The Millions Interview

Scott Donaldson on the “Impossible Craft” of Writing Biography

By posted at 6:00 am on February 27, 2012 10

While working as a newspaper reporter in Norfolk, Va., in the fall of 1988, I got a dream assignment. My editor told me to drive up to the College of William & Mary and interview a professor named Scott Donaldson, who had just published a biography of John Cheever. I was ecstatic. It isn’t every day a newspaper reporter gets to brush up against someone who has brushed up against a literary god.

I found Scott Donaldson in his cozy attic office on campus and we spent a long afternoon talking. Or rather, Donaldson talked while I took notes. He told me he had met Cheever just once, in the summer of 1976 on Nantucket. Donaldson drank gin and tonic while Cheever, newly rid of a life-long addiction to alcohol, drank water and tea as he talked for hours about his brother, his journals, and his many love affairs — with men and women. That one unforgettable meeting — along with the power of Cheever’s writings — spurred Donaldson to undertake a biography after Cheever died in 1982 at the age of 70. Donaldson, as I would write in my newspaper article, “seemed to enjoy having the mirror turned on him for a change. It was his turn to do the talking, and he, like John Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty to say.”

coverDonaldson is now 83 and retired from teaching, but he’s still writing and he still has plenty to say — about writers, the writing life, and the maddening difficulty of writing biography. Donaldson, who has produced biographies and critical studies of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Winfield Townley Scott, has just published his 18th book, Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story, which blends memoir with biography. Donaldson recounts taking Fenton’s Daily Themes class at Yale in 1949, then falling under the spell of this charismatic teacher who would go on to write an acclaimed book about Hemingway’s apprenticeship and a biography of Stephen Vincent Benet. At the age of 41, while at work on a book about the Spanish Civil War and seemingly at the peak of his powers, Fenton jumped to his death from the roof of the Washington Duke Hotel in Durham, N.C. In Death of a Rebel, Donaldson notes that writing literary biographies “is a profession Charlie Fenton had more or less handed down to me.” An excerpt from the book, “Bomber Boy,” will appear in this summer’s issue of The Sewanee Review.

Donaldson spoke with us recently by telephone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Millions: Before we talk about your new Charlie Fenton book, I’d like to go back to that time we met in Virginia in 1988. I dug out a clip of that article I wrote —

Scott Donaldson: Yeah, I still have a clip of it too.

TM: Really? I just re-read it, and the thing that jumped out at me was when you told the story about how after you’d finished writing a draft of your Cheever biography, his son Ben was in the process of editing a volume of his father’s letters. And you wound up getting caught in a crossfire, sitting in a room with your editor and a lawyer for a month, cutting out chunks of Cheever’s letters. Then you had to rewrite the draft. You said you were “frustrated,” but I’ve got to imagine you were going out of your mind. That wasn’t a lot of fun, was it?

SD: No, no, no. And I’ve written about that in my forthcoming book on the writing of biography. There’s a long section on my struggle with the Cheever family. This happens. I’m by no means distinctive among biographers in having run across this kind of problem. I can see mistakes I made now, as I could not have seen them in 1988.

TM: Such as?

SD: Well, I presented myself as knowing too much when I got to know the kids. And it was the children that were the problem, not Cheever’s widow so much as Susan and Ben. They’re literary folks, and they saw me as an invasive presence. I understand that, but I never really saw that there had to be any conflict between what I was doing and what they were doing. But they sure did… I’m thinking back to a lunch I had with Susan Cheever at which I made the mistake of knowing too much. This is a terrible mistake for a biographer to make when he’s interviewing or trying to get along with anybody who’s related to or was a close friend of the subject. Because they know. They have their own ideas. And whatever I know, it’s been through secondary sources. I wasn’t there at the time. Anyway, at that lunch Susan had just finished her memoir about her father, which was very, very good–

coverTM: Home Before Dark?

SD: Yes, excellent book. I was unhappy that she did it before my book came out (laughs) because it covered some of the same ground. So I spoke to her about the issue of quotations, and I said there’s fair use, and I know that the best writing in my book will be that of your father — thereby implying that the best writing in her book was by her father. I’m not sure she was pleased by that. But I think it’s true. One of the advantages of being a literary biographer is that to the extent you can quote and paraphrase and borrow from the work of a great writer, it sure as hell helps your book.

