Richard Holmes

Highlights of the 2018 BIO Conference: Holmes Keynote Address and Husband-and-Wife Team in Conversation

More than 225 established and aspiring biographers from three continents immersed themselves in their craft at the Ninth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held May 18 and 19, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Along with the announcement of the Plutarch Award for 2018, conference highlights included a keynote address by Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award, and a discussion between Edmund Morris and Sylvia Jukes Morris, who shared their experiences writing about both living and dead subjects. [more]

Scenes from the 2018 BIO Conference:

James Atlas Interviews 2018 BIO Award Winner Richard Holmes

Photo: Stuart Clarke

Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.

Richard Holmes Wins 2018 BIO Award

Photo: Stuart Clarke

British author Richard Holmes, beloved for his biographies and memoirs about writing biography, is the winner of the ninth annual BIO Award. BIO bestows this honor on a colleague who has made a major contribution to the advancement of the art and craft of biography. Previous award winners are Jean Strouse, Robert Caro, Arnold Rampersad, Ron Chernow, Stacy Schiff, Taylor Branch, Claire Tomalin, and Candice Millard. Holmes will receive the honor on May 19, at the 2018 BIO Conference at the Leon Levy Center, City University of New York, where he will deliver the keynote address.

Holmes’s The Age of Wonder was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, and won the Royal Society Prize for Science Books and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. He has written many other books, including Falling Upwards, an uplifting account of the pioneering generation of balloon aeronauts, and the classicFootsteps. Its companion volumes, Sidetracks and This Long Pursuit, complete a trilogy that explores the Romantic movement biographer at work. Holmes’s first biography, Shelley: The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Prize; Coleridge: Early Visions won the 1989 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; Coleridge: Darker Reflections won the Duff Cooper and Heinemann Awards; and Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage won the James Tait Black Prize.

Holmes holds honorary doctorates from the universities of East Anglia, East London, and Kingston, and was professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia from 2001 to 2007. He is an Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, and was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1992. He lives in London and Norfolk, with the novelist Rose Tremain. TBC will have an interview with Holmes in an upcoming issue.

Richard Holmes Explores the Value of “A Handshake across Time”

Richard Holmes

Holmes’s books have included a two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By Dona Munker

In fifty years of writing biography, the innovative and prolific Richard Holmes has become known to his fellow practitioners as “a biographer’s biographer” for his reflections on the art and craft of biography (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer). At the 2014 annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture in New York, Holmes shared some insights with a rapt audience.

Holmes was about 18 when he decided to hike through the Cèvennes in an attempt to retrace the route Robert Louis Stevenson had taken with his donkey Modestine in 1878. Showing the audience a picture of two pages in a lined spiral notebook, he explained how he recorded factual, objective observations on one page, and on the opposite his own responses—“the subjective story, the dream story, the inner story of my pursuit.” In this way, his research notes became a mirror of past (the scientific evidence of Stevenson’s journey) and present (the biographer’s emotional responses to the evidence he recorded).

Holmes now views traveling to places where the subject lived and worked as the “physical and metaphysical pursuit” of a life, and an indispensable tool for a biographer, especially a literary biographer. Trying to discover the source of “that hope and creativity” that engenders art, however, requires not only discernment but a continuous balancing of circumspection and emotional empathy. The interior or spiritual life of a subject, he said, (“whether religious or not”) is “hidden” and therefore “far more delicate and difficult of access” than other areas of existence (including, Holmes observed rather pointedly, a subject’s sex life).

To penetrate the interior reality and bring it alive for both biographer and reader, Holmes said, the biographer must have the courage to draw not only on objective evidence but also on the subjective feelings and intuition that arise out of the writer’s own empathy for a subject’s emotional experience. And there is no substitute, he said, for being there.

As an example, he described an incident from the five years he spent searching for the sources of Shelley’s poetry (Shelley: The Pursuit, 1974). Puzzled by the fact that in “Adonais,” Shelley, an avowed atheist, envisions “a kind of immortality” for the poet John Keats, he nevertheless discovered archival evidence that the poet had earlier tried to write poems about his young son William, who had died of a fever in Rome. Fragments of those attempts eventually found their way into “Adonais.” However, Holmes continued to find the poem hard to reconcile with Shelley’s professed atheism.

Then, while reviewing photographs he had taken of the garden of the house in Italy where Shelley had played with his son, Holmes noticed the concealed figure of a small boy watching him curiously from among the trees. Several seconds passed before the startled biographer realized that the boy was not the ghost of William Shelley but the son of the house’s current Italian owners, come to see what he was doing.

Those seconds of surrender to an illusion, he said, brought home to him how strongly he empathized with Shelley’s overwhelming loss and grief and deepened Holmes’s understanding of the poet’s longing to repair such a loss. “I accepted his atheism intellectually,” he said. “…[But] I also realized that at some level, Shelley believed in some sort of creative immortality, [a belief] that he could only express in his poetry.”

Holmes’s moments of disorientation, he said, also revealed the fine line a biographer always has to walk between detachment and empathy. “That momentary illusion taught me that…the biographer can become far more emotionally involved with the subject than he realizes. That is a good and necessary thing, so long as he can finally step back.”

Years of both writing biography and teaching it (Holmes was the founding director of an MA program in biography at the University of East Anglia) have led him to think of biography as a collective effort that reaches not only across disciplines but also across generations, cultures, and different ways of life. “I believe passionately in the biographical form and its power of truth-telling and transformation in lives,” he told his listeners. “I also believe that it addresses the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery…the meeting of imaginative literature and those who write it, and science and those who make it.”

 Holmes used this image to illustrate  biography's "handshake across time." (Used by permission of Richard Holmes)


Holmes used this image to illustrate biography’s “handshake across time.”
(Used by permission of Richard Holmes)

Quoting Sylvia Plath, who said, “the novel is an open hand, poetry a clenched fist,” Holmes projected another image from one of his notebooks (“Number 209”), this one showing a drawing of two hands clasped in a handshake. “Biography, then, is a handshake across time…an act of friendship, a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open on both sides of that endless question about the mysteriousness of life. What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.”

To see a video of Holmes’s lecture, go here.

Dona Munker, co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution, is currently at work on a book about the twentieth-century American poet, suffragist, and free-lover Sara Bard Field. Some of her subjective responses to Richard Holmes’s lecture can be read on “Stalking the Elephant,” a blog about writing biography