I was beginning to realize that I’d spent all this time—years of time—reading and learning about things and people who would never be able to have much a presence in the book. It sometimes worked out to something like this: From five books I’d read on some related subject I’d sometimes be able to use only enough to supply a dependent clause in a single sentence.
Betty and I got into an interesting exchange in mid-June 2000 when I heard news about a new fat biography about to appear—by Miranda Seymour: Mary Shelley, which did not in fact arrive until early September 2001. Betty was skeptical about its value and had some other things to say about it that made me feel she was a bit concerned. She noted that an early review of Janet Todd’s recent biography, Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life (released in September 2000), was not enthusiastic to say the least. Betty was disappointed because she deeply respected Todd’s scholarship; they were friends. And what would the critics say about her own book once it appeared?
Betty changed the subject about a week later, writing to tell me that her father had fallen, possibly breaking his hip. She was heading off that day to go see him. I sent my condolences, then sort of griped—again—about all the reading I was doing and about how I really wasn’t going to be able to use most of it. Over the years, I said, I’ve learned a horrible truth about writing: You have to know a lot to reduce to a few sentences something complex …. Indeed.
Betty replied later with mostly good news about her father—no need for a hip replacement. She wrote, as well, about a memory of seeing—years before—a production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten. She noted how it is a reminder of how complicated people can be—flawed and hurt, and complicated and wonderful—and with brilliant thrown in, we have the Shelleys …. She asked me for recommendations of biographies I’d liked, and I, of course, spouted off like a pompous ass. (Why is it asses that are always pompous? They have so little to be pompous about.)
I told her that I’d liked Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens and Duberman’s biography of Paul Robeson. It was then that I went off, telling her that I preferred works that go heavy on factual detail and light on theory … [I] am not much interested in forcing the facts … into a theoretical sausage-casing of some kind—at least not into a procrustean one (talk about mixed metaphors! A procrustean sausage-casing! And on and on I went, puffing away as if I were an authority on something. I’m surprised Betty replied. She must have been wondering what sort of correspondent she’d gotten involved with
But she did reply—and, thoughtfully, did not react to my pomposities and ass-ery (I know: not a word—but it fits).