Phyllis Rose is a literary critic and biographer whose work includes a groundbreaking feminist biography of Virginia Woolf, Woman of Letters, an innovative memoir “in real time,” The Year of Reading Proust, and, perhaps her best known work, Parallel Lives, a consideration of marriage through focused biographies of five Victorian writers. Rose has lived in Key West for many years, where she collaborates with her husband, Laurent de Brunhoff, on the classic children’s books featuring Babar, the King of the Elephants. “My education in literature,” says Rose, “began at Harvard, where I studied, continued at Wesleyan, where I worked, and deepened by the swimming pools of Key West, where I ostensibly played.”
This recording presents Rose’s keynote address from the 2013 Seminar, in which she explores our fascination with writers’ lives, while uncovering the dueling impulses of biography and critical theory. Biographers who work in the humanist tradition of Matthew Arnold, Rose argues, seek details about writers’ lives in order to understand how their experience informed and influenced their work. On the other hand, critical theorists following Roland Barthes held biography in disdain and sought to artificially divorce a text from the context of its writer’s life or historical times. Drawing upon examples of writers she has known “up close”—including John Hersey, in whose memory the annual keynote is given and whom Rose recalls bicycling the streets of Key West; and James Merrill, whose workout regimen of lat pull-downs she describes—Rose builds a case for honoring the “human complexity” writers share with all of us. Rose’s hour-long talk concludes by celebrating our escape from “the desert years of Deconstruction,” into a humanist tradition of reading and writing which is “polyphonic, pragmatic, and invigoratingly tied to life.” “Since ultimately what we all want most is to have our time on earth prove to be valuable, we examine writers’ lives to learn how to turn whatever happens to us into something useful or beautiful. Writers are models of creative alchemy, and at the heart of our interest in their lives is the appeal—mythic perhaps—of a life in which everything counts.”
Update: The Autumn 2013 issue of the American Scholar reprints Rose’s keynote in slightly revised form.
From KWLS 2013: Writers on Writers