Richard Freadman reviews 'On Life-Writing' edited by Zachary Leader

Richard Freadman reviews 'On Life-Writing' edited by Zachary Leader

On Life-Writing

edited by Zachary Leader

Oxford University Press, $50.95 hb, 336 pp, 9780198704065

Zachary Leader, respected biographer of Kingsley Amis and Saul Bellow, and editor of this volume of commissioned essays, defines life writing as 'a range of writings about lives or parts of lives, or which provide materials out of which lives or parts of lives are composed'. This formulation reflects the book's method, which is to provide a 'sampling' of various periods, genres, issues in and approaches to life writing (though it makes no mention of Margaretta Jolly's vastly more inclusive 'sampling', the 2001 Encyclopedia of Life Writing).

James Shapiro's scholarly 'Unravelling Shakespeare's Life' argues that the Bildungsroman 'coming of age' narrative has ill served lives of the Bard by inclining biographers to information-starved speculations about how he was shaped. Michael Dobson's 'A Boy from Stratford, 1769–1916: Shakespearean Biography and Romantic Nationalism', which tracks representations of the young Shakespeare through centuries of popular culture, links helpfully with Shapiro's discussion. In addition to written narrative, Dobson considers visual representations and cultural events and is ever alert to larger ideological implications of his subject. William St Clair's 'Romantic Biography: Conveying Personality, Intimacy, and Authenticity in an Age of Ink on Paper' extends the volume's consideration of the visual arts and also its interpretative range. St Clair's fine-grained discussion of the ways in which literary and visual devices were used to maximise the sense of intimacy in Romantic representations, especially of Byron, is Marxist-semiotic in orientation.

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Published in April 2016, no. 380
Richard Freadman

Richard Freadman

Richard Freadman is Emeritus Professor of English and retired Director of the Unit for Biographical and Autobiographical Studies at La Trobe University. His books in the area of life-writing are the memoir, Shadow of Doubt: My father and myself (2003); Threads of Life: Autobiography and the will (2001); and This Crazy Thing a Life: Australian Jewish autobiography (2007). His second memoir, Stepladder to Hindsight, was published by Hybrid in 2016.

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