Details from the author’s life are not the magic ticket to “correct” interpretations in literature class

Students who are new to college literature classes often value literary biography very highly, expecting that one of their tasks is to spot one-to-one relationships between the literary texts and the personal lives of the authors. For instance, from the two Sylvia Plath poems that use Nazi imagery to describe troubled relationships with paternal figures, they begin their literary interpretation with the assumption that Plath’s real-life father was an SS officer who presided over the slaughter of millions. (Otto Plath, a biology professor who specialized in bees, left Germany when Adolph Hitler was about 12, and had no ties with the Nazi party; but details of his life have very little relevance to our reasons for studying Plath’s poetry.)

For poetry as intimate and confessional as Plath’s, it is understandably tempting to conflate the speaker of the poem (the “I” through whose senses and thoughts we experience the content of the poem) with the real-world identity of the poet who composed the verses. Poets do, of course, draw on their own life experiences, but it’s very limiting if we imagine that poets can’t compress time, combine characters, intensify experiences, and imagine impossible perspectives instead of expecting that their job is faithfully translating sensory data into verse. (To illustrate my point, I introduce students to Fatimah Asghar’s poem written in the persona of the chaotically-orbiting celestial body, “Pluto Shits on the Universe.”)

In his review of James Atlas’s The Shadow in the Garden, John Tytell writes:

When I was coming of age in the literary world of New York, I was taught to suspect biography as the product of a disreputable marriage between history and journalism. Henry James feared the biographer as a predator, James Joyce ridiculed what he called “biografiends,” Nabokov dismissed the species as mere “Tom-peepers,” and Saul Bellow compared biographers to coffin-makers. Janet Malcolm, in her adept evaluation of books about Sylvia Plath, claimed that the biographer resembles a “professional burglar.” Stacy Schiff has pointed out that the business of biography might seem obsessional, parasitic, and perhaps pathological, or at best the distasteful result of “peering unapologetically into other people’s medicine cabinets.”

Those who most detest the biographer’s intrusiveness associate the craft with vampirism. Atlas himself, considering Boswell’s famously relentless pursuit of Samuel Johnson, offers the novelist John Wain’s harsh reflection: “It was as if he [Boswell] couldn’t establish a stable identity without the validation of another. On his own, he was nothing, a person without a self, an empty vessel waiting to be filled.” Boswell had insisted that no one could write a life “but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercourse” with the subject, which would restrict biography to the recording of contemporaries. Of course, his biography of Johnson endures as perhaps the most entertaining and lively example of the genre. — John Tytell