Literary biography is a hugely significant, if often overlooked, enterprise. Today, much of what we know about the authors we admire is filtered through an ocean of online mini-biographies, nearly all of which are copies of copies. The original source of an enormous amount of this information is the literary biography, and in the case of most authors, there are precious few examples of such books. Even exceedingly famous authors are gifted only a handful of quality biographies.
With this in mind, I’ve come up with a list of 50 essential literary biographies. By no means am I arguing that these are the only essential biographies; I’m simply arguing that they are essential. I’ve tried, too, to strike a balance between quality, frequently groundbreaking books and the biographies that are the most enjoyable to read. I should also admit that in the course of researching this post, I found a regrettable dearth of literary biographies of Arab and Asian authors — this being largely a function of the myopia of American publishing, and the usual requirement that the author no longer be living. It’s a problem that I hope to help correct in a future post.
So here they are: 50 essential literary biographies. And if you have a preference for a different biography, please post it in the comments.
Jane Austen: A Life, Claire Tomalin
Love affairs, a death by guillotine, the Napoleonic wars: Tomalin’s biography puts to bed the myth of Austen’s life as dull and uneventful.
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell
This great, very recent biography of Montaigne is a fantastic update of the form. And it provides crucial insight into a man who was one of the first to tell his own story.
Sylvia Plath: A Biography by Linda W. Wagner-Martin
Still my favorite Plath biography, Wagner-Martin’s book was the first to take into account her unpublished writings. It’s an engaging entry point into a (highly debated) tumultuous life.
The Life of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad
This multi-volume biography of Langston Hughes is indispensable for the way it charts his peripatetic life, which took him from Mexico to the Soviet Union and elsewhere. It also accounts for Hughes’ massive literary influence.
Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank
One of the greatest literary biographies ever written, Frank’s five-volume account details the nearly unfathomable life and literary career of a writer who endured epilepsy and exile.
Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Brad Gooch
Famously hard to pin down, much of what we know about Flannery O’Connor’s life comes from her correspondences with writers like Thomas Merton. Gooch’s recent biography maps the literary relationships she cultivated while confined to a farm because of chronic illness.
Literchoor Is My Beat: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions, Ian S. MacNiven
Released in 2014, this excellent biography is now up for a NBCC award. Laughlin, publisher of New Directions, was largely responsible for bringing international modernism to America.
Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Moser
Moser handles the precocious genius of the Brazilian Lispector with great success. Along with her prodigious talent and the excellent work of translators, this biography is part of the reason for her recent renaissance.
Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson, Adam Sisman
Boswell’s study of Samuel Johnson is our benchmark for the form of literary biography. Sisman dutifully unravels the life and work of the little understood biographer.
Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee
Mental illness, sexual abuse, and suicide: all are woven together in this, the best-written of Woolf biographies.
James Joyce, Richard Ellmann
Still the best biography of James Joyce, and one of the most revered literary biographies of the 20th century.
Marcel Proust: A Biography, George Painter
Like Ellmann’s biography of Joyce, this pathbreaking work on Proust redistributed the idea of what literary biography could be. How to write about an author who so beautifully spun his own life into fiction?
Simone de Beauvoir: A Biography, Deirdre Bair
Bair is one of my favorite biographers, and along with her work on Beckett, this definitive biography of Simone de Beauvoir is a classic. (And I think it’s out of print…)
Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair
Still the best biography of Saint Beckett, in my honest opinion. It proves that some of the best literary biography is written about those whose lives are thought to be too boring to consider. Assistant to Joyce, chauffeur to Andre the Giant, Beckett’s life should be considered and reconsidered in light of the constant recourse to “fail better” ethics.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nancy Milford
A deeply loved biography that changes our entire notion, literary and biographical, of a woman who led a fascinating life. St. Vincent Millay may now be forever known as the Queen of the Jazz Age.
Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, Jenny Uglow
Another of my favorite historians and biographers, Uglow has a new book out this year on Britain during the Napoleonic wars. This prizewinning look at Elizabeth Gaskell led to a renaissance in interest about her work.
George Eliot, Jenny Uglow
There may be more definitive biographies of Eliot, but, again, Uglow’s is my favorite. This book is tragically out of print in America.
Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, Valerie Boyd
This beautiful work on the life of Zora Neal Hurston was the first definitive literary biography of the writer in a quarter century. All 21st-century American writers owe not just a literary debt to Hurston, but also a more robustly intellectual one. Too few people realize that she was also a folklorist/anthropologist.
Borges: A Life, Edwin Williamson
Borges lived a mostly sexless life, although it seems to have gone by without the intense moral angst of T.S. Eliot. Somehow, still, this robust biography of great Argentine still manages to be riveting.
The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller
This deconstructive or meta-biography rescues the sisters from era-dependent historiographic obsession.
Byron: Life and Legend, Fiona MacCarthy
The charismatic psycho whose nomadic life took him across continents, Byron is often instrumentalized without being understood. This definitive biography puts an end to that silliness.
Rebecca West: A Life, Victoria Glendinning
The feminist, socialist Londoner Rebecca West led one of the most fascinating lives of any writer in the 20th century. Glendinning’s book should be taught in American elementary schools.
Charles Dickens: A Life, Claire Tomalin
Others will point to more definitive biographies of Dickens, but this is by far the most enjoyable to read. A Dickens biography that almost reads like Dickens.
Edith Wharton, Hermione Lee
This hugely important biography upended many tired notions about Wharton’s life during the Gilded Age. It’s still the definitive choice, and possibly the best melding of literary sympathy and revision on this list.
Dante: The Poet, the Political Thinker, the Man, Barbara Reynolds
There are many, many biographers of Dante, but Reynolds, for me, does the best work when it comes to pulling together the strands of the poet’s highly tempestuous biography. Political violence, broken love, exile. Everything is here.
Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy, Carolyn Burke
FSG is reprinting Loy’s work, and it’s relatively safe to assume that the vanguardist writer is on the verge of a renaissance. Hopefully Burke’s trailblazing study gets the same treatment.
Frantz Fanon: A Biography, David Macey
The biggest cheat on this list — some may argue that Fanon is not literary, and that Macey’s work does not constitute a literary biography. I disagree. The literary and philosophical quality of Fanon’s writing is with us more than ever today, and Macey’s book does a remarkable job of bringing it all together.
Hart Crane: A Life, Clive Fisher
Violent, drunk, suicidally enamored with the ocean: Hart Crane led one of the most fascinating lives of all American poets. Clive Fisher’s biography swan-dives into the craziness.
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon
This is a landmark corrective study — as the title suggests — of the “first feminist,” Mary Wollstonecraft. There is a substantial argument to be made that this is the most important such biography on this list.
Richard Wright: The Life and Times, Hazel Rowley
One of the greatest and most consistently ignored American writers — because of his race and his complex negotiation of communism — Wright is thankfully met here with a superb biographical mind. Rowley’s study of the author of Native Son remains, to my knowledge, the best.
Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook
Middlebrook’s 1991 biography of Sexton was controversial for its sexual and psychosexual revelations, but it was nominated, nonetheless, for the National Book Award. I would love to see an update considering the debt young American poets owe to her work.
Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare, Stephen Greenblatt
This is meant, on one level, to irk some readers. The truth is that it is impossible to satisfy everyone with a single definitive biography of Shakespeare. But if anyone deserves the New Historical or post-New Historical treatment, it’s him.
Mary Shelley, Miranda Seymour
A sympathetic and deeply literary treatment of a turbulent life, Seymour’s biography of Shelley was called, upon its release in 2001, “one of the finest and most significant literary biographies of recent years.”
