I’ve despaired for the art of criticism in the past few decades, losing hope at times. Perhaps the advent of theory is to blame, with its formulaic thinking and tendencies toward opacity and stale jargon. In any case, it seems difficult for critics to get a purchase on actual texts in ways that don’t dampen the interest of readers. Despite this state of affairs, it seems that biographical writing has come to life again, creating small bonfires of language that warm us, keeping hope alive. Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel is a fine example, taking us deep into a major novel through aspects of a writer’s life.
Henry James is hardly the road less travelled for biographers, of course. I confess that I’ve read Leon Edel’s five-volume biography several times. And there has been memorable biographical work in recent years by Lyndall Gordon and Colm Tóibín, among others. It seems that James has always drawn the shrewdest