July 7, 2011 | by Deborah Baker
My first book was a biography of an obscure American poet born in 1901. When I approached her in 1989, she was living as a recluse in a Florida citrus grove. Fifty years before, she had not merely renounced her own poetry but everybody else’s as well. Through an intermediary, she conveyed to me that I should write a sample chapter (she assigned the topic). If it met with her approval, we would work together on her biography. She could use a secretary, she said.
But before I could reply, she fell ill. When she heard I had proceeded without her, she wrote me angrily, calling me “sluttish.” Her minions sent me lengthy poison-pen missives, dissecting my character. She never read a word of what I’d written. The day after I sent the final manuscript to the publisher, she had a heart attack, as if my book and her life were paired like Siamese twins and I had killed her by finishing it. This is the kind of magical thinking that binds the biographer to her subject.