Any lover of literature feels a natural curiosity about the writers of her favorite books and a good biography so often brings deeper meanings to already perused novels and poems. Despite the years of labor that go into most biographies, a lot of them tend to rely on facile associations between a writer and his or her works or absurdist arguments that insist on contemporary understandings of politics, gender, and sexuality. Here are seven great biographies that are insightful, provocative, and discerning.
Flaubert: A Biography - Frederick Brown
This exhaustive biography is demanding reading, but it delivers amazing insights into Flaubert's writing process and works. Brown excels at concise summaries of complex historical events that had an impact on Flaubert, and his portrayals of his subject and the men and women in his life are vivid and compelling. While there is a fair amount of literary analysis, none of it can truly be deemed a digression.
Hide-and-Seek with Angels: A Life of J. M. Barrie - Lisa Chaney
J. M. Barrie is an elusive and difficult subject for any biographer, a man seemingly without sexuality and determined to remain a little boy. Chaney's biography paints a vivid and sympathetic portrait that is nevertheless unsparing of the ambiguous writer of Peter Pan. While a fair amount of attention is granted his most famous and lucrative work, much space is also granted to lesser known works like The Little Minister and My Lady Nicotine. Given the nonsense promulgated by the Johnny Depp film, Finding Neverland, this biography is all the more essential for Barrie admirers.
My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson - Alfred Habegger
This is one of the best biographies I have ever read - Habegger illuminates the hermetic life of one of the greatest American poets. The book contains many of Dickinson's poems and remains riveting throughout, despite the fact that her life was almost entirely free of drama. Habegger's gorgeous prose is worthy of his subject - a biography that can justifiably be considered literature.
The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis - Alan Jacobs
C. S. Lewis has had a number of biographers, many of whom fall into two camps: the Christian and the anti-Christian, the former seeing everything through a Christian lens and the latter insisting on secular (and equally inaccurate) interpretation. Jacobs avoids the arguments between Christian and non-Christian scholars and instead chooses a middle-ground that is infinitely respectful and highly critical. Of particular interest is Jacobs's discussions on Lewis's concept of the "Inner Ring," which heavily influenced pretty much all of his work, particularly The Chronicles of Narnia and That Hideous Strength, as well as the extensive attention paid to Lewis's reading life.
Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father - John Matteson
There have been a number of excellent biographies of Alcott, but in the end, this is the best. Bronson Alcott was as fascinating as his daughter, though as ineffective as she was successful. Their relationship was turbulent and fraught, though they were almost always ardent supporters of each other's work. A far-reaching work that effortlessly glides from transcendentalism and feminism to thoughtful portraits of the Alcott family life, this biography is as satisfying as a novel.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay - Nancy Milford
Nancy Milford wrote the highly acclaimed biography, Zelda, on F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife, before turning her attention to the American poet (and Vassar graduate) Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay's controversial and scandal-ridden life is told with honesty, and Milford, to her credit, recognizes the ethical pitfalls of the biographer uncovering salacious material.
A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E. M. Forster - Wendy Moffat
This is the first major biography of Forster to deal with his homosexuality and its impact on his writing. Moffat describes his double life with sensitivity, giving particular emphasis to his hope for a tolerant future, and also focuses on his political courage - Forster was a keen social critic whose support for the second World War was ambivalent at best - and close friendships. The composition of Forster's novels is reconstructed from diaries, letters, and notebooks, and the result is a book brimming with literary insight.