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Necessary illusions: Biography and the problem of narrative truth

William W. Kimbrel, University of Massachusetts - Amherst

Abstract

The conventional belief that objective truth is incompatible with "bardic" insight (as Andre Maurois called it), has led to the undervaluing of the literary nature of biography. Not until it is generally understood that biography derives its form from the biographer's dependence upon language will biography be accepted as a symbolic structure the same as any other artifact of narrative discourse. The acceptance of biography as an art form worthy of the same serious critical attention shown the novel or the lyric would allow both the creators and readers of biography to realize and participate in the possibilities inherent in the genre. To this end, Part One of this dissertation examines the principal critical approaches to biography promulgated during the last one hundred years. These approaches are characterized as being either dominantly objectivist or subjectivist in tenor. Special attention is paid to attempts to utilize psychology and psychoanalytic technique to reconcile the differing requirements for authenticity demanded by these two opposed approaches to the genre.^ The position taken by this dissertation, however, is that biography is not a question of history as opposed to art, of objectivity as opposed to subjectivity, or even of the truth as opposed to untruth. A third, or ironist, approach to the creation and critical appreciation of biography is, therefore, proposed. This approach accepts as untenable all claims to absolute truth whether they be positivist or idealist in nature.^ The critical position developed in Part One is applied in Part Two to an examination of specific texts, both critical and primary, selected from the biographical literature on one of the most influential figures in modern American culture, Ernest Hemingway. The resulting critique demonstrates that biography is the best characterized as a field of cultural interplay wherein all peremptory dichotomies are subsumed and reworked into more meaningful, if also more transitory, structures. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Comparative|Biography

Recommended Citation

William W. Kimbrel, "Necessary illusions: Biography and the problem of narrative truth" (January 1, 1992). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. Paper AAI9305849.
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/dissertations/AAI9305849

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