I recently finished teaching the poem “An Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins.
I think the line from the poem “ waving at the author’s name on the shore” has finally helped me to define how I feel about reading an author’s biography while reading the author’s creation.
I can’t NOT read some biographical details. For one thing, there’s plain curiosity. Who IS this person who “has given birth” to this book which I am enjoying (or not..). In addition, knowing something about the period in which the author lived does explain some things, at least in some books. Chingiz Aitamatov, whose book “The day lasts more than a 100 years” I’m still reading, had first hand experience of living under the repressive former Soviet Regime. Mark Twain uses some phrases in his books which don’t make sense unless you understand something about the period in which they were written.
However, I understand Hemingway wasn’t a “nice” guy. Should I care? I enjoyed many of his books! Does it matter if I know that? I’m basically interested in the fact that he had first hand experience of the battles he wrote about in “For whom the Bell Tolls”.
O.K, full disclosure here – I have to admit that I do remember Hemingway drank absinthe which is almost pure poison. Not at all relevant to anything, but the detail has stuck in my mind.
That’s why I relate to the line from the poem.
I believe that it is good to know something about the author’s biography, but keeping a distance is a good idea. There is no need to get into the fine details.