Telling women's lives : the new biography /

Main Author: Wagner-Martin, Linda.
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, c1994.
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Review by Choice Review

This intelligent analysis of women's biographies is insightful, fascinating, and much needed. Linda Wagner-Martin says that the attacks on her Sylvia Plath: A Biography (CH, Feb'88) prompted her to realize that "telling women's lives has become so dangerous that writers must think twice ...." She feels that while biographies of men tell "the personal success story," those of women "demand different kinds of information," with one focus on the person's "interior life and another on the external values and conflicts." In crisp, clear style Wagner-Martin discusses such issues as the trap of the stereotype and overcoming it (George Eliot in the 19th-century view "fell short"); viewing women as wives, mothers, and relatives of the famous (the daughters of Margaret Mead and Marie Curie); and the problem of biography as being partly fiction (Kitty Kelley's biography of Elizabeth Taylor). She also considers the difference in the ways men and women biographers treat the wives of famous men, e.g., as Nora Barnacle, James Joyce's wife. Anyone will read women's biographies with a fresh eye after this. Indispensable for women's studies and English libraries. All levels. J. Overmyer; Ohio State University

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Wagner-Martin, who has written biographies of several women, including Sylvia Plath, here presents a lively and perceptive historical overview of women's biography as a genre. Early studies of women authored by men, such as Sir Leslie Stephen's monograph on George Eliot, suffered, she argues, from a bias that required biographers to force their subjects into a ``good woman'' mold. This, Wagner-Martin claims, led to serious distortion--as did the male tendency to view women primarily in relation to their husbands or fathers. The rise of feminism in the 1960s led to growing numbers of women writing about other women incisively, as exemplified by Blanche Wiesen Cook's Eleanor Roosevelt and by Elizabeth Frank's Pulitzer Prize-winning Louise Bogan . Discussing both serious and popular biography and autobiography, Wagner-Martin analyzes the difficulties involved in reconstructing a life. Illustrations not seen by PW. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

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Review by School Library Journal Review

Wagner-Martin (Sylvia Plath: A Biography, St. Martin's, 1988) has written an insightful introduction to the art of biography by and about women. The heart of the work is a cogent discussion of the differences inherent in biographies by men and those by women. Wagner-Martin talks of male biographers' tendency to ignore the domestic tensions to which women are subject and to delete data on topics such as rape and abuse. She also explores the problems of biographies of mothers by daughters and those written by men about female relatives; for example, she points out that biographies of George Eliot written by her husband and by her male friend Sir Leslie Stephen both gloss over her unhappiness at home and her liaisons with married men to emphasize Eliot's education and intellect. Recommended for academic libraries and all women's studies collections.-Sharon Firestone, Ross-Blakley Law Lib., Arizona State Univ., Tempe Wixson, Douglas. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A well-researched, engrossing history and critique of biographies about women. After publishing Sylvia Plath, A Biography (not reviewed), Wagner-Martin (English and Comparative Literature/Univ. of North Carolina) found herself ``bewildered and then amazed at the lambasting'' some British reviewers gave her book. Compelled to understand this criticism, Wagner-Martin attempts here to delineate why writing about women's lives has become ``a dangerous cultural and literary project.'' In probing the differences between biographies about men and women, she analyzes the unique difficulties faced by the biographers of women. Biographies, she asserts, are a traditionally male domain because comparatively few women have had the kind of success that attracts notice. And because fewer women have lived public lives, women's biographies are more often based on private events. It is the centrality of these private events that creates problems for traditional biographers. ``If a woman is promiscuous,'' asks Wagner-Martin, ``what kind of response will readers have to this aspect of her existence?'' A biographer who acknowledges the lesbian relationships of Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Margaret Mead has to risk alienating certain readers who chauvinistically hold women up to different moral standards. Postfeminist women biographers of the past 30 years, on the other hand, are seen as changing the parameters of biography to focus far more on the internal lives of their subjects. In the course of examining these questions, Wagner-Martin also delves into other interesting areas, such as the ethical issues biographers face (what to reveal and what to conceal) and gender stereotypes about ``what a good, moral woman should be.'' An extensive bibliography appends the text. A significant and provocative contribution to postfeminist literary criticism. (b&w photos, not seen)

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