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The Biographers

Ed Winstead

Blake Bailey with his biography of John Cheever at the 31st Annual Key West Literary Seminar

Poet and academic Paul Mariani, his voice running through all the keys and registers, recounts the story of Ernest Hemingway absolutely leveling Wallace Stevens in a fistfight outside of a party. It draws big laughs from the crowd, a couple hundred strong and largely pushing, if not past, retirement. He is speaking from behind a lectern that is literally a stack of books.

Mariani is passionate and eloquent and speaks beautifully but it is worth stopping to consider, before moving on, that lectern. I was so struck by it that the first thing I did was attempt to draw it in my notes, forgetting, first, that I have absolutely no talent for drawing—even, as it turns out, simple geometric shapes—and, a correlative second, the existence of photography. (Even in photographs, none of the spines are legible save one, on the right side of the lectern, which reads in very large red letters, “SOBER.”) Somewhere in my childhood I picked up the idea that books, as physical objects, were sacred, and not to be written in, rolled up, placed on the floor, etc. I suspect my fixation on the lectern originated in that silly idea. But there is something in watching people speak about and read from books while leaning on a pile of them, all fixed conspicuously, and possibly permanently, shut. A reminder, maybe, to the would-be authors in the crowd: If you write a book, there’s really no telling what people are going to do with it.

Stevens asked Hemingway, after their fight, to keep the whole thing a secret for the sake of his reputation. Hemingway obliged, telling only a few close friends. Hardly anyone knew about it until both men had died. It would seem difficult now to keep such a secret on Key West, where the infamous fight took place. The island is simply overrun with people, huge crowds of them—drunk college kids on break, drunk middle-aged vacationers in novelty t-shirts and straw hats, possibly drunk cruise ship passengers, still young at heart. But on Duval Street, the pulsing artery of the tourist’s Key West, slantwise across the street from an open-air bar where not a minute of the day passes without the accompaniment of live acoustic guitar, are the towering wooden doors of the San Carlos Institute. The Institute, despite the activity inside, doesn’t get a lot of second glances from the passers-by, so loud and so numerous are the other attractions on Duval. But inside, the 31st Annual Key West Literary Seminar is in full swing. You have to have tickets, anyway.

Not that the Literary Seminar is exactly secret. Tickets can be hard to come by. Partly, no doubt, because the weather in Key West in January is conspicuously pleasant. But the event is no less serious for being held in a vacation destination. Speakers over the years have included the likes of Joseph Heller, Joyce Carol Oates, E.L. Doctorow, Ann Beattie, Gore Vidal, Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore, Charles Simic, Richard Ford, and George Plimpton, to name only a few.

Literary biography, the Seminar’s theme this year (each year has a theme—in 2012 it was literature of the future; 2014 is slated to cover mystery, crime, and thriller), is an apt one for the island. A slew of writers have spent time on Key West, from Tennessee Williams to Charles Olson to Elisabeth Bishop to, most famously, Ernest Hemingway, that writer whose literary celebrity surpasses all others.

There’s something funny about literary celebrity like that. It goes almost without saying there’s a narcissistic bent to writers—if your goal is to be forgotten and ignored, there are much easier ways to go about it. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a writer wanting to upstage his or her own work. There was no Hemingway biographer at the Seminar, but there is a sort of one on the island, in the form of a museum occupying his former home. The entire operation is constructed around Hemingway’s fame, not Hemingway’s writing, or even Hemingway the man. The biggest draw seems to be the polydactyl cats that haunt every corner of the estate. It embodies what Lyndall Gordon, biographer of, amongst others, T.S. Eliot and Henry James, called from the stage at the San Carlos Institute “a kind of higher gossip.” That is to say, biography in isolation from the subject’s writing.

But the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum is a business enterprise—their motive is profit. Literary biographers don’t mind getting paid, I’m sure, but that’s not how they come to their subjects. They write books about the writers whose work they love. There is, after all, as former Poet Laureate Billy Collins pointed out, a certain incestuous implication to the preposition at the center of the 2013 Seminar’s official title, “Writers on Writers.” The presenters all spoke with great compassion for their subjects, and talked about them almost as if they were friends. Blake Bailey referred to Charles Jackson as “Charlie,” and garnered a lot of laughs with his Cheever impressions. Lyndall Gordon expressed guilt at her prying into the life of Henry James. D.T. Max spoke of David Foster Wallace almost exclusively as “David.”

“In writing the book, I was reanimating him. I wanted him for a friend,” Max said of Wallace. It’s an understandable impulse. Reading is such a personal experience—sometimes an almost mimetic portrait of the writer’s thought—that a sense of personal interaction, or a desire for one, comes naturally. In the writer’s search for universal truth, “the chances of arriving… will be greatly increased if you remain absolutely faithful to the vagaries of your own nature, the peculiarities and contingencies of one’s own experience,” as Geoff Dyer put it. And if the recipe for great writing includes such communion with the self, then it is no wonder it engenders biography. When presented with a window into someone else’s humanity, you will always, looking through, see something of your own.

Speaking of DFW, though, brings to mind the other half of this biographical equation. There is a bit of Don DeLillo’s that Wallace was fond of referencing, about a novelist’s book-in-progress taking shape as a malformed infant and following the writer around, “hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent and retarded and dribbling cerebrospinal fluid out of its mouth as it mewls and blurbles and cries out to the writer wanting love,” as he put it in an essay. If the grotesque of the biographers’ subjects was their unfinished work, it became clear that what haunted the biographers themselves were the dark sides of their subjects. Wallace’s hyper-competitiveness, depression, and eventual suicide. Cheever’s drinking and narcissism and cruelty. Jackson’s alcoholism and addiction to pills. Jean Genet’s being Jean Genet. And so on. (Ironic, that book peeking out from the side of the lectern.)

That conflict between admiration, almost idolization, and sometimes harsh reality is, of course, not unique to biographers. Though biography is often overlooked in favor of the fictions of its subjects, it is precisely that conflict that gives it such vitality. Indeed, if there is one thing to be taken away from this year’s Seminar, it is that literary biography can without question function as a high art itself. As Mariani put it, the impulse to tell another person’s story isn’t only the product of admiration, or of a desire to moralize, or mere curiosity, but because it is also a means of recovering some lost part of the self. That’s where the Hemingway house fails, and where the writers at the Seminar succeeded. That’s where the art is. On the stage in Key West lined with biographers, the biographical facts wound into irrelevance through their telling. In the end, it was simply “Writers,” in the truest and best sense of the word.