Literary biography has been wandering in curious directions, with fresh perspective the ever-receding goal.
When I talk about books, I preach and practice a superficially naïve gospel that puts characters from literature on equal footing with characters we encounter in real life (Elizabeth Bennet means more to many people than any number of living, breathing relatives), but I nevertheless had difficulty adjusting to Graham Vickers’ Chasing Lolita (Chicago Review Press, $24.95), which is essentially a biography of the first and most famous nymphet, Nabokov’s Dolores Haze. It traces her ancestry and her afterlife (think porn sites), and lists with acrobatic precision the “facts” of her short, unhappy terrestrial existence.
Though impressed by the range of Mr. Vickers’ scholarship, I was unnerved by his avid approach to the novel he repeatedly refers to as Humbert Humbert’s “memoir.” Just one example should give you the idea: Mr. Vickers presents “Lolita’s list of known sexual encounters,” a turn of phrase that implies a fevered groping after a reality that just doesn’t exist.
Nabokov spoke of his novel as a record of his love affair with the English language, and if that’s not enough to set the reader straight, consider again Humbert’s famous invocation:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Still, I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Vickers for pointing out that when Lolita was at last published in the United States (in 1958), the shocked and appalled town of Lolita, Texas, seriously debated changing its name to Jackson.
BRENDA WINEAPPLE’S WHITE HEAT: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, $27.95) “attempts to throw a small, considered beam onto the lifework of these two unusual, seemingly incompatible friends.” They met only twice; his half of the correspondence has vanished; and her half is very like her poetry, infinitely suggestive and hard to pin down—as is the precise nature of the friendship. Ms. Wineapple calls their 25-year epistolary dalliance “flirtation buoyed by compassion, consideration, and affection.” That sounds about right.
It was Higginson who advised Dickinson to “delay” publishing her poems; the delay lasted until four years after her death. And it was Higginson, assisted by Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited that bowdlerized posthumous edition of the poems—the editing marred, as Ms. Wineapple acknowledges, by “instances [of] outright butchery.”
But Dickinson’s own ideas about putting her work before the public were hardly straightforward. Witness this delightful ditty:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Then there’s a pair of us?
Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!
How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one’s name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!
IF YOU THINK DICKINSON and Higginson were incompatible (she was a genius, he was not; she was a recluse, he was a swashbuckling reformer), try out this odd couple: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. David Lebedoff has crammed them both into one book with a defiantly hyperbolic title: The Same Man (Random House, $26). Quirky and proudly counterintuitive, Mr. Lebedoff’s biographical diptych gets a boost from chronological accident (Orwell and Waugh were born in the same year, 1903), but its success depends entirely on the force of his steely convictions about where the two writers ended up:
“They saw in modern life a terrible enemy. It was not only totalitarianism that they loathed, but virtually everything that would come if totalitarianism was defeated. They saw an end to common sense and common purpose. They saw the futility of life without roots or faith. They saw the emptiness of an existence whose only point was material consumption. And in the great work of their lives, which was to warn us of what was to come, they came to be, improbably enough, the same man.”