Poet Biographies & Biographical Fiction

MacManus, James      Black Venus      Thomas Dunne Books (2013)

*Starred Review* Beautifully capturing bohemian Paris in the late nineteenth century, Black Venus follows the rise and fall of the poet and translator Charles Baudelaire and his tempestuous relationship with his Haitian mistress, Jeanne Duval. The gritty streets of Paris’ Left Bank, the opulent life of aristocrats, and the dingy cabaret clubs combine to provide a rich backdrop to the love-hate story that unfolds between Baudelaire and Duval. Muse of many Parisian artists, Duval sits for paintings by Manet and inspires some of Baudelaire’s finest erotic poems, becoming one of the most mysterious beauties of her time. Meanwhile, Baudelaire seeks to defend his famous collection of poetry, Les Fleurs du Mal, against public charges of obscenity while at the same time sinking into an opium- and alcohol-induced depression. MacManus, managing director of the Times Literary Supplement, creates a gritty and engrossing world in this beautifully crafted narrative, which will leave readers swooning—and reaching for their favorite recording of La Bohème. –Heather Paulson, in Booklist

 

“Historical romance fans with an interest in Baudelaire or a penchant for 19th-century Paris will enjoy this novel.” ―Library Journal

“Through the clear narrative, readers are presented with a portrait of a complex relationship that grew within the decadent world of Parisian artists, poets and performers.” ―RT Book Reviews

“Very engaging and evocative of the Decadent Movement of Paris in the late 19th century, … I would recommend this book to any who are interested in Baudelaire, his poetry, reclaimed women’s history, or late 19th-century Paris.” ―Historical Novels Review

“This was a captivating novel that shed light on more than just what we already knew on Baudelaire. But what I appreciated most was this new portrayal of history’s much maligned Jeanne Duval. James MacManus brought forth a side of Jeanne that was easier to understand and even have compassion for. Black Venus is an exquisite read.” ―The Examiner

“Captures the avant-garde scene of Paris in the mid-nineteenth century…. MacManus skillfully recreates Baudelaire’s world with verve and imagination and renders a believable fictional interpretation of two very tempestuous personalities and their motives.” ―The Hudson Review

“A beautiful and gripping novel. A world that will entice you in and keep you reading until the end.” ―Kate Williams, author of The Pleasures of Men

“A wonderful book.” ―Imogen Robertson, author of The Paris Winter

“An engrossing, moving portrait of doomed love and genius.” ―The Sunday Times (UK)

“A vivid portrait of Paris during a turbulent period in its history, as well as an insightful exploration of the often self-destructive nature of genius.” ―Daily Mail (UK)

 


Sewall, Richard     The Life of Emily Dickinson     Harvard University Press, 1998

Winner of the National Book Award, this massively detailed biography throws a light into the study of the brilliant poet. How did Emily Dickinson, from the small window over her desk, come to see a life that included the horror, exaltation and humor that lives her poetry? With abundance and impartiality, Sewall shows us not just the poet nor the poetry, but the woman and her life.–Amazon.com

[A] brilliant, massively detailed biography…Emily Dickinson emerges in these pages not only as…one of the two greatest poets of America’s nineteenth century, but as an extraordinary and credible human being…Sewall is an exemplary biographer and critic, perhaps in some ironic way the kind of friend Emily sought unsuccessfully in her life. (Robert Kirsch Los Angeles Times)

By far the best and the most complete study of the poet’s life yet to be written, the result of nearly twenty years of work…The story of a long-standing affair between Austin Dickinson and a woman twenty-seven years younger than he, Mabel Loomis Todd…has not appeared in print before, and it makes an entrancing tale…A plainly authoritative work. (Richard Todd The Atlantic)Richard Sewall’s biographical vision of Emily Dickinson is as complete as human scholarship, ingenuity, stylistic pungency, and common sense can arrive at. (R. W. B. Lewis New Republic)

