Faulkner, Kafka, James, Twain, Proust, Austen, Highsmith, Oates, and Welty among other major author biographies receive penetrating and lively discussions through the work of their biographers.
With the publication of Susan Sontag's diaries, the development of her career can now be evaluated in a more genetic sense, so that the origins of her ideas and plans for publication are made plain in the context of her role as a public intellectual, who is increasingly aware of her impact on her culture. In Understanding Susan Sontag, Carl Rollyson not only provides an introduction to her essays, novels, plays, films, diaries, and uncollected work published in various periodicals, he now has a lens through which to reevaluate classic texts such as Against Interpretation and On Photography, providing both students and advanced scholars a renewed sense of her importance and impact.
Rollyson devotes separate chapters to Sontag’s biography; her early novels; her landmark essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will; her films; her major mid-career books, On Photography and its sequel, Regarding the Pain of Others; and Illness as Metaphor and its sequel, AIDS and Its Metaphors, together with her groundbreaking short story, “The Way We Live Now.” Sontag’s later essay collections and biographical profiles, collected in Under the Sign of Saturn, Where the Stress Falls, and At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, also receive a fresh assessment, as does her later work in short fiction, the novel, and drama, with a chapter discussing I, etcetera; two historical novels, The Volcano Lover and In America; and her plays, A Parsifal, Alice in Bed, and her adaptation of Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea. Chapters on her diaries and uncollected prose, along with a primary and secondary bibliography, complete this comprehensive study.
Walter Brennan (1894–1974) was one of the greatest character actors in Hollywood history. He won three Academy Awards and became a national icon starring as Grandpa in The Real McCoys. He appeared in over two hundred motion pictures and became the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting, which celebrated the actor’s unique role as the voice of the American Western. His life journey from Swampscott, Massachusetts, to Hollywood, to a twelve-thousand-acre cattle ranch in Joseph, Oregon, is one of the great American stories.
A riveting examination of Amy Lowell’s private life and lover, Ada Russell, who did so much to make Lowell’s career possible. The startling discovery of a new Amy Lowell lover who perished on the Lusitania. A compelling window into Lowell’s gregarious character. Concise readings of Lowell’s most important poems reveal the depth and range of her erotic imagination. An astute analysis of the way biographers and critics have maligned Lowell as a person and poet.
Dana Andrews (1909–1992) worked with distinguished directors such as John Ford, Lewis Milestone, Otto Preminger, Fritz Lang, William Wyler, William A. Wellman, Mervyn Le Roy, Jean Renoir, and Elia Kazan. He played romantic leads alongside the great beauties of the modern screen, including Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson, Merle Oberon, Linda Darnell, Susan Hayward, Maureen O’Hara, and most important of all, Gene Tierney, with whom he shared five films. Retrospectives of his work often elicit high praise for an underrated actor, a master of the minimalist style. His image personified the “male mask” of the 1940s in classic films such as Laura, Fallen Angel, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, in which he played the “masculine ideal of steely impassivity.” No comprehensive discussion of film noir can neglect his performances. He was an “actor’s actor.”
Here at last is the complete story of a great actor, his difficult struggle to overcome alcoholism while enjoying the accolades of his contemporaries, a successful term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, and the love of family and friends that never deserted him. Based on diaries, letters, home movies, and other documents, this biography explores the mystery of a poor boy from Texas who made his Hollywood dream come true even as he sought a life apart from the limelight and the backbiting of contemporaries jockeying for prizes and prestige. Called “one of nature’s noblemen” by his fellow actor Norman Lloyd, Dana Andrews emerges from Hollywood Enigma as an admirable American success story, fighting his inner demons and ultimately winning.