TM: You also mentioned, when we talked, that you felt that the cuts you had to make and the rewriting you had to do made your book a better book. Do you still feel that way?

SD: I do, I do. You lose something. You lose the flavor of a great writer, because even when they’re dashing off a letter or putting something in a journal, they’re still a great writer. I was allowed to quote up to ten words from any given passage (of Cheever’s writings) — and that isn’t much. I did it in my editor’s office with the chief lawyer from Random House, and I was slapping myself on the wrist every time I got up to thirteen words instead of ten.

cover TM: You mention Cheever’s journals. Back in the 1990s I wound up on a panel with the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card. Somebody in the audience asked us what we were reading at the moment, and I piped up and said, “I’m reading The Journals of John Cheever and they’re fantastic!” Then Card snapped that he hated that kind of self-indulgent, self-pitying crap — that all these writers writing about how hard it is to be a writer ought to shut up and go home. I don’t know if you saw where Geoff Dyer recently praised The Journals as Cheever’s “greatest achievement”–

SD: Really? I hadn’t seen that.

TM: Yeah, Dyer said the book was Cheever’s “principal claim to literary survival.” Who do you think is right, Card or Dyer?

SD: I think it’s somewhere in between. The Journals are certainly wonderful reading, in parts, but I can understand Orson Scott Card’s attitude. I mean, Cheever is using these journals to excoriate himself a great deal — for drinking, for sexual infidelities, for all kinds of things. It’s as if he’s purchasing leave to pursue those bad habits. But there’s also terrific writing in there. He would invent these characters – he couldn’t help it. The first time I ever saw him was at a Modern Language Association meeting, of all places, and he was one of three writers who came to do a brief talk before academics. The other two spoke about what it was like to be a novelist, but Cheever told a story. He couldn’t help it. I can’t think of any other writer who had the storytelling instinct so ingrained in his personality as Cheever.

TM: Your new book is Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story. You open it with the first time you met Fenton at Yale in 1949, and you go on to say you admired him as a teacher “unreservedly.” I’m wondering, was this book an attempt to resuscitate a reputation that you felt maybe had fallen into neglect unfairly?

coverSD: There’s some of that, but this is not intended as a resurrection, though I hope it does that. I got a wonderful letter from Paul Hendrickson, who recently wrote Hemingway’s Boat, and he said, “You restored a life.” Which is wonderful to have somebody say that to you. But I just wanted to know what happened to Charlie.

TM: Are you speaking about his suicide?

SD: The suicide to begin with, but I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I started. The first thing I did was talk to his widow briefly, and she said a couple of provocative things that got me wondering what kind of life he did have. That got me going. And once a biographer decides he has to start pursuing something, it’s very hard for him to stop until he arrives at some sort of probable answer.

TM: Leon Edel, the biographer of Henry James, used to say that writing a biography is a little like falling in love. Would you agree with that?

SD: That’s a dodgy issue. If you fall in love with your subject, you can so identify with your subject that you lose something of your own self to it. The first two biographers of Malcolm Lowry, who was a suicide, they both killed themselves. Maybe they had that inclination to begin with. But there is this sense of falling out of one’s own personality into someone else’s. That can happen.

TM: There are also cases where the biographer comes to loathe the subject.

SD: Exactly.

TM: Look at Geoffrey Wolff writing about John O’Hara. That was a dark book. I saw Wolff give a talk in New York once, and he said he came to a point where he despised the man.

SD: I hadn’t heard that about Geoffrey, that’s interesting. Another case like that would be Jonathan Yardley writing a biography of Frederick Exley, and ending up hating the guy. There wasn’t much to like about him as a person, but he did some wonderful writing.

TM: I love that story you tell in your new book, about Charlie Fenton and Peter Matthiessen getting drunk and going spelunking in the New Haven sewer system. Stories like that — and the drama of Fenton’s war service, going AWOL — those are great stories. But they reminded me of what I’ve got to believe is an obstacle when writing about writers. With a few notable exceptions, they’re basically people who sit in a room all day by themselves. Is it difficult to generate drama when writing about writers?

