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Re: [mythsoc] Humphrey Carpenter, 1946-2005

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  • David Bratman
    Humphrey Carpenter first came to my notice in 1977, when his biography of Tolkien was published. This book distracted my attention effectively from a few
    Message 1 of 9 , Jan 5, 2005
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      Humphrey Carpenter first came to my notice in 1977, when his biography of
      Tolkien was published. This book distracted my attention effectively from a
      few workaday nuisances, such as final exams. It's amazing how well it's
      held up over the years. Certainly none of its successors (except John
      Garth's _Tolkien and the Great War_, which isn't a full biography) have
      measured up to his achievement. Carpenter made a fair number of factual
      errors, as it later turned out: some of them because Tolkien's papers had
      not been adequately sorted at the time he did his research, so info on what
      Tolkien wrote and when he wrote it was lacking. But his errors are mostly
      in details: what's important is how well Carpenter captured the spirit and
      intellect of the man. His picture of what drove and interested Tolkien was
      impeccable, so it's unfortunate that Carpenter lost interest in later
      years, and once wrote a radio dramatization script that depicted Tolkien as
      nothing more than an absent-minded coot.

      Soon afterwards came his book on the Inklings, also still the standard
      resource on the subject, though perhaps a less successful work. Carpenter
      found Lewis's and Williams's idiosyncracies more puzzling than Tolkien's,
      and didn't really have the measure of the men. But he delved deeply into
      sources and wore his learning confidently.

      After that he was established as a famous literary biographer, and went on
      to many other subjects. The first of these was W.H. Auden, possibly
      Carpenter's best book, a rich amusing and lucid portrait of the man and his
      work. But later books tended to lose something. I was quite disappointed
      with his book on Benjamin Britten, which drew him as a man with a really
      interesting erotic life who also might have composed a little bit of music
      from time to time. But Carpenter could still turn a phrase and make telling
      points: I'm especially fond of a footnote in _Geniuses Together_, his book
      on the American writers in 1920s Paris, saying something to the effect of
      noting that Hemingway is believed to have written most of his fiction while
      mildly drunk; and that it works best if the reader is in a similar
      condition. (I haven't tried this myself.)

      Carpenter also wrote a number of other books, including children's fiction,
      that I mostly have not read, but _Secret Gardens_, his critical survey of
      the golden age of English children's literature, is another brilliant and
      insightful book.

      David Bratman
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