I wrote this biography because there were aspects of Sylvia Plath that other biographers have overlooked or misunderstood. But as I wrote I re-read my predecessors. I checked to see how others had handled the same material. I think my practice in doing so is worth mentioning because I have dispensed with a good deal of the boilerplate that most biographers feel compelled to supply. I say little, for example, about the backgrounds of Plath’s parents. I don’t describe much of Smith College or its history. I do very little scene setting. Previous biographers do all this and more, and what strikes me about their work is how distracting all that background is for someone wishing to have a vision of Sylvia Plath, of what she was like and what she stood for. To put it another way, since earlier biographers have done so much to contextualize Plath, I have not wanted to repeat that exercise, as valuable as it can be for the Plath novice. Instead, I have concentrated on the intensity of the person who was Sylvia Plath, restricting my discussion of her writing only to the truly crucial pieces that advance my narrative. I have tried to write a narrative so focused that a reader new to Plath biography may feel some of the exhilaration and despair that marked the poet’s life.
Ever since she took American culture by storm with the publication of her Notes on Camp in 1964, Susan Sontag has been a star. Her austere glamour has been a critical factor in her success, making her a role model for intellectual women, a sex symbol for brainy men.
She has never ceased to fascinate the public: as brilliant wunderkind, bringing the latest in French thought to America; as sophisticated analyst of her own experience with cancer in Illness as Metaphor; as champion of free speech in the Rushdie Affair; as theater director in besieged Sarajevo; and, with the publication of The Volcano Lover, as best-selling historical novelist. Yet she has both courted that fascination and insisted on holding it at a distance, demanding control over her public image.
This first -- and most definitely unauthorized -- biography delves beneath the surface to examine the forces that made Susan Sontag an international icon. Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock explore her public persona and private passions, including the strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame and her political moves and missteps. Above all, they show how the life of Susan Sontag reveals to us the way we live now.
"Reading Carl Rollyson's reading Susan Sontag is like reading Susan Sontag through a prism of a clear and articulate sensibility. One can ask for no better guidebook to an appreciation and understanding of a major American public intellectual and literary figure." --M. Thomas Inge, Blackwell Professor of English and Humanities, Randolf-Macon College
This book includes a selection of Rollyson's New York Sun book reviews dealing with female icons such as Mary Stuart, Mary Wollstonecraft, The Brontës, Marie Curie, Harriet Tubman, Zelda Fitzgerald, and Sylvia Plath. Rollyson's writing about icons has provoked him to question the process by which selves are defined. Discovering the shaping mechanisms of the self is simultaneously a way of understanding how biographies are built.
In the end, this book should be of interest not merely to devotees of Monroe, Sontag, and other icons but also to anyone curious about the nature of biography and the biographer.
The Literary Legacy of Rebecca West is the first book to explore the entire corpus of her extraordinary seventy-one year writing career. The general introductory studies of West are outdated and do not take into account her posthumous publications, or her large literary archive of unpublished letters and manuscripts. Previous scholarly books have chopped West up into categories and genres instead of following the evolution of her career. Rollyson, author of Rebecca West: A Saga of the Century, draws on new scholarship and his interviews with West's contemporaries to provide the first organic account of her esthetic and political vision.
Thus piece by piece, Rollyson accumulated what is now another book about Rebecca West. This new collection tells the story of how his biography got written, of what it means to think like a biographer, and why West's vision remains relevant. She is one of the great personalities and writers of the modern age, and one that we are just beginning to comprehend.
Carl Rollyson was Norman Mailer's first literary biographer to draw on unpublished letters and manuscripts as well as on interviews with the writer's friends and foes. Rollyson provides a full account of Mailer's college years, especially his fear of being drafted. Here are the sources of Mailer's mental crisis in the 1950s that led to the stabbing of his second wife, Adele. Norman Mailer: The Last Romantic gets at the sources of Mailer's obsession with violence while also portraying a major literary figure in the making, from his fabulous debut war novel, The Naked and the Dead to his final bid for literary fame, The Castle in the Forest, a brooding foray into 20th century evil via an account of Adolf Hitler's early life. A final chapter rounds out a penetrating account of Mailer's final two decades of productivity which yielded books as various as a controversial biography of Picasso and a philosophical dialogue on the nature of God.
