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In The Impossible Craft, Scott Donaldson explores the rocky territory of literary biography, the most difficult that biographers try to navigate. Writers are accustomed to controlling the narrative, and notoriously opposed to allowing intruders on their turf. They make bonfires of their papers, encourage others to destroy correspondence, write their own autobiographies, and appoint family or friends to protect their reputations as official biographers. Thomas Hardy went so far as to compose his own life story to be published after his death, while falsely assigning authorship to his widow. After a brief background sketch of the history of biography from Greco-Roman times to the present, Donaldson recounts his experiences in writing biographies of a broad range of twentieth-century American writers: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Cheever, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Winfield Townley Scott, and Charlie Fenton.
Donaldson provides readers with a highly readable insiders’ introduction to literary biography. He suggests how to conduct interviews, and what not to do during the process. He offers sound advice about how closely biographers should identify with their subjects. He examines the ethical obligations of the biographer, who must aim for the truth without unduly or unnecessarily causing discomfort or worse to survivors. He shows us why and how misinformation comes into existence and tends to persist over time. He describes “the mythical ideal biographer,” an imaginary creature of universal intelligence and myriad talents beyond the reach of any single human being. And he suggests how its very impossibility makes the goal of writing a biography that captures the personality of an author a challenge well worth pursuing.
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Scott Donaldson is an accomplished biographer and the Louise G. T. Cooley Professor of English at the College of William and Mary, emeritus. His publications include Fitzgerald and Hemingway: Works and Days (2009), Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship (1999), John Cheever: A Biography (1988), and Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1983). His Archibald MacLeish: An American Life (1992) won the Ambassador Book Award for biography.Review:
“What makes The Impossible Craft so satisfying is Mr. Donaldson’s willingness to address the nature of biography on many different levels. Those simply curious about how biographers work will get an education, and those who already know a good deal about biography will nevertheless find his case studies riveting. His book, in fact, is a model for what more literary critics should be doing.”
—Carl Rollyson, Wall Street Journal
“A captivating and intimate glimpse of the challenges and rewards of writing lives of novelists and poets.”
“Being a seasoned practitioner, Scott Donaldson understands the complexities, challenges, and delights of literary biography. This is a fine take on an ancient, often misunderstood, craft. A welcome addition to one of the least theorized of all genres.”
—Jay Parini, author of Robert Frost: A Life
“There may not be another writer in America more qualified than Scott Donaldson to meditate on the agonies—and separate-peace victories—of the literary biographer. He has delivered a biography of biography-making, and he doesn't spare us his mistakes and regrets.”
—Paul Hendrickson, author of Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost
“Scott Donaldson brings several decades of experience as a literary biographer to The Impossible Craft—a fascinating study of how and why biographies are written. How does a biographer develop a persona and a voice? How does a biographer deal with the literary heirs? Must the biographer like the subject? Is biography a craft, as the title of this book implies, or an art, or something else? Scott Donaldson has earned the right to have his say on all of these matters.”
—James L. W. West III, Pennsylvania State University
“Scott Donaldson’s The Impossible Craft is a revealing, entertaining, and ultimately inspiring look at a literary form that too many readers assume is a simple matter of compiling chronologies and presenting dry facts dug up through research. In discussing the art of biography—in particular, literary biography, in which the subject isn’t just an important literary figure but the telling of the life subscribes to its own high standards of narrative craft and execution—Donaldson proves why he is regarded as a master of this genre. In exploring such nuts-and-bolts issues as the proprieties of interviewing and securing permissions, he offers practical advice to aspiring biographers. This book is so much more than a primer or how-to guide, however. Donaldson plumbs the dangers of overidentifying with one’s subject and of ramrodding a single thesis across a lifespan. He examines the ethical challenges of judging the relevance of details, of the repercussions of including unflattering information, and the consequences for one’s credibility of suppressing it. He assures us that biographers inevitably get some things wrong and that what they get right is sometimes serendipitous. He also tells us exactly what we shouldn’t expect biography to do.
“At the core of the book are case histories involving the writers Donaldson has spent his career studying. One brilliant section explores the behind-the-scenes rivalries and conflicting agendas that doomed Edwin Arlington Robinson’s first biographer, Hermann Hagedorn, to produce a pedestrian ‘life of . . .’ that may have stymied critical interest in a poet who didn’t deserve to fall out of fashion (or to have his name so often incorrectly cited as Edward). Another chapter examines how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s many biographers incrementally embellished upon the few certifiable facts known about Zelda’s 1924 “affair” with a French aviator to dramatize a central episode in the couple’s fabled romance. Finally, Donaldson returns twenty-five years later to the story of his own exasperating dealings with the estate of John Cheever over a project that nearly drove him out of the business. At once admitting mistakes and yet defending his turf, Donaldson shows how biography is always personal.
“Interwoven with autobiographical anecdotes and propelled by fascinating stories, The Impossible Craft explains why the writing of biographies is often as conflicted, emotionally fraught, and downright messy as the lives they document.”
—Kirk Curnutt, author of Coffee with Hemingway
“Donaldson’s book is a wonderfully engaging read, not only for biographers or would-be biographers but also for students and scholars of literature. It provides valuable context regarding the challenges and insights of biographical research and can broaden our understanding of biographical narrative and the literary voices we value.”
—Sara A. Kosiba, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review
“While the autobiographical portions of The Impossible Craft are compelling enough, the parts that had me repeatedly reaching for my commonplace book (or rather clicking open the Word doc that has supplanted it) are those in which Donaldson undertakes a sort of tour d’horizon of the difficulties, weaknesses, hazards, and rewards of biography, and of who has memorably said what about them.”
—Ben Downing, The Hopkins Review
“Books about the nature and practice of biography are rare. As such, this eminently readable and important book by a stellar biographer is uniquely instructive.”
—David Madden, Key Reporter
“This well-written study belongs in the hands of every would-be or seasoned writer and every impassioned reader and teacher.”
—Dale Salwak, Biography
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