Although Professor Sewall produces new material everywhere, it is in the account of the scandals that he has the most startling abundance, much of it in the form of primary documents…One must thank him for the fullness and impartiality of his presentation. (Irvin Ehrenpreis New York Review of Books)

 


Ackroyd, Peter      Blake: A Biography      Alfred A. Knopf  (1996)

William Blake, a London hosier’s son, began having mystical visions at the age of eight and came to see his life as a revelation of eternity. While eking out a living as an engraver, he offered, quite unsuccessfully, his great series of prophetic books, Songs of Innocence and Experience. For Ackroyd, biographer of both Charles Dickens and T. S. Eliot, Blake was a visionary, who long before Freud saw warfare as a form of repressed sexuality and believed there were eternal states of rage, desire and selfhood through which a man passes, keeping his soul intact. The tragedy was that he had the capacity to become a great public and religious poet, but instead turned in upon himself, gaining neither reputation nor influence in his lifetime.– Amazon.com

 

Published to rave reviews in England, Ackroyd’s moving and luminous biography of William Blake (1757-1827) serves as an ideal point of entry into the poet and artist’s visionary world. Withdrawn, secretive, detached from ordinary affairs, Blake, a London hosier’s son, began having mystical visions around age eight and came to see his life as a revelation of eternity. While eking out a living as an engraver, he stripped away levels of conventional perception to create a universe of mythical figures, muses and angels, or prophets and bards who stand alone against the world. For Ackroyd, biographer of Dickens and T.S. Eliot, Blake’s tragedy was that he had the capacity to become a great public and religious poet but instead turned in upon himself, gaining neither reputation nor influence in his lifetime. Combining meticulous scholarship with uncanny psychological insight, this marvelously illustrated biography (with color and b&w plates of Blake’s paintings, drawings and engravings) presents him as a prescient social critic who, long before Freud, saw warfare as a form of repressed sexuality, and whose prophetic epic poems offer a cogent vision of humanity’s spiritual renewal. BOMC selection.–Publishers Weekly

Sisman, Adam     The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge     Viking, 2007

Many books have been written about William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge that cover their biographies and make critical assessments of their work. In Adam Sisman’s The Friendship, for the first time the bond between these two poets is given center stage. The friendship flourished in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The poets met in 1795 when both were in their early twenties, two young idealists disappointed by the lack of expected change in their world following the revolution. They wanted to write a poem that would change the world, that would be accessible to all and would fire the imagination of the most humble. This desire led to the publication of Lyrical Ballads, the beginning of the English Romantic movement, which included Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey.” How did their friendship affect their work? Sisman shows the ways that their bond created competitive tension and fueled their creativity to even greater poetic achievement than might have been achieved alone. The political and social situation of the time was very influential on them, as well as their individual families and romances. They were passionate in all regards, reaching great heights and great depths of feeling. Ultimately, the two men became estranged, and then effected a tenuous reconciliation–one much talked about among their friends and acquaintances, because they had both become famous. Although Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy despaired of Coleridge, believing that he would never stop drinking and taking opium, and though their professional differences came to separate them, while they collaborated they created poems of great beauty, encouraging one another to reach lofty heights in the realms of literary expression. For these two, for a glorious time, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. –Valerie Ryan, for Amazon.com

The close (but ill-fated) friendship between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously spawned England’s Romantic revolution in poetry. Although the men barely meet until almost halfway into this narrative, Sisman (who won a National Book Critics Circle award for Boswell’s Presumptuous Task) provides an extensive background to their relationship, delineating in particular the political landscape that so influenced both men’s thinking. The book opens with Wordsworth’s travels through revolutionary France and his growing intimacy with his sister, Dorothy. But as soon as the charismatic Coleridge enters the scene in 1797, Wordsworth recedes—perhaps because, as a reluctant letter writer, he left fewer resources for Sisman to draw on. Still, Sisman elegantly weaves the two men’s stories together. Knowing how people tend to justify their own actions, Sisman is appropriately skeptical of their own accounts of their lives, using them to propose the most likely scenarios rather than as hard fact. Though lengthy, this book engages the reader’s attention, freely mixing larger questions of politics with gossip, which helps bring to life figures long reified in the public imagination. At times there is too much detail, which doesn’t enhance an already overloaded story explored extensively elsewhere. But Sisman does open up to the general reader the personal interactions that led to the birth of Romanticism. 16 pages of photos.–Publishers Weekly
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Holmes, Richard    Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804    Pantheon, 1998