Emerson wrote that “There is properly no history; only biography.” Disraeli: “Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” Carlyle: “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Rollyson knew he was onto something when he took up the subject of biography. But why biography now? “Historians distrust biography,” Rollyson writes in a review of two books on Stalin. “Modern historiography has rejected Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory of history in favor of complex explorations of historical process, of the forces and factors that shape the world regardless of its individual players.” True enough, but social history doesn’t exactly lend itself to page-turner reading, and increasingly it is biographers who have taken up the slack of writing accessible history. Rollyson settles on a quote from Louis Fischer to best describe his interest: “Biography is history seen through the prism of a person.”
As a biographer himself, Rollyson has more than a few ideas about its mechanics. He writes of Michael Barber’s Anthony Powell: A Life, for example:
I like the feel of Mr. Barber’s book, and the sense that he is aware of how to manage his own narrative. Thus he writes: “This is probably the place to summarise Powell’s athletic record at Eton.” Rarely does he succumb to the bane of biography, the “must have been” and the “reasonable to suppose,” which are no more than oblique confessions of ignorance.
With more than a concern for tricks of the trade, Rollyson clues us into becoming—if not better writers—better readers of biography. Reading Biography has a production value that can best be described as “cut-and-paste.” The upside is that it contains reviews that are still quite timely—covering many of the same books reviewed recently in these pages." --James Panero, New Criterion, March 2005
This collection of reviews, selected from Rollyson’s New York Sun column, is as much about the romance of biography as it is about the American lives. Certain concerns resonate throughout the book: the American left’s failure to reckon with Communist subversion, McCarthyism, and Stalinism, the problematic nature of authorized biography, the history of American biography, definitive biographies, literary biography, the differences between autobiography and biography, the importance of interviews in biographies of contemporary figures, the differences between history and biography, comparative biographies, the virtues of short biographies and of biographies for children, the tendency of biographers to fictionalize and of novelists to biographize, psychology and biography, Rollyson’s own experience as a biographer, and the way biographers treat one another’s work. Too many biographers, he believes, evince no interest in the biographical tradition. Concerned only with possession of their subjects, their proprietorial attitude deforms not only their biographies but also the genre itself. If biography is reviewed badly (receiving hardly more than a summary of the subject’s life with a perfunctory nod to the biographer), it is because the biographical tradition has been disregarded or discounted. This book, in other words, has been written on the behalf of biography, a genre that still awaits a full vindication.
Carl Rollyson is not only the author of several accomplished biographies of major American cultural figures, he is also a discerning critic of the art of life writing. These witty and wise essays help explain some of the reasons we find biographies such compelling and engaging reading, especially in the area of conflict between the interests of the biographer and the rights of the resistant subject. Boswell would be delighted. (M. Thomas Inge )
A first rate and successful biographer himself, Carl Rollyson here takes us along on an audacious and daring tour...of the art and craft of biography, past and present (and always bravely personal).... Bright, witty, persuasive, this is a book worthy of our best attention. (George Garrett )
Speaking as a biographer, I wish Carl Rollyson had shown a touch more restraint when exposing certain details about our profession. But as a reader… Oh, dear, I must confess to lapping up every single one of his stories and wanting more. ...A witty, informative, and hugely entertaining book that is chock-full of food for thought, especially if one happens to be a biographer. (Marion Meade )
This book does an excellent job of illuminating the process and criticism of this popular form of writing. (Peter Terry Foreword Reviews )
Carl Rollyson...is in the perfect position to provide an insider's perspective on the subject he knows best. (Bookwatch )
The greatest virtue of A Higher Form of Cannibalism...is in its honesty. (Martin Simpson Salem Press Online )
Rollyson’s discussion of writing and evaluating biography is revealing and stimulating, making this a good read. (J.J. Benardete, New School University CHOICE )
The book is so uninhibited...that most readers will find plenty to...admire. (Mark A. Heberle Claremont Review Of Books )