SD: It’s certainly true that they spend a lot of time away from other people. They have to lock themselves in a room and do their work. But they come out of that room (laughs) and they have fairly vivid, not always comfortable, lives. You can think of alcoholism as a practically universal disease among twentieth-century American writers, male and female. The fact that they must do their work alone makes them different, I suppose, from someone who goes to an office. There’s some kind of small satanic kink – this is Melville — that seems to affect most writers. It seems to me they have something that makes them slightly unaccommodated to existence. I suppose there are happy writers.

TM: I’d like to meet one.

SD: (Laughs) They have difficult lives, and you try to understand the difficulty and be sympathetic with it. I’ve never had an Exley experience or a John O’Hara experience. I’ve always wound up liking as well as admiring my subjects.

TM: That makes you a lucky biographer.

SD: Well, it’s a matter of selection, too. Probably the person I knew least about was Archie MacLeish, but I came away understanding the kind of person he was. Archie didn’t hide his light under a bushel.

TM: Are there certain literary biographies you look at as masterpieces? Maybe the work of Boswell, Leon Edel, Justin Kaplan?

SD: It’s interesting that you mention Kaplan because he’s someone who’s been very helpful to me, and I really do admire his books — wonderful books on Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Edel knew what he was doing, though I’m somewhat resentful toward him because he pretty much closed the door on anyone else doing work on James while he was alive. It’s understandable — it’s my territory, right? And there are people in the Hemingway-Fitzgerald world I’ve encountered who thought it was their territory, too, and it mustn’t be invaded by others.

TM: People get territorial, don’t they?

SD: They do. And this can happen with biographers and critics as well as anybody else.

TM: Flipping that coin over, Joyce Carol Oates has talked about “pathography.” I wonder if there are biographies of writers that repelled you?

SD: I think the most biased book I know of, almost viciously biased against the subject, was Lawrence Thompson’s biography of Robert Frost. But Frost did not do the convenient thing. Thompson took on the job of being Frost’s biographer something like forty years before Frost died, and he was not allowed to publish the book until Frost was gone. That was their agreement. If Frost had died at sixty or seventy, instead of ninety, that would have been much nicer for Thompson. So there’s that side of it. And Frost had some pretty unpleasant characteristics, along with tremendous charm. Thompson simply got turned off by him. There was a relationship with a woman that involved both of them — they were rivals — there’s nothing about that in the book, of course. Thompson ends by attributing the worst possible motives to anything Frost did. It’s painful to read.

TM: I’m curious how you feel about the state of the art of literary biography today.

SD: I think there’s a lot of good stuff coming out. Robert Richardson has done books on Emerson and Thoreau that are just excellent. There are many good biographers at work today, and I even like the memoirs. My Fenton book is halfway between a memoir and a biography — I put myself in the book at the beginning, then try to be as dispassionate and disinterested a researcher as possible, then I sneak back into the book at the end. I think about a memoir like Alexandra Styron’s book about her father that was just wonderful. She writes very well, and that’s kind of important. But even poorly written biographies can be useful. If there’s a reasonable command of the material and an objectivity and an intelligence — even if that isn’t expressed well, those books can still be very valuable.

TM: Blake Bailey recently came out with well received biographies of Richard Yates and John Cheever, (we wrote in a follow-up e-mail). What did you think?

SD: Rather than maunder along about Bailey and his biography (Donaldson replied by e-mail), I’m attaching an account on that subject. I haven’t published it anywhere in order to save it for (my next) book, but you’re welcome to lift whatever interests you.

(Here is an excerpt from a chapter called “The Next Biography”):

I first heard of Blake Bailey in April 2004. He e-mailed me with word that he’d contracted with Knopf for a new biography of John Cheever … (and he) wondered if I still had the tapes/transcripts/notes from my Cheever book, and if I’d be willing to share them.