“Poet, journalist, letter-writer, critic, autobiographer, lecturer, folklorist, philosopher: when a man’s genius is so amorphous and protean, how can any one biographer hope to encompass it? Yet, miraculously, in this first of two volumes, Richard Holmes has succeeded in doing so . . . His masterly book leaves one feeling that, if there were a single literary giant of the past, other than Shakespeare, whom one was permitted to meet, then Coleridge would be the choice.” —Francis King, Evening Standard (London)

“The best literary biography since Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde.” —John Mortimer, Sunday Times (London)

“Dazzling . . . Here is Coleridge, attractive and repellant, with all his seductive contradictions: the young man with his mountainous aspirations, his dreaminess . . . yammering poetry, pounding the turnpikes, dominating drawing-rooms; the foaming genius, messy with metaphysical secretions and uncontrollable speculations. Holmes has not merely reinterpreted Coleridge, he has re-created him, and his biography has the aura of fiction, the shimmer of an authentic portrait. [This is] a biography like few I have ever read.” —James Wood, The Guardian (London)

 From Library Journal: A winner of the Whitbread Prize for biography, this first of what will be a two-volume biography of Coleridge is superb. Holmes has indeed “taken Coleridge into the open air.” By brushing aside the givens of critical opinion without dismissing them and making extensive use of the letters and notebooks, a fresher Coleridge emerges. It is still the Coleridge with drug and financial problems, a tendency toward plagiarism and murky thought, the dreaming schemer, but he somehow comes out of this account more a fascinating character than a literary relic. The British rave-ish reviews are well deserved, as this work promises to become a standard. The one thing Holmes tends to gloss over is Coleridge’s philosophical background, but this background is well covered elswhere, and Holmes hints that he may do more in Volume 2. — Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.

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Motion, Andrew     Keats     Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998

Whitbread Prize-winning biographer Andrew Motion (Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life) aims to broaden our understanding of John Keats (1795-1821) by paying close attention to the historical context in which he wrote and the political opinions he voiced. The poet was “of a sceptical and republican school,” Motion argues, and Keats’s work reflected his experiences “not just as a private individual, but socially and politically as well.” This bracing reinterpretation stresses the vigor of Keats’s character as well as his verse, burying for good the sentimental cliché of a sickly dreamer concerned only with art for art’s sake.–Amazon.com

Motion’s previous work, Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life (LJ 8/93), won Britain’s Whitebread Prize. In his new book, he has re-created the life of the poet John Keats (1795-1821) through insightful observation and narrative clarity often lacking in such a scholarly work. Keats was orphaned as a boy, trained as a doctor before becoming a poet, and died in Rome at age 25. Immediately after his death, Shelley mythologized him in the elegy “Adonais,” which helped create the myth of Keats as the quintessential poet. In this original biography, however, Motion has provided a thorough examination of the social, familial, political, and financial forces that shaped the real man rather than the poet of myth. One highlight is a discussion of the factors in Keats’s short but productive life that influenced themes prevalent in his poetry, such as beauty and healing. Recommended for large public libraries and all academic libraries. Kim Woodbridge, Athenaeum of Philadelphia, in Library Journal
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.