I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, Emmanuel Carrère
In many ways, we persistently endure in the mind of Philip K. Dick, at least through our media. This biography maps the development of this mind beginning with the death of Dick’s infant twin sister. This is probably the most perfect match of biography to subject on the entire list.
Kafka: The Decisive Years, Reiner Stach
It’s strange that the definitive biography of a writer would begin not with his origins, but in 1910, when the author was in his mid-20s. Then again, this is Kafka we’re talking about.
James Baldwin: A Biography, David Leeming
I’ve heard that this biography of James Baldwin, the greatest American essayist, will be reprinted in 2015. I hope this is true. Leeming was Baldwin’s secretary, and this study was reportedly authorized before the writer’s death.
Walt Whitman: A Life, Justin Kaplan
I’ll admit that this prizewinning biography of Whitman is the only one I’ve read, but it is excellent. Then again, as the increasingly platitudinous and misunderstood line goes, Whitman “contains volumes.” So maybe it’s time to update. Suggestions?
Mark Twain: A Life, Ron Powers
Always held out as a kind of Celebrity King of Cautious Optimism, Twain was actually prone to episodes of intense despair. This book takes an unflinching look at the man who was arguably the father of American idiom.
Herman Melville: A Biography, Hershel Parker
Another multi-volume study, Parker’s Herman Melville follows the (by turns) fascinating and totally boring life of one of our great novelists. One of my favorite biographies for the way it demonstrates not how to fail better, but how to fail worse.
My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, Alfred Habegger
There are several biographies of Dickinson battling it out, but Habegger’s should be read alongside other studies of her literary work, especially as a corrective after years of feminist study. The idea that Dickinson led a sedentary life is, I think, now an extinguished one.
Ralph Ellison: Emergence of Genius, Lawrence Jackson
This excellent example of archival scholarship was the first biography of Ralph Ellison, whose Invisible Man demands to be read now alongside recent works like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.
Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, Claire Tomalin
This “greatest diarist” in English gets the Tomalin treatment. Like the biographies of Montaigne and Boswell, this should be read for its meta-literary value.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore: A History of Love and Violence Among the African American Elite, Eleanor Alexander
This biography of the love affair between between Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson — both relatively unknown American poets and writers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — unearths a sadly lost chapter of American letters. And it suggests that we need additional biographical studies of both writers.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Harriet Reisen
Opiates, utopian dreams, economic difficulties, and later, huge success: the life of the author of Little Women was meticulously woven into her own books.
The Blue Hour: A Life of Jean Rhys, Lilian Pizzichini
Known almost exclusively for her (often emulated) novel Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys lived a long if intense, brutal, and fragile life, one that took her from Dominica to London and beyond.
Hawthorne: A Life, Brenda Wineapple
This is the best, or at least most readable, biography of Hawthorne I’ve encountered. Hawthorne was an aloof, enigmatic figure who often felt ashamed of his profession. Wineapple does him justice by teasing out the contradictions.
Sister Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein, Brenda Wineapple
Wineapple, again, with one of the few biographies of Gertrude Stein. Here she charts Stein’s “suffocating” relationship with her brother Leo, who was himself an established collector of modern art.
The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, James Boswell
This 1791 biography of Samuel Johnson takes countless liberties with its subject’s life. Nor was it actually the only biographical study of Johnson published at the time. It is censorious and even weird. But it is widely considered the foundation of literary biography.
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson
One of the strange examples of a writer who was intensely private but left behind a vast haul of private documents upon her death — the kind of artist that 21st-century documentarians routinely cling to — Highsmith left a mark on both queer fiction and crime narratives.
Emerson, Lawrence Buell
This is among the best biographies of Emerson, who became the benchmark for American intellectualism, but whom John Dewey called “the poet of ordinary days.” Especially poignant is Emerson’s reaction to the death of his son.
Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White
The only biography of a living writer on this list, Evelyn C. White’s study of Walker not only traces her beginnings as the daughter of sharecroppers in Georgia, it also records her enormous influence on American letters.