With this collection of short and fascinating biographical pieces, the award-winning biographer of Coleridge and Shelley offers a fascinating glimpse into the mysterious art of biography.
When researching, Richard Holmes has often become captivated by figures peripheral to his main subject, literary forays that he couldn’t resist. These tales–the forbidden love of John Stuart Mill, the bizarre novel of Oscar Wilde’s tragic grand-uncle, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s nightmarish yet cathartic final trip to Paris–are part of what comprises Sidetracks, a marvelously original that includes letters and travelogues, radio plays, essays, and minature biographies. This book is a rare literary feast and an exploration of the creative processes of one of our most preeminent biographers.
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"Biography, like love, begins in passionate curiosity." So declares Richard Holmes--and as one of our most gifted biographers, with a half-dozen classic works under his belt, he ought to know. Yet Sidetracks is neither a close-focus chronicle (like Coleridge: Early Visions and Coleridge: Darker Reflections) nor a spirited, allusive slice of the author's life (like Footsteps). It is instead a miscellany with a difference. Introducing this collection of essays and sketches, Holmes describes it as "the fragmented tale of a single biographical quest, a thirty-year journey in search of the perfect Romantic subject, and the form to fit it."
Wishful thinking? Not in the least. Sidetracks does indeed lead the author all over the map, from Thomas Chatterton to Felix Nadar, Mary Wollstonecraft to F. Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention that superlative Regency swinger Scrope Berdmore Davies. But Holmes's continuing preoccupation with the biographical arts gives the book a real unity, and makes it required reading for any aspiring Boswell. His professional tips are invariably on the nose: "Empathy is the most powerful, the most necessary, and the most deceptive, of all biographical emotions." His critical judgments are no less acute, whether he's discussing Shelley's "quality of verbal helium" or the "intellectual physiognomy" of Voltaire's grin. Still, the best lessons here (and the purest pleasures) are supplied by Holmes's own sympathetic magic, which can bring so nondescript a figure as John Stuart Mill to vivid life:
His face was small, dry and circumstantial, deeply lined from early age, nose chiselled out and lips hydraulically compressed and narrow, the mouth drawn down at the corners by the imponderable weights of Utility.... The right eye never stood still at all: there was a permanent, perceptible twitch flickering the lid and eyebrow like a heliograph; and above it, strangest of all, a large inexplicable bump, a sort of dome, as if something alien had taken up occupation.The best biographers are necessarily revisionists, and even in these short pieces Richard Holmes comes up with some startling interpretations. He argues, for example, that Chatterton's suicidal dose of arsenic was in fact an accident. What stays with the reader, however, are the fascinating and sometimes eerie intersections of past and present, life and art. It's enough to make you wonder whether biographers ultimately choose their subjects, or vice versa--and Sidetracks, in any case, suggests not six but at least a dozen characters in search of an author. --James Marcus From the Back Cover:
“Something like unanimous opinion now holds Richard Holmes to be our best living biographer.”–The Wall Street Journal
“No one explores biography’s metaphysical or for that matter technical aspects better than HolmesÉ. His books read like shouts of joy.”–New York Times Book Review
“These pieces undeniably confirm why Holmes has been setting new and challenging standards for how biographers approach their subjects, and they make for glorious reading indeed.”–Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
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Book Description HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, U.S.A., 2000. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Correct number line sequence, no writing, marks, underlining, or bookplates. No remainder marks. Spine is tight and crisp. Boards are flat and true and the corners are square. Dust jacket is not price-clipped. This collectible, " NEW" condition first edition/first printing copy is protected with a polyester archival dust jacket cover. Beautiful collectible copy. Bookseller Inventory # 000914