 


Gigante, Denise  The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George   Bellknap Press, 2011

It is a tribute to Gigante that she adds so much to our understanding of Keats’s life by going beyond the books of Bate, Ward, Gittings, and Motion. This is accomplished not only through original research but through new insights, many of them provided by her deep sense of John and George as brothers. (Harold Bloom)

A tremendous amount of research has gone into this dual biography of John and George Keats, and it has paid off handsomely, especially in the sections on George’s life in America. This vivid and lively biography will appeal to readers who care about Keats’s poetry and life as well as those interested in the transatlantic phenomenon of Romanticism, embodied in sibling forms in the two brothers. (David Mikics, University of Houston)

If we read the orphaning of John Keats as the dominant autobiographic source of the imagination in his poetry–including the early deaths of his parents and his brother Tom–we must acknowledge that George Keats’s emigration to America, in June 1818, is even more crucial to the great writing–including the extraordinary letters as well as the poems–that follows. Denise Gigante’s The Keats Brothers is as unique as it is compelling in this story of the separation between George and John. And it is brilliant in its understanding of the consequences of the parting to the poet’s life and art–as both desperation and inspiration. The narrative of the necessity and bravery of the brother who leaves England for the frontier of a new and wild country has for too long been neglected. With rare depth, thoroughness, and grace, Gigante brings into balance the American half of the whole of John Keats’s tragic biography. (Stanley Plumly, University of Maryland)

A thoroughly researched and beautifully written account that has some of the appeal of a New Yorker profile. (Jack Stillinger, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

[The Keats Brothers] takes a step beyond standard biographies in several ways. Most importantly, it explores the central role George played in recognizing and emotionally supporting John’s genius. (Publishers Weekly 2011-08-29)

Gigante has had the clever idea of telling the stories of John and George as parallel lives, a dual biography of brothers. Of course, no single achievement of George’s matches John’s in any imaginable way…The challenge for Gigante is to give sufficiently rich detail concerning George’s travels in America to outweigh the conspicuous achievement gap between the two brothers. Mostly, she succeeds brilliantly. The American wilderness, she points out, had long appealed to English poets, as a land of utopian social possibility and sublime natural imagery…Gigante memorably contrasts these imaginary worlds with the slovenly wilderness and grimy inhabitants that George and Georgiana witnessed as they traveled by barge and wagon into the interior…The book ends splendidly…with the apparition of Oscar Wilde, long after George’s death by tuberculosis in 1841, lecturing on John Keats, “the real Adonis of our age,” to the people of Louisville in 1882, and admiring Keats’s manuscripts in the hands of his niece, Emma. (Christopher Benfey New York Times Book Review 2011-10-16)

[Gigante’s] book, with its transatlantic sweep and epic narrative–including cameos from John James Audubon, Emerson, and more–offers a detailed study of the stunning vicissitudes of the brothers’ lives. Even those familiar with the poet’s timeline will see it anew through the lens of this intense sibling relationship…As she unravels the compelling story of John’s and George’s lives, Gigante easily overturns stereotypes about academics churning out dry prose. She has the descriptive power of a novelist or poet…The Keats Brothers is a major accomplishment, one that will surely influence biographies of Keats yet to come. (Carmela Ciuraru Barnes & Noble Review 2011-10-17)

There have been plenty of good biographies of Keats but Denise Gigante has had the bright idea of writing a dual biography intertwining the sad history of John with the much less well-known story of his brother George…Gigante examines their sometimes strained fraternal intimacy in this resourceful and engaging book…Some of the most gripping pages in this lively and consistently interesting book are not about poetry at all, but rather recreate the adventures of the George Keatses across America, through Ohio to Cincinnati and on to Louisville. Gigante portrays very well the sheer discomfort of it all, the whiskey-soaked world of the steamboats, the reckless and chaotic entrepreneurialism and the accompanying ecological horrors of forest-clearing–out of which George did very nicely thank you…Gigante chooses to tell the story of Keats’s last months by flipping to and fro between George in America and John, first in London and then in Italy, failing in the grip of his appalling disease, with “no religion to support him” (as Joseph Severn, his companion in the last weeks, said). This decision gives the book a “meanwhile back at the ranch” quality which is nothing but a pleasure, and creates some sad contrasts that Gigante is too well mannered to labor…The decision to tell their lives in parallel does make a kind of sense, and Denise Gigante has done it with much style. (Seamus Perry Literary Review 2011-11-01)

