary biography was out of academic fashion in the first part of Gottlieb’s career in publishing, it was always a good business, and that’s an interesting thing to think about. As a reader of Dickens’s books with an interest in his life, Gottlieb must have been affected by Edgar Johnson’s biography, which has a peculiar status now as having been “seemingly definitive,” only it wasn’t. Literary biography was rock solid in the post-war era, despite the rise of formalism, because there was so much work to do in editing letters and filling in the facts. Gottlieb’s knowledge and sustained interest gives us a glimpse of what it was like to ride through the last half of the last century and into the next doing the job of nurturing contemporary literature, playing his own role in shaping literary lives. This was supported, it seems, by making more than the occasional glance at the lives of literary figures in the past.

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