Why Do We Let Authors’ Biographies Eclipse Their Work?

There’s a pattern I’ve consistently noticed in classes (or online forums) revolving around evaluating literature: when people interpret works solely based on events from the author’s life.

This is by no means a new revelation; people have been talking about it for ages and attributing the problem to a variety of authors. But it is something that happens more frequently with female writers: their biographies, especially major life traumas or tragedies, eclipse their work to the point where it’s most popularly dissected through the lens of that tragedy rather than the work itself.

There’s no end of examples. Emily Dickinson: famous case of agoraphobia. Jane Austen: never married (which may not count as a tragedy), died very young. Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath: battled with depression, which eventually led to suicide. H.D./Hilda Doolittle: suffered from PTSD, depression, and an abusive relationship.

This trend can be summarized by a quote from Jessica Valenti’s new book, Sex Object. She writes:

“Edgar Allen Poe once called the death of a beautiful woman ‘The most poetical topic in the world.’ And I’ve often found myself wondering how many women writers who’ve killed themselves or let themselves be otherwise obliterated were trying, somehow, to fulfill this most popular of narratives. We’re most valuable when we’re smiling, dead, posing, our words hanging on the page with no real body behind them.”

None of this is to say that evaluating literature based on authors’ biographies is entirely wrong. The fact that Dickinson wrote so many poems– so many excellent poems– while closed off from the rest of society is remarkable. The heroines in Austen’s stories may all find true love because Austen herself may not have. Many of Plath’s poems have to be read in the context of her depression or her unhappy marriage. H.D.’s toxic relationship with Ezra Pound influenced her life and her writing irrevocably, and he features prominently in works like HERmioneAsphodel, and End to Torment. 

But there’s a certain danger in only reading these works in the context of the authors’ respective traumas. If we continue to introduce students to the authors’ tragic biographies prior to reading their works, are we romanticizing mental illness by dwelling on these events?

Ultimately, and I hate saying this*, it could be argued that this boils down to individual authors’ intentions. Were their works meant to be autobiographical? Is it necessary that we read them as such?

If you’ve got an opinion on this, let me know, because I’d love to continue talking this out with someone other than my dog.

*Author intention vs. reader interpretation is one of my favorite debates. Future blog post?


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