We not only learn a lot about George, who invariably and inevitably plays only a minor role in biographies of his brother–but as the lives illuminate each other, new light is shed upon material that we thought we knew already…Why is The Keats Brothers such a terrific read? What is the secret of this stunning achievement, and what makes this book so unputdownable?…The first is that [Gigante] is a hell of a storyteller. Departing from Plutarch’s model, Gigante adroitly alternates between John’s life and George’s, counterpointing the one with the other, drawing out parallels and contrasts with an ease that can inspire only admiration…The second reason is that Gigante possesses imagination to an uncommon degree. And what is a biography without imagination, empathy and judgement? The opening pages alone (set in Margate in 1816) and the epilogue (Oscar Wilde visiting Louisville, Kentucky, in 1882) are dazzling gems of inspired life writing–but there are many, many more such passages…Gigante has that eye for the telling detail that only the born storyteller has–and, pace Plutarch, she gives us both lives and history: her vignettes of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, of New York and Louisville are first-rate history made alive–they open up a new world, and the New World, to Keats scholars. In a way different from William Wordsworth, John Keats knew how to make poetry out of loss. In Denise Gigante he has found a congenial biographer, writing as she does about what remains, even if there is all ocean between. (Christopher Bode Times Higher Education 2011-11-10)

In The Keats Brothers, Denise Gigante has crafted a detailed, fast-moving life of this strong-minded poet and the siblings who helped sustain him…Out of primary documents she reanimates a major poet and his world, and crafts a transatlantic adventure story with a novelist’s gift for moving narrative along. In brief, Gigante convincingly demonstrates that George Keats, the poet’s junior by sixteen months, served as John’s “muse.” (Patrick Kurp Quarterly Conversation 2011-12-05)

A bold, expressive style makes this an engaging narrative throughout. The love, misunderstanding, and rivalry between a spiritual adventurer and a worldly one are emblematic of contrasts in 19th-century British culture. (R. K. Mookerjee Choice 2012-03-01)

What makes Gigante’s approach different…is her determination to weave the life of the poet back into the family woof, to see the Keats siblings John, George, Tom, and Fanny as their own most relevant personal and social unit, “unmoored” and isolated from society as they were by the early deaths of their parents…It is George’s life that generates everything that is rich and strange about the biography, and there is much to relish in Gigante’s extensively researched and detailed account of the American republic during the early decades of the nineteenth century. (William Christie Australian Book Review 2012-04-01)

Denise Gigante‘s lively The Keats Brothers is a dual biography in which both John and George play equal parts…Gigante details the brothers’ lives in Great Britain and America but excels when discussing John’s poems–calling attention to less familiar works like ‘Hither, hither, love.’ (David Mason Wall Street Journal 2012-11-22)

Beautifully written…[It] comes closest to answering the question of when Keats became a great writer…Gigante‘s method of writing the Lives of John and George in parallel allows her to bring into focus the key fact that other biographers sometimes forget: that the reason why Keats went north in the first place was to say goodbye to George as he set sail for America from Liverpool. George’s distance–and, soon after, the even profounder absence created by [their brother] Tom’s death–was the primary force that shaped Keats in the year from the autumn of 1818 when he wrote his greatest poetry. (Jonathan Bate Times Literary Supplement 2012-12-07)

There have been at least ten major literary biographies of Keats over the last fifty years, and several of them remain classics of the genre…Yet fresh and more dispassionate points of view are still possible. Denise Gigante, in The Keats Brothers, gives us the story as seen essentially from the outside, through the eyes of Keats’s younger brothers Tom and especially George, the least like the poet…Far from reducing Keats, this fraternal view of a more vulnerable man has the paradoxical effect of making Keats even more striking and vivid, as no doubt Gigante intended. (Richard Holmes New York Review of Books 2013-11-07)