One afternoon, doing some straightening up at the desk in my home in Menlo Park, a few minutes' drive from the Stanford campus where I teach, I picked up beneath a small pile of folders a fairly plump one that I didn't recognize, opened it, and found some 200 typed pages of my manuscript on Isaac Rosenfeld
. So completely had I managed to push aside the writing of this book that I actually forgot where I'd put the original draft. I remember turning these pages over, one after the other, embarrassed but mostly stunned at how effectively I'd managed to forget their existence for so long.
It had been several years since I'd last thought seriously about the work. For a long time, I had labored assiduously, steadily on the biography. I interviewed dozens of his relatives, friends, and fellow-writers, including three long discussions with his closest friend since high school and lifelong nemesis, Saul Bellow. I discovered hundreds of Rosenfeld's letters, mostly in private hands, studied carefully his copious journal started in high school, tracked down his first girlfriend (who had saved his adolescent love-letters), and studied his six unpublished novels (he managed to publish only one novel, in 1946, Passage from Home). I examined, of course, all his published work, including a huge body of book reviews and other essays, and I'd read widely in literary biography, deciding on which I liked better than others: the English biographer Richard Holmes stood out with his subtle mixture of steady intelligence and obsession. Throughout, I was drawn by Rosenfeld's voice, especially in his essays, which remained fresh, rueful in its candor and insight.
Rosenfeld insisted on confronting mysteries that, he knew, most assumed belonged to religion, and he refused to acknowledge that faith alone possessed the tools to understand things of the spirit. A brilliant philosopher before he was a novelist, he sought to blend into his writing a quest for how the heart no less than the mind must serve as a guide to life — no matter how messy or inconvenient this might be. He died of a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1956 and fell into obscurity, becoming something of a metaphor – most powerfully in the memoirs of friends like Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe — for literary failure. It was clear to me that he deserved better.
The problem was, once I settled down in the late 1990s to sketch out his life — after having pieced together a reasonably coherent, chronologically accurate sense of what he had done, where he had lived, and what the people around him thought of him: his wife Vasiliki and two children (one now a Buddhist nun; the other, his son, also dead of massive heart attack in his forties) — the writing felt flat. I had written biography before and enjoyed greatly the pacing of a life-work, its interplay between intimate and public, the need to explicate one person's story in a larger, complex world where the one you study rubs shoulders with many others whose own stories must be part of the narrative, too.
I had already finished several books and never had I had such trouble writing, such uncertainty about the pace, the tenor, the basic content of what I would have to achieve to write something good. Of course, I had previously written academic history about rather different figures, and a quite different world – mostly about Russian Jewish life before the 1917 Revolution. But for years I had immersed myself in Rosenfeld's milieu, I felt that I knew it well. I knew the problem facing me hadn't to do with expertise but with something else, and still the book didn't jell.
What seemed especially murky was how to interest readers in a writer whose work they had not read, that was mostly out-of-print and, for that matter, largely unpublished. How to write a literary biography that isn't so much about achievement as about quest, and one that never reached a celebrated or happy culmination? At first, I kept looking among his unpublished work for a lost, forgotten Moby-Dick; eventually, I came to face the simple but crucial fact that, far more typical and, arguably, tougher to capture in literary biography, is the chasm between aspiration and achievement. Rosenfeld tried hard, his ambitions were immense, but he was also unusually alert to the chasm between the desire for literary greatness and its achievement. He wrote about this theme, in letters and in his journal, often and brilliantly.
It took years for me to appreciate that this quest had to be at the heart of my book, precisely because it was at the core of his life as a writer. Unable to proceed with the work on him, and finding it painful to face it, I put the manuscript aside and eventually it found its way under that random pile of off-prints, memos, and old student papers that I picked up while cleaning my desk. I recognized that day that if I didn't sit down and finish it soon, I'd forget much of what I'd learned about Rosenfeld. Pondering the book then — its content and, more importantly, its texture — suddenly it started to feel clearer. I had a summer break in front of me, and a contract deadline for another book looming in the near distance. I cleared away the debris beside my desk, organized the large body of primary sources I had amassed about Rosenfeld, decided not to even look again at the original draft (frankly, I have no idea where it now is), and started writing anew. I finished the first draft of what is now Rosenfeld's Lives in three months.