Post Road Magazine #28

Three Lives

Megan Marshall

Although Gertrude Stein's triptych of novellas, Three Lives, was always my favorite of her books, I'm not writing here about that cheerfully subversive first work of fiction, with its precocious attention to the intertwining questions of race and class that so absorb us now. Instead I have in mind three works published during the decade before I started researching my first biography, The Peabody Sisters, which ultimately claimed twenty years of my adult working life. Looking back, I can see how these three books—Diane Johnson's Lesser Lives (1972), Bernard Malamud's Dubin's Lives (1979), and Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives (1983)—each with its own seductive appeal for a would-be life-writer, steered me toward that Odyssian voyage; two of them made excellent traveling companions.

I didn't read them in chronological order. Just out of college in the late '70s (two and a half years at Bennington, two and a half at Harvard—yes, I can do the math!) and beginning a friendship with the late great biographer Justin Kaplan, whose generosity to young writers is legendary, I was drawn to Malamud's fictional portrayal of a famous biographer, William Dubin, perhaps modeled on Kaplan in a few respects, and set on a campus not unlike Bennington, where Malamud taught in his later years. Dubin's Lives has something in common with Malamud's earlier campus novel, A New Life, which Cynthia Ozick described in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review as "one of those rare transfiguring American novels that turn wishing into destiny." As in A New Life, the richly observed country setting and elegiac tone distinguish this late-life book from other Malamud novels and stories; William Dubin's "wishing" centers not on advancement toward tenure within the academy, but on mastering the life of D.H. Lawrence in a biography he hopes will meet even greater success than his first prize-winning life of Thoreau. Here's how Dubin talks to himself about his project:

He had more new material than anyone in recent years and felt he could do a more subtle portrait of the man than had previously appeared. That was the true battle ground for the biographer: the vast available documentation versus the intuition and limited experience of Wm. B. Dubin, formerly of Newark, New Jersey.
Sometimes he felt like an ant about to eat an oak tree. There were several million facts of Lawrence's short life and long work, of which Dubin might master a sufficient quantity. He'd weave them together and say what they meant—that was the daring thing. You assimilated another man's experience and tried to arrange it into "thoughtful centrality"—Samuel Johnson's expression. . . . The past exudes legend: one can't make pure clay of time's mud. There is no life that can be recaptured wholly; as it was. Which is to say that all biography is ultimately fiction. What does that tell you about the nature of life, and does one really want to know?

Aside from Dubin's dedication to his subject, his adherence to a vocational path already well-worn by previous masters, and his casually ironic questioning of the whole endeavor (I hadn't yet committed to writing a biography of my own), I also envied most aspects of his daily existence: a many-windowed study in a large house, the freedom to work there undisturbed every day, a wife who fixed him lunch and wrote checks for the "cleaning person." Never mind that the "cleaning person" turns out to be Fanny Bick, a distractingly beautiful dropout from the college who will test Dubin's fidelity to his marriage and cause him to wonder "whether he had responded to [Fanny] as his usual self or as one presently steeped in Lawrence's sexual theories, odd as they were." I could see "several million" ways in which Dubin's life would never be mine, and I was enough of a feminist (in fact very much of one) to find the direction of the plot mildly revolting. But I still read the book and enjoyed it the way I did John Updike's Rabbit novels—a counterfeit's pleasure in stealing into the mind of the other. I wasn't yet writing, but I was reading like a biographer.

It took Phyllis Rose's Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages to teach me some lessons about the varieties of marital experience that were more useful than those offered by Bernard Malamud, and to broaden my sense of what a biographical work could do. It was not by chance that within a year of reading the book I had successfully pitched my own project on three nineteenth-century New England sisters, two of whom had made famous marriages (Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Peabody and Horace Mann), and signed a book contract—promising delivery in three years. Rose's book traces the liaisons of Jane Welsh and Thomas Carlyle, Effie Gray and John Ruskin, George Eliot and Henry Lewes, Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens, Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill. But more than any of the real-life characters in the book (except perhaps Marian Evans, aka George Eliot), I admired Phyllis Rose and her very different style of biographical daring.

In the opening pages, Rose states Dubin's premise, "all biography is fiction," in reverse: "I believe, first of all, that living is an act of creativity." The plan of her book, she writes, "began with a desire to tell the stories of some marriages as unsentimentally as possible, with attention to the shifting tides of power between a man and a woman joined, presumably, for life. My purposes were partly feminist (since marriage is so often the context within which a woman works out her destiny, it has always been an object of feminist scrutiny) and partly . . . literary." Here was both Olympian distance and intimate inquiry. Feminism and textual analysis. Literature and life.

Three years turned into five, and then seven and ten. . . . Mercifully, early on in my work I had discovered my touchstone book, one that curiously never earned the acclaim it deserved, judging from its author Diane Johnson's decision after writing one more biography (Dashiell Hammett) to give up life writing in favor of social satire as a novelist. The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives begins:

Many people have described the Famous Writer presiding at his dinner table, in a clean neckcloth. He is famous; everybody remembers his remarks. He remembers his own remarks, being a writer, and notes them in his diary. We forget that there were other people at the table—a quiet person, now muffled by time, shadowy, whose heart pounded with love perhaps, or rage, or fear when our writer shuffled in from his study; whose hands, white knuckled, twisted an apron, whose thoughts raced. Or someone who left the room with a full throat of sobs. Of course there is no way really to know the minds of Lizzie Rossetti, or the first Mrs. Milton, or all those silent Dickens children suffering the mad unkindness, the delirious pleasures of their terrifying father's company—with little places of their own to put their small things away in, with small, terrified thoughts.

But we know a lesser life does not seem lesser to the person who leads one.

Johnson's biography of Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, daughter and wife of poets, mistress of a painter, who, over a century after her death "survives materially in a lock of hair, a book she owned (The Arabian Nights), a green satin dress, another of ecru embroidery, two parasols to match, a dozen letters, a few articles and poems she wrote, and a book of Extracts in which she copied out things that struck her as she read," is the work of a magician. Who else could have spun a true tale out of so little "material"? Johnson's Lesser Lives inspired me, even though my materials were of Laurentian "oak tree" proportions. (The three Peabody sisters corresponded extensively, kept numerous journals and books of extracts, and published books and articles by the cartload.) I had begun to fear that I might never finish my book, and yet Johnson's compassionate perspective offered consolation, reminding me of the full spectrum of human experience, the importance of each individual no matter how small her accomplishment: "Mrs. Meredith's life can be looked upon, of course, as an episode in the lives of Meredith or Peacock, but it cannot have seemed that way to her."

I did finish my book recounting the three lives of the Peabody sisters. And then I went on to write another biography of their contemporary, Margaret Fuller. I will write another, and another, I believe. I have plans for them. But I won't forget the three Lives that, one after the other, invited me to write biographically, showed me how, and comforted me when I despaired by revealing something of "the nature of life." Yes, one really does want to know.

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