The New Approach in Biography

Roundup: Talking About History

Michiko Kakutani, writing in the NYT (Jan. 30, 2004):

In the last decade and a half, a new genre of scholarship has begun to flourish. You could give it a fancy name like biographical deconstruction, but what it amounts to, simply, is this: a reappraisal of how successive generations of critics, biographers and fans mythologize the achievements and life stories of iconic artists.

Gary Taylor's groundbreaking 1989 book"Reinventing Shakespeare" examined how the playwright's image has been continually reinvented, with Restoration critics depicting him as a dramatic poet addressing historical and political issues, Victorians stressing his virtuosic range and modernists touting the ambiguities in his work.

William Stafford's 1991 book"The Mozart Myths" looked at how scholars have revised their predecessors' findings, selecting and amplifying material that might support their own pet theories about the composer, depicting him, variously, as a childish victim, a Romantic genius and an Enlightenment rebel. And A. Richard Turner's"Inventing Leonardo" (1993) showed how scholars have tried to reimagine the painter and thinker in their own images, turning him into a mirror of changing cultural values and evolving theories of creativity.

The latest example of this compelling genre is Lucasta Miller's absorbing new book,"The Brontë Myth," a work that attempts"to trace the historical route" by which Charlotte and Emily Brontë (and to a lesser degree, Anne) became popular cultural icons, and"to show how years of cultural accretion have shifted the sisters' position in the collective consciousness from the level of history onto that of myth."

Although the book is heavily indebted to recent Brontë scholarship (most notably Lyndall Gordon's superb 1994 biography"Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life"), Ms. Miller writes with such lucidity, wit and plain common sense that she is able to shed new light on the Brontës and the Brontë industry, while at the same time raising important questions about changing fashions in biography writing and academic scholarship.

She shows how Victorian hagiography and recent feminist analysis alike have obscured the Brontës' identities as individual artists, and how their work has frequently been overshadowed by their public personas, most notably the Victorian image of Charlotte as a long-suffering domestic saint and the early 20th-century image of Emily as a waifish free spirit, wandering the windswept moors.

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