Posts Tagged ‘biography’
August 1, 2011 | by Tracy Daugherty
Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was first published fifty years ago this fall. Heller’s biographer, Tracy Daugherty, marks the occasion with a consideration of the author’s legacy.
In the early 1970s, during the period he was writing his second novel, Something Happened, Joseph Heller, approaching his fifties, fretted about his health. He was shocked by how bloated he looked in mirrors. The double chins in his publicity photos bothered him. He began working out regularly at a YMCA in the sixties on Broadway in Manhattan, running four miles a day on a small track there. “The Angel of Death is in the gym today,” said the Y’s patrons every so often. Not infrequently, ambulance crews showed up to cart away, on a stretcher, an elderly man in a T-shirt and shorts who had collapsed while running or doing chin-ups.
While exercising, Heller avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. He pursued his laps with grim seriousness. He worried about the slightest ache or twinge—in his lower back, bladder, calves, the tendons of his ankles, or bottoms of his feet. Sometimes, faint vertical pains shot through his chest and up through his collarbone. This was a hell of a way to try to feel better.
In this melancholy spirit (stretching, rolling his arms to ease the needling pains), he squirreled away portions of Something Happened in a locker at the Y, in case fire ran through his apartment or his writing studio, or he keeled over one day.
In the spring of 1974—a fit fifty-one-year-old—he completed the manuscript to his satisfaction and decided to copy it for his agent. He took his teenage daughter, Erica, with him to the copy shop. “I figured if a car hit me, if I got mugged, or if I dropped dead of a heart attack, the manuscript might still be saved,” he later told Erica. Read More »
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.
February 1, 2011 | by James Atlas
Douglas Coupland is the author of Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, a pithy biography of the Canadian professor and communication theorist. McLuhan, who was born in 1911, is perhaps best known for coining the phrase “the medium is the message” and for anticipating the Internet decades before its arrival. Earlier this month, Coupland answered a few questions about his work as a biographer and what drew him to McLuhan.
You used an unconventional form for your biography of Marshall McLuhan such as MapQuest, an autism assessment test, use of Wikipedia as a source.
Was this innovative method a deliberate reference to McLuhan’s own idiosyncrasies? Or is it the reflection of a personal quirk?
Since starting the project I’ve felt like an unwitting manifestation of McLuhan’s beliefs about the effects of media: born 1961, TV child, Photoshop user, and so on. Having said that, I think I started the book at the crisis point in the history of biographies, and it’s a happy coincidence it happened to be Marshall.
Twofold. First, if I want to know about Marshall or anyone, I can YouTube them, hear their voice, see them in action, read capsule biographies and dissertations on them—you name it. You can get a subjective and highly factual dossier on most anyone in the public realm almost instantly. It’s why publishers don’t worry about author photos any more; people just google a person and get on with things. Second, we’ve obviously entered the age of near total medicalization of personality. To write a biography of anyone, let alone someone so neuroconnectively fascinating as Marshall, seems like a gross abnegation of duty to truth. The biography has begun to morph into the pathography. Note: Marshall McLuhan’s left cerebral cortex was vascularized in a way only ever before seen in mammals in cats. He wasn’t just different; he was very different.
January 28, 2011 | by Lorin Stein
I love books, like Nicholson Baker’s U & I and Ian Hamilton’s In Search of J. D. Salinger, that are as much explorations of one writer’s obsession with another as the critical studies or biographies they purport to be. Can you recommend anything else in this vein? —Anonymous
Can I ever! First, if you haven’t read it yet, get hold of Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. A sample:
Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D. H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate.That is sentence one. Things go, hysterically, downhill from there. Read More »
December 20, 2010 | by Sam Stephenson
Since January 1997, I’ve been studying the life and work of photographer W. Eugene Smith. I was thirty years old when I started, and now I’m forty-four. If this wasn’t my calling, God help me.
In 1998, while researching a freelance magazine assignment on Smith’s 1950s Pittsburgh photographs in his archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, I stumbled on 1,740 dusty, moldy reels of mysterious tape made in a New York City loft building. What became known as the Jazz Loft Project at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, where I worked, began that day.
Smith’s strange, obsessive achievement between 1957 and 1965 in an after-hours jazz haunt in Manhattan’s flower district—forty thousand photos and four thousand hours of audio recordings—spurred me to visit twenty-one states and interview more than four hundred people. I’ve made 115 trips to New York City over a span of time that can be measured by telephones and storefronts: I called Robert Frank from a cold, indestructible pay phone at the end of Bleecker, near CBGB; Roy Haynes on a Motorola StarTAC from a brownstone on 9th Street, a few doors from Balducci’s; and, a few weeks ago, Mary Frank on my iPhone from Spoon in Chelsea.
Smith is often portrayed as a classic midcentury male artist-egotist, and not without reason. But there was something selfless about his work in this old Sixth Avenue loft building. The people that passed through that space—some famous, most obscure—have sustained me all these years. Perhaps it’s this perpetually unfolding documentary quality that makes the loft work his greatest.
November 23, 2010 | by Dan Nadel
Woke up in Providence, Rhode Island, but as I write this I’m zooming back to NYC on the Amtrak listening to an exquisite bootleg of Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Budokan, in Tokyo, on March 11, 1976. I arrived in Providence less than twenty-four hours ago for the local launch of Brian Chippendale and C.F.’s (a.k.a. Christopher Forgues) new books If ‘n Oof and Powr Mastrs 3 (both published by my own PictureBox) at Ada Books. The Ada event was packed and quite merry. I bought used copies of Jimmy McDonough’s Russ Meyer biography and Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
McDonough’s biography of Neil Young, Shakey, is one of my favorite books, and so while I have little interest in Meyer, I figure I better read whatever is on McDonough’s mind. Shakey, for the uninitiated, is about as good a book about an artist as can be imagined. There’s Nick Tosches’s Hellfire, about Jerry Lee Lewis; Lawrence Weschler’s Robert Irwin–obsessed Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees; and Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage on D. H. Lawrence. And there are more. But Shakey is the most important to me because it is as much about the field of humans and emotions around an artist as it is about Young, and this includes the author himself, who is conflicted and outraged as he tries to deal with Young on an aesthetic, intellectual, and moral (this last bit being the trickiest) level. McDonough wanted too much from his idol/subject, but in a way that is perfectly understandable. The problem, as Christopher would say, is that sometimes you have to turn your back on your life in order to make art. That doesn’t always make for nice human moments.
In any case, Shakey beats the hell out of the recent Keith Richards autobio, which is fucking brutal. I’m amazed he published it. Usually with these kinds of books, there’s some kind of arc to it, some realization or redemption after all the action. Not here. It’s mostly unremitting destruction: of himself, of the people around him, of his talent. It is, as Keith might say, a fucking bummer, man. At least Richards doesn’t really pretend there is romance there. But the level of unself-consciousness reaches staggering levels. What Richards leaves out (apologies, regrets, sadness) is as telling as what he leaves in (blow jobs, heroin, death). Then again, the descriptions of music-making are top notch and moving, in the sense that if you believe him, you believe this beast sometimes finds grace in open-tuned guitars and groovy chord sequences. But he’s a beast nonetheless.