by Tyler Coates)
There’s always something exciting about reading a literary figure’s memoir, learning the details of their personal life (those they’re willing to share, anyway) and getting a glimpse into their creative process. But it’s perhaps more illuminating to read an outsider’s account of a literary great, assembled from years of reporting and sifting through private papers. A literary biography might not be as sensational as, say, the life story of a doomed Hollywood starlet (although certainly a fair number of novelists, playwrights, and poets have lived turbulent lives), but they do offer a complete picture that shatters the fourth walls of our favorite writers’ work. Here’s a collection of great literary biographies that accomplish just that.
Anne Sexton: A Biography, Diane Wood Middlebrook
Middlebrook’s biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton was controversial — it exposed several of Sexton’s secrets, culled from tapes of her psychiatric sessions — but it paints a complete portrait of a fractured personality.
Arthur Miller: His Life and Work, Martin Gottfried
The accomplished playwright and notorious public figure Arthur Miller’s life gets the unfiltered treatment from biographer Martin Gottfried.
Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith, Andrew Wilson
The woman responsible for thrillers like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley had her own share of secrets, and Wilson’s biography provides an inside look at Highsmith’s journals and letters that reveals a startling dark genius behind some of the most shocking literature of the 20th century.
The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, Sam Weller
Perhaps the most important sci-fi writer of the last century, Bradbury gave journalist Sam Weller unprecedented access to his private papers — as well as hours of interviews — for this biography, which reveals his writing process and gives a detailed look inside his imagination.
The Brontë Myth, Lucasta Miller
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë were the subjects of various rumors and gossip once they reached great acclaim for writing some of the most popular novels of the 19th century. Here, Lucasta Miller breaks apart the myths surrounding these enigmatic young women.
Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey
Bailey’s portrait of John Cheever is a bleak one, full of suburban frustration, alcoholism, and frustrating sexual yearnings.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, D. T. Max
Just four years after Foster Wallace’s suicide in 2008, D. T. Max’s biography chronicled the lows and the highs in the author’s life, from his struggles with depression and alcoholism to the demanding process of writing the epic Infinite Jest.
Harriet Jacobs: A Life, Jean Fagan Yellin
In 1987, while a professor at Pace University, Jean Fagan Yellin discovered the identity of the pseudonymous writer Linda Brent, under whose name Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was originally published in 1861. Her biography of Harriet Jacobs follows her life as a slave, then a writer, and finally as an activist.
The Life of Graham Greene, Norman Sherry
Sherry’s three-volume biography is an exhaustive look at one of the greatest British novelists of the 20th century.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Tragic Courtship and Marriage of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore: A History of Love and Violence Among the African American Elite, Eleanor Alexander
Paul Laurence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore were considered the African-American equivalents of the Brownings, but their relationship was far from perfect. In private, Dunbar was an alcoholic who abused his wife both physically and sexually, culminating in their divorce in 1902.
One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner, Jay Parini
Parini’s book about the great Southern writer delves into his personal history as well as his fictional works, giving context to Faulkner’s characters in his alternate world of Yoknapatawpha County.
P.G. Wodehouse: A Biography, Frances Donaldson
Not only did Sir Pelham Greville Wodehouse create two of the most beloved characters in English literature, he chronicles their adventures in nearly 100 books. Donaldson’s biography of Wodehouse is a touching portrait of the author through the ups and downs of his life and career.
Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Jean-Paul Satre
The French philosopher follows Jean Genet from vagabond and petty thief to brilliant writer in this 1952 biography.
Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nancy Milford
The first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, Edna St. Vincent Millay lived a turbulent life, far beyond turning out some of the Jazz Age’s most important poetry. Milford’s biography of the poet is filled with promiscuity, addiction, and familial loyalty.
Shakespeare: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd
With a novelist’s skill, Ackroyd creates a stunning narrative that follows the Bard from Statford to London, and depicts him as three figures: actor, playwright, and businessman.
The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm
Hardly your typical literary biography, Malcolm’s book is a postmodern look at the biography as a genre, particularly the Sylvia Plath Biography Industry that still glamorizes and misinterprets the poet’s work and suicide.
Tête-à-Tête: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Hazel Rowley
An exciting telling of the usual relationship between two important and prolific philosophers.
Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Julia Briggs
Woolf was hardly an autobiographical writer, but her biographer Briggs set out to read her oeuvre through the lens of her personal history.
Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon
Wendy Wasserstein was both a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and the first woman to win a Tony for playwriting) and a New York institution. Salamon’s biography paints a compelling portrait of Wasserstein — both the public and private figures.
Zelda: A Biography, Nancy Milford
An acclaimed bestseller, Milford’s account of Zelda Fitzgerald’s troubled life and relationship with her novelist husband provides a full portrait of a figure often reduced to sketches.