6.08.2004

Biography, Autobiography, and Literature

THE LITTLE FOXES is a play by Lillian Hellman which was turned into a classic film by the same title.

Lillian Hellman, while she became in many ways both the quinessential New York writer AND an iconic Hollywood screenwriter, was born and raised (at least half of the time) in the South.

Her mother's family was part of the model for the family in THE LITTLE FOXES. Her general experience of like in the American south also informed the play.

Hellman wrote several memoirs, including AN UNFINISHED WOMAN, PENTIMENTO, and SCOUNDREL TIME.

Biography and Literature

Using biography to elucidate or explain literature is something which is often tempting to the undergraduate student of literature early in his or her career, but it is also a potential source of erroneaous readings of texts.

For example, Hellman's memoirs are fictionalized. This is different from using fictional devices in memoir (many memoirs use fictional devices, such as structural or narration techniques borrowed from novels). Is fictionalizing a memoir lying?

Thus, you can see that even when an autobiography by an author says x about the authors motivations and models for a work of literature y, the autobiography might not be accurate.

Some Critical Approaches

Biographical Criticism
New Criticism
Marxism
New Historicism

Biographical Criticism and Lillian Hellman

Yes, indeed, sometimes it seems students who write biographies of authors or resort to reading biographies rather than reading literary critics as paper sources haven't read the text at all! In a work of fiction (and this is important going forward, preparing to read Philip K. Dick's short science fiction), how relevant is the author's life?

In a work of fiction, how can or does the author change details, etc. from real life? For example, my husband, who, like myself, is a writer, frequently uses names and jokes and funny experiences friends and family have had in his movies. Does this mean anything? Does this mean anything different than the same quotes or names or scenes would mean if you didn't know they were "taken from life" and changed?

New Criticism and Lillian Hellman

New Criticism Occurred Partially in Response To:

Biographical Criticism that understood art primarily as a reflection of the author's life (sometimes to the point that the texts themselves weren't even read!).

New forms of *mass literature and literacy*, an increasingly consumerist society and the increasingly visible role of commerce, mass media, and advertising in people's lives. LIKE FILM!

Hellman's THE LITTLE FOXES is a "well made play" -- it is formal and self-sufficient. If you read the play closely without attention to Hellman and her experience, but simply finding the themes (greed, family history, "progress," social standing) and discussing what these themes say about history, about morals, what they satirize, you are giving the play a reading indebted to New Criticism.

Marxist Criticism

Consciousness, in broader terms, is our history, economy, philosophy, religion, psychology, literature and culture

Existence, that is to say, the material conditions we find ourselves in determine our consciousness.

When do the characters in THE LITTLE FOXES know what they know?

What sort of moral and social assumptions and conventions rule the different characters (i.e., Birdie is from a different culture, both Birdie and Horace were married for money)?

How does this change the meanings of the play?

New Historicism and Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett

New Historicism Occurred in Response to:

"New" Criticism's tendency to treat works of literature in a historical vacuum, as if a poem or novel had no relation to its historical context whatsoever.

Political developments in the 1960s, especially a desire on the part of literature professors to figure out how understanding literature might help in understanding social problems.

New Historicist Premises:

Images and narratives do important cultural work. They function as a kind of workshop (or playroom) where cultural problems, hopes, and obsessions are addressed or avoided.


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