Woman of Letters: A Life of Virgina Woolf, 1978
Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, 1983
Writing of Women: Essays in a Renaissance, 1985
Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time, 1989
Never Say Goodbye: Essays, 1991
The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, 1997
The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, 1993
In the essay “Self-Esteem, Self-Disgust,” Phyllis Rose writes, “I was born in Doctors Hospital with the fleet massing in the East River beneath my mother’s window for the invasion of North Africa.” Rose’s delight in such details reflects her work as a literary biographer; she chooses events in people’s lives that tell an engaging story. She eschews a boring compilation of facts and discounts as absurd any pretensions to objectivity.
Rose is best-known for her biography of Josephine Baker, the African American dancer who first dazzled Paris in the 1920’s and continued performing (with frequent interruptions) until her death in 1975. Jazz Cleopatra moves beyond the conventional handling of a subject’s life–the blow-by-blow account from birth to death; Jazz Cleopatra reads more like a novel. Rose gives special attention to Baker’s early success in Paris and her daring efforts as a French Resistance spy in World War II.
Rose grew up in a New York City suburb and went on to college at Radcliffe College, where she studied English and graduated summa cum laude in 1964. She received her bachelor of arts degree from Radcliffe College, her master’s in English literature from Yale University, and her doctorate from Harvard University in 1970. In 1969 she began teaching English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she lived with her husband, children’s author Laurent de Brunhoff. Her son Teddy, from a previous marriage, sometimes appears in her essays (she teaches him to drive a car; he buys her a bag of potatoes for her birthday).
Rose has said that she “backed into” biography. As a child, she loved reading stories of women’s lives, but she never intended to write them herself. (She wanted to be a cowgirl.) But in 1978, after years of literary training, she published her first book–Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. Her intention, she claims, was to frame literary analyses of Woolf’s novels with complementary episodes of Woolf’s life story. The result was an innovative biography nominated for the National Book Award. While Woman of Letters established Rose professionally, it granted her personal insight as well. “I understood that I had used Woolf to work out issues that were urgently important to me at that time–issues of autonomy, selfhood, independence, and their relationship to gender.” By discovering Woolf “in the context of her feminism,” Rose also learned to discover herself.
Rose’s next book, Parallel Lives, describes the marriages of five Victorian writers. The break-up of her own marriage led her to the subject: “I was obsessed with marriage as a formative institution. I decided to write a book about marriage, using Victorian writers for my examples because I had been a specialist in the nineteenth-century British novel.” In Parallel Lives Rose gives equal attention to the spouses of John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. She traces the balance of power within each marriage as it developed over years and sometimes fell apart. The challenge of the book was not the uncovering of new information about well-known personalities; it was all in the telling. With Parallel Lives, Rose earned respect as a captivating storyteller.
In the early 1980’s Wesleyan University gave Rose a grant to travel to Paris to do research on Ernest Hemingway. In the metro (subway) there, Rose saw an Air France travel poster for New York City: a huge black man standing on roller skates and carrying a portable stereo on his shoulder. The idealized image the French