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Pen Is Truly Mightier Than Sword for Dueling Biographers

March 02, 1997|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The pillow talk would have been something.

That's if Henry James, the celebratedly celibate writer, did turn out to have had a one-night stand with Oliver Wendell Holmes, the titan of American jurisprudence, as Sheldon M. Novick maintains in his recent biography of the novelist.

That was too much for Leon Edel, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for his five-volume "Life of Henry James" (J.B. Lippincott, beginning in 1953), who set about demolishing the assertion in a review of "Henry James: The Young Master" (Random House) in Slate, the online magazine. "His data is simply too vague for him to get away with it," Edel concluded.

A six-week cyber slugfest--replete with graphic debates over specific sexual acts that may or may not have occurred, heaps of allegations of sloppy scholarship and charges (and countercharges) of incivility--ensued.

"This is your obsession, not mine," snapped Novick in reply. " . . . Your own biography of James is no longer useful. For a modern reader, it badly distorts the record of the novelist's life. I point out numerous errors and outright inventions in your work. . . . Lighten up, professor."

"I never thought I'd sympathize with Leon Edel. . . ," chimed in a third James biographer, Fred Kaplan, who went on to take Novick to task for "a series of non-scholarly and inconsistent twists, turns and weak readings that leave you stumbling over your own feet."

Bawling biographers, of course, are nothing new. But lately the vituperation level seems to have shot into the stratosphere--and one reason may be the ease with which disputants can hurl insults across the Internet, as in the Slate firefight, which after all was largely about an alleged one-night stand at the end of the Civil War.

More biographies of the same subject also make it necessary for writers to say something provocative, if not profound, to grab the attention of publishers, reviewers and the public. "That's what makes a life interesting to some people and makes it newsworthy to the media," said John Glusman, an executive editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "Who wants to read a boring life?"

What really fuels these disputes, says Brenda Wineapple, co-director of New York University's biography seminar, is the passion of the writers. "Hope springs eternal in the heart of every biographer that you'll find something new. When you have three biographers who are alive, you are bound to get controversy, which is a very good thing. . . . No one has a lock on history or interpretation or the truth or truths."

Still, in a culture where there always seems to be half a dozen TV shows on at any given time featuring such soul-stripping topics as "I can't stop dating prisoners," it may not be surprising that genteel literary debates and biographical discretion are not the order of the day.

"Things have opened up and biographies are part of that," noted Peter Wolfe, a professor of English at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. "Victorian biography was very adulatory. It nearly reads like press agentry."

Now, biographers are eager to take their gloves (and corsets) off with their subjects--and sometimes each other, as well. One of the busiest biographical battlers is Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book on the Kennedy clan ("The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," Simon & Schuster, 1987) was slammed by the country's first family; Goodwin then later trashed Nigel Hamilton for his "unconscionable" treatment of John F. Kennedy in the 1992 book "Reckless Youth" (Random House). Hamilton returned fire against Goodwin for enjoying privileged access to the Kennedy papers and trying to suck up to the family by abusing him.

At the same time, Goodwin, who was working on a soon-to-be bestseller on the Roosevelts, joined Geoffrey Ward, who has written two books on the young Franklin Roosevelt, to pummel Blanche Wiesen Cook for asserting in her book on Eleanor Roosevelt that FDR's wife may have had a lesbian affair and cheated on her husband with another man.

"Geoffrey Ward hates Eleanor Roosevelt," Cook wrote in response in the New York Review of Books, where the letters column often resembles the Battle of the Bulge with footnotes. " . . . My interpretation has not been throttled by the limits of the traditional penile imagination."

*

Few of the Boswellian blowups have been as long-running or as pitched as that triggered by Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington's 1988 biography "Picasso: Creator and Destroyer," (Simon & Schuster), which blamed the artist for, among much other human devastation, three suicides and two nervous breakdowns.

"He saw his role as a painter as fashioning weapons of combat against every emotion of belonging in creation and celebrating life, against nature, human nature and the God who created it all," she wrote, using the painter's life as a metaphor for the spiritual sickness of modern liberal society.

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