In the writing of biographies there are, these days, three broad styles: literary, academic and journalistic. Quite by accident, each of these categories is represented in three new biographies, each with claims to being "major," of American writers. The results are surprising and perhaps revealing.
Two of the books are authorized biographies that bid fair to be "definitive": Ian Hamilton's life of Robert Lowell and Joan Givner's of Katherine Anne Porter. The third, Hilary Mills' life of Norman Mailer, was written without its subject's authorization but against no evident resistance. Hamilton's is "literary," Givner's "academic," Mills' "journalistic."
All three of these books are, of course, literary biographies in that their subjects are writers. But the "literary" style of biography is something different: a biography that seeks to be a work of literature itself. This can mean, as for example in Justin Kaplan's biographies of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, or Leon Edel's of Henry James, that the author attempts to inhabit the mind of his subject through bold psychological speculation -- to assert a creative presence of his own. It can also mean, as in the case of Hamilton's "Robert Lowell: A Biography," that through the ruffles and flourishes of its own prose style, and the aggressiveness of its critical judgments, the biography strives to be itself a work of art. For the biographer working in the "literary" style, Lytton Strachey's "Eminent Victorians" remains the paradigm.
The "academic" biography is a considerably newer form; Mark Schorer's 1961 biography of Sinclair Lewis is as good a landmark as any from which to date its inception. It is the byproduct of two important postwar developments: the encouragement within the academic community of intense specialization, and the donation or sale to libraries, by writers or their heirs, of vast storehouses of primary material. The chief characteristics of the academic biography are overwhelming detail and a refusal to evaluate the relative weight of that detail; the academic biographer gives us the facts, and leaves it to us to determine which are significant and which are not. When dealing with literary matters, the academic biographer also often assumes that there is an intimate correlation between the minutiae of a writer's work and the minutiae of a writer's life.
As for the "journalistic" biography, it tends to have more modest aspirations. Its author usually has newspaper or magazine experience and is accustomed to the rapid transmission of information. It is often written, in haste, to fill what is perceived as an immediate and perhaps only fleeting need--a campaign biography, or one timed to capitalize on a glamorous news event such as a coronation or a royal wedding or, in the case of Mills' book, the impending publication of Mailer's much-touted "big" novel. It goes without saying that the subjects of these biographies are usually among the quick rather than the dead; the biographer's chief sources are newspaper clippings and firsthand interviews.
Each of the three current examples of these biographical genres has its considerable attractions. Hamilton's is stylishly written (the biographer, like his subject, is a poet), it offers sympathetic but tart evaluations of Lowell's poetry, and it maintains a friendly but dispassionate point of view. Givner has stripped away much of the myth and fantasy with which Porter disguised her life, in the process suggesting that the facts of that life were indeed more interesting than the fictions. Mills has done an extraordinary job of interviewing and digging, has tied it all together with deft but unobtrusive commentary on the impulses that underlie Mailer's behavior and writing, and has brought off a feat that I had thought quite beyond possibility: She has made Norman Mailer almost -- if not quite -- a sympathetic figure.
And here is what is both startling and fascinating: Only in the Mills biography, of the three by far the most modest in its presumptions, do the subject and his life acquire genuine immediacy and vitality. Somehow Ian Hamilton, amid all his witty musings, manages never to get a hold on Robert Lowell and in the end loses him. Joan Givner smothers Katherine Anne Porter under too much trivial documentation too painstakingly elucidated. Yet Hilary Mills, through the simple device of letting people talk, gives us what has every appearance of being Norman Mailer in the flesh. Mailer's friends and enemies are intelligent, opinionated people who talk about him with passion, humor and authority; by exercising the good judgment to let them speak for themselves, and by editing their words with a fine eye for the telling anecdote or remark, she has done the biographer's job.
At this point, no doubt, a few readers -- precious few, I suspect -- will recall that for two years, the last of its existence, The Washington Star carried a column of book news written by Mills; at the time I was book editor of The Star. Yes, we are friends -- but somewhat to my surprise, I find this entirely irrelevant to my high opinion of her book. What she has accomplished provides a useful reminder that there is no single biographical method that provides the most direct and reliable path to the "truth" of a life, if, in fact, a biographer can realistically hope to find "truth." The biographer works in the style with which he is most comfortable; the results reflect his own skills more than they do the merits or shortcomings of his chosen style. In this instance, at least as I see it, the journalist produced the most fully rounded portrait, but in the next batch of biographies the results could be entirely different. That, I suppose, is one reason why a book reviewer stays interested in his work.