It would be unwise to sideline religion in writing a life of John Donne. Donne, raised a Catholic in the reign of Elizabeth, was weaned on persecution. In his time, English Catholics converted to Protestantism, were exiled or burned. When his brother, Henry, jailed for his faith, died in prison, Donne became an Anglican. It is hard to grasp his taste for the veiled and cryptic without knowing this. If a biography of Donne were to appear in a series called Christian Lives, it might, even to a secularist like me, seem fair enough.
But what about a biography of Mark Rothko, the latest in a series called Jewish Lives? Something of the problem appears in the book’s subtitle, ‘Toward the Light in the Chapel’. As the late Isi Metzstein noted – Metzstein, who was Jewish,