We are pleased to offer the following interview with the eminent biographer Robert D. Richardson as the first in a series on forms of modern scholarship. Richardson is the author of Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (1986), Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1996), and William James: In the Maelstrom of Modernism (2006). He has received the Francis Parkman Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, among many other honors. Our interview was conducted by e-mail in the summer of 2009.
Question: After publishing works on film and poetry, you wrote your first biographical study, Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind. Can you comment on why you changed to this form of literary research, and how you decided to focus on Thoreau?
Answer: I published a book called Literature and Film, then I collaborated with a friend, Burton Feldman on a huge project on myth theory, The Rise of Modern Mythology, then I wrote a study called Myth and Literature in the American Renaissance in order to stake out a small claim in the field of American literature. Very few people read it. Academic monographs seemed to have become printed memoranda for colleagues. Literary criticism or literary theory seemed to change every year or two, and after seeing Northrop Frye and then Levi-Strauss displaced by newer ideas, I was looking for a way to address a wider audience, something like the old-fashioned general reader. I had no idea how to do this, but when I sent a draft of my next book, to be called Henry Thoreau from Harvard to Walden Pond, to my friend Phil Gura, he said "Do you realize you've written a biography? But you'll have to go on until he dies." By taking myself out of the book—I wouldn't allow myself sentences that began "I will show that..."—and putting my subject on center stage, I could tell a story. "When Henry Thoreau came back to Concord after college, he...." I had backed into biography without intending any such thing.
Q: The opening pages of your Thoreau book refer briefly but poignantly to Walter Jackson Bate, the distinguished literary scholar who published biographies of Keats and Samuel Johnson, among many other works. Did you study with Bate? What kind of teacher was he? In what ways did he influence your own work?
A: Jack Bate, as he was generally known, gave the second semester of the basic course for English majors at Harvard in the 1950s. Listening to him was a revelation. I had never heard anyone talk about literature so well. He lived in Eliot House, where I spent the last three years of college. He was brilliant, outgoing, adventurous, and open. He had many undergraduate students he treated as friends. He became a second father to many of us, including me. He did not want disciples however, and he urged me to follow my interests, not his. He read everything, admired people like Alfred North Whitehead, and though his field was eighteenth-century English literature, he loved America and Americana. He was always eager to know what we cared for, not what we despised. Harvard was a glorious place to be an English major in the 1950s. A fellow student, Lew Bigelow, chartered a boat out of Gloucester and we took the entire English Department out for a day trip to a group of offshore rocks called The Dry Salvages made famous in T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Jack's influence hangs over everything I've done.
Q: After teaching and publishing as a faculty member in colleges and universities, you are now an independent scholar. How has working outside of academia affected your writing? Is there a place for independent scholarship in academic publishing today?
A: I got my start inside academia, and would never want to soil the nest. But it is a nest and it has limits. Professors mostly write for one another, and most are specialists. Fair enough. And if you want a slightly larger readership and academic reputation, independence can help. Address a general audience in the text, address academics in the notes. There is a growing need for independent scholars. Textual work, for example, is no longer an academic priority. "Theory" has all but destroyed the study of literature. Being outside the academy can be very lively and exciting.
Q: Please describe how your books are created. Have your methods of research or composition changed between the book on Thoreau and your recent book on William James? How has the Internet affected the way you work?
A: I start with a detailed chronology, one page for every three months. Onto the chronology go whatever the subject is reading and writing, day by day. Public events go in too. The chronology fills a loose-leaf notebook. Then, when you are stuck for what comes next, you look again at the chronology and it tells you. Read everything your subject wrote, and read as much as you can of what he or she read. Jack Bate told us to write in short 'takes.' "People are busy," he said. The Internet gets more useful every day. If your subject is Whitman, you can look at his manuscripts on-line. If your subject is Thoreau, Emerson or William James, you get to go to Harvard's Houghton library and examine the originals. In general, if it's on the Internet, it's been found. You're looking for what hasn't been found.
Q: In describing how Thoreau, Emerson and James fit into various intellectual and historical contexts, you bring to life many lesser-known writers of their times. I'm thinking of figures Like Benjamin Paul Blood, the proponent of the 'anaesthetic revelation' whose works James championed, and the Reverend William Gilpin, whose writings on landscape Thoreau admired. These are not widely known in modern America. Which lesser known writers have you most enjoyed discovering? Which do you think might appeal to contemporary readers?
A: Read what your subject read. This liberates you from your own education and assumptions. The minor figures are fascinating. I loved Blood. I loved running into Gilpin, whose ability to see is so astonishing. Chauncy Wright, the Darwinian, was and is exciting. Sydney Smith wrote immensely entertaining stuff on habit and a hundred other topics. The Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart and the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments (a book pointedly praised by President Obama) are exciting. I could make a very long list. In one way, all I have ever done in biography is report on the reading of my subjects. And what reading!
Q: It has been said that biography has displaced fiction, for some modern readers, as a source of narratives about people living lives of grand action and accomplishment. Does this make sense to you? How would you characterize the current state of biographical writing?
A: I read a lot of fiction: Australian, Irish, Indian as well as American. I don't think biography will ever replace fiction. But I do think current biographers have learned from fiction to tell stories rather than analyze things. Biography is taught nowhere in the academy, and this is wonderfully liberating. Biography is at least as old as Plutarch, and seems to be of permanent interest. Every bookstore and every library has a biography section. People buy biographies and they read them. The literary monograph, which almost nobody reads, dates back only to the founding of the MLA in the 1890s.
Q: In the long history of biographical writing, which authors or works do you especially admire? How if at all have they influenced your own aims and procedures?
A: Bate's Johnson, and to a lesser extent, his book on Keats. Also a book of his called The Achievement of Samuel Johnson. Plutarch himself. Justin Kaplan's books, especially Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. Wolfgang Kemp's life of Ruskin, called The Desire of My Eyes. Judith Thurman's Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. Janet Malcolm. Lyndall Gordon. Robert Fitzgerald's short life of James Agee prefacing his collection of Agee's short prose. Edna O'Brien's James Joyce. Anything by Richard Holmes. "About Ed Ricketts" in Steinbeck's Log of the Sea of Cortez. I was struck by Moses Hadas's observation, in his Ancilla to Classical Reading, that Plutarch aimed to make of Greece something that would survive the loss of national sovereignty.
Q: While Thoreau and Emerson wrote poetry, they are best known for their essays, journals and lectures. James of course is known for his nonfictional prose as well. None of them wrote fiction. Is there something about American culture that accounts for the centrality of nonfictional prose in our literature?
A: From The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn and Daisy Miller, I think you'd have to say that fiction holds its own pretty well in America. But the nonfiction is very strong too, which may be a testament to the fact that American life has been as rich in actuality as in imagination.
Q: Are there any figures in American life more recent than William James that you might write on? Are there any 'public intellectuals' of the stature of James, Emerson, and Thoreau in the mid-twentieth century that would attract you?
A: I've been strongly tempted to try Melville. Also James Agee. I've thought about Whitehead and Santayana. I would like to do a piece on Jack Bate.
Q: In her recent book on Henry James, Lyndall Gordon comments in passing that contemporary biography lacks a theory. Can you comment on any theories, or principles, you follow?
A: Lyndall Gordon's books are terrific, her James book is a great piece of writing. I've read a few Marxist biographies, dedicated to the idea that individuals make no difference in life or history. Theory kills. A student once asked my wife, Annie Dillard, what's wrong with theory? "What's wrong with cholera?" she replied. I would say use narrative. Narrative is the garlic of good writing. You can't use too much and it improves everything.