It is always somewhat daunting to find out that one’s work is going to be superseded, especially when the after-comer will be granted access to materials you were denied. But with the passage of time, such things happen. So I replied, certainly, and directed Bailey to Swem Library at William & Mary, where my papers for the Cheever and other biographies were located… It was no more than any early biographer should do for a later one, as I’d learned through the generosity of Carlos Baker, who let me examine the Hemingway papers in his office at Princeton, and of Arthur Mizener and Henry Dan Piper, who allowed me to pore over their Fitzgerald documents at Cornell and Southern Illinois, respectively. Besides, I’d gone on to other subjects…

For a few months thereafter, Blake Bailey and I communicated regularly … (then) wished each other good luck and drifted out of touch. Before doing so, however, Bailey sent me a copy of the April 9, 2004 Westchester Journal News article announcing “A New Cheever Biography Planned” …Ben Cheever went on to take several sidelong swipes at my book. In others’ writing about his father, he observed, he’d always felt that “the pathology (took) up all the room.” And, more specifically, “my father used to say that to have a bad biographer was to be stuck with a bad roommate for eternity. I like the idea of him getting a good roommate at last.” That annoyed me, for I knew I hadn’t concentrated on John Cheever’s pathological problems. On the contrary, I ended with admiration for him not only as a brilliant writer whose work was indispensable to understanding the United States in the middle of the twentieth century but as a human being with the courage to take charge of his life.

When Bailey’s biography was nearing publication five years later, the family comments dismissing my previous book adopted an apologetic tone… And Bailey himself, post-publication, in The Wall Street Journal:

“I think to be fair to Scott Donaldson, he pounced before the corpse was cold and at that time Susan (and Ben) had this more propriety (sic) attitude toward their father. Enough time has passed that they wanted the definitive treatment.” On the whole, I’d just as soon do without such defenders.

Bailey’s biography achieved notable critical success, winning the National Book Critics Circle Award and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize… But Bailey fell into the trap — as I had done in my Cheever biography — of putting in too much of what he had found out… Only after turning off the switch on my ego have I finally been able to accept Bailey’s darker version of Cheever’s life as closer to the truth than my kinder, gentler account. I presented Cheever as “a man divided against himself,” the division in his spirit taking “its toll on the man even as it invigorated his work.” That still seems to me a viable approach. But it may well be that I took too sunny a view of his final years, when I portrayed him as finding renewal through his escape from alcohol… (In) Bailey’s book it becomes clear that conquering the demon of drink day by day did not substantially change Cheever’s personality or improve the acrid atmosphere at the house on Cedar Lane.

Probably I should have known better… (but) lost in admiration for his fiction, I wanted him to be a better man, I wanted him to achieve a final victory…

Perhaps no life ends happily, but I depicted Cheever — as I had Fitzgerald, a man he resembled in many ways — as heroic for overcoming addiction and soldiering on. In doing so, I may well have traveled from unjustified fault-finding to unwarranted praise.

TM: You’ve written eight literary biographies now. I know this is like asking about your favorite child, but does one of those books stand out as something that gave you particularly great satisfaction, or pride, or fulfillment?

SD: Well, I guess one way of answering is to say that the best writing I ever did, I think, was in a book called Fool for Love, about Fitzgerald. And I still think that. Maybe I was the right age or had the right sense of identification with the subject. I wrote several chapters of that book up at the MacDowell Colony, which is a wonderful place to work. You get breakfast, then you go off to your cabin in the woods and they bring you lunch and knock on the door and leave the food outside. You just work all day long. I got some great writing done on that book up there.

TM: Tell me more about what you’re working on now. You mentioned you’re calling it The Impossible Craft — I love that title. Is it a look at the craft of writing literary biography?

SD: There are three parts to this book. Part One will be a brief recounting of my own experiences as a biographer. It deals a good deal with editing, and how lucky I was to come along in the early 1960s.

TM: Why, because there were good editors around?

SD: Yeah, and editing was still done. I had Malcolm Cowley work with me on my book on Hemingway. I have wonderful letters from him. I would send him a chapter or two, and in the next mail I’d get three or four pages of commentary. This sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. I had Peter Davison on MacLeish and I had Bob Loomis on Cheever — these are wonderful editors.

TM: Why the impossible craft?

SD: Well, because if you try to construct the ideal figure for a biographer, you realize he or she has to be so many different kinds of things that no human being could possibly achieve. You’ve got to be a detective, you’ve got to be a drudge, tracking down every possible fact you can; at the same time you’ve got to be insightful as hell, you have to be psychologically acute, you have to take an objective view of things without losing sympathy for your subject. You don’t have to be unnecessarily tough. There’s a blurb from Peter Matthiessen on the back of my Fenton book that says I was tough where I needed to be. And that’s good. You want to be honest and tell the whole story, you don’t want it to be wrapped in any more concealments than are necessary, if any are. And let’s say that the most important reason of all it’s an impossible craft is that you cannot know what someone else’s life was like. You can try to come close. Charlie Fenton’s brother said to me recently that he thinks I caught Charlie. Well, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. That’s what you want to do.

Photo courtesy Scott Donaldson





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10 Responses to “Scott Donaldson on the “Impossible Craft” of Writing Biography”

  1. Blake Bailey
    at 9:40 am on February 27, 2012

    I have asked Scott Donaldson for a retraction of his false remarks, above, concerning my Cheever biography. If he refuses, then I ask for the opportunity to refute them, categorically, with all due prominence on your website.

    Blake Bailey

  2. The Millions : Scott Donaldson on the “Impossible Craft” of Writing … | | The Writing WenchThe Writing Wench
    at 3:18 pm on February 27, 2012

    [...] to do the talking, and he, like John Cheever a dozen summers ago on Nantucket, had plenty …Via http://www.themillions.com Share this:EmailPrintFacebookStumbleUponRedditDiggRelated [...]

  3. Christopher Bram
    at 5:18 pm on February 27, 2012

    This is an excellent interview. I look forward to reading Donaldson’s biography of Charles Fenton and to his tales of the challenge of research and writing.

    I read his biography of John Cheever when it first came out and liked it very much. It was clear and solid, full of both darkness and light. I still prefer it to Bailey’s long, gloomy, exhaustive tome. Maybe Bailey’s book is closer to the real man, but Donaldson’s feels closer to the man who could write those amazing short stories.

  4. Jonathan Yardley
    at 5:47 pm on February 27, 2012

    Obviously Donaldson has not read my biography of Frederick Exley. I most certainly did not end up “hating” Exley. He was a difficult man, but there was much to love about him and that comes through in my book. Judging from the response above by Blake Bailey, it seems that Donaldson is in the habit of making public comments on books about which he knows little or nothing.

  5. C. Max Magee
    at 6:30 pm on February 27, 2012

    In the interest of transparency, I want to note here that we have removed a small section from the excerpted section above that related to Blake Bailey. This was done with the permission of Scott Donaldson. I’ll leave it to them if they want to comment further, here or elsewhere, on the disagreement alluded to in Bailey’s comment above..

    Max
    Editor, themillions.com

  6. Lisa F.
    at 9:44 pm on February 27, 2012

    After reading this wonderful voyage, I most certainly will read Scott Donaldson’s work and am particularly interested in his Cheever biography and “The Impossible Craft.”. After enjoying Mr. Donaldson’s lucid memory and his candid but sensitive storytelling and then reading the acerbic responses from his competitive (slightly egocentric) colleagues, i have but two wishes: that he would name his next book “The Impossible Crafters,” and that he would consider returning to William & Mary to share his gifts as it is on the top of our college search list right now.

  7. Dan M.
    at 1:57 pm on February 29, 2012

    I just finished Donaldson’s Cheever biography—about a year after reading Bailey’s—and I enjoyed it very much. Bailey’s (which I also liked a lot) feels more accurate but less true; the pathology is so up-front and inescapable that the work seems almost secondary.

    I’ll have to read Fool for Love, which is one of the few Fitzgerald biographies I haven’t tried.

  8. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 2:55 pm on February 29, 2012

    [...] Here’s an interview with Cheever biographer Scott Donaldson about how difficult his job is. [...]

  9. Scott Donaldson on the Impossible Craft of Writing Biography » News » Biographile
    at 4:46 pm on March 5, 2012

    [...] Pin It [...]

  10. John C. Carson MD
    at 1:16 pm on March 12, 2012

    DEATH OF A REBEL is a fascinating read—the story of a talented individual
    with great understanding of life and literature—an outstanding teacher who inspires his students—but fails in life —- alcohol and an inability to control his sexual emotions— and commits self-murder at the peak of his career.
    It deals with the world of academia—its charms and pitfalls—-and documents
    the loss to American literature of a rising star.

    All of this has happened before and will happen again but it has sledom been written about with usch grace, understanding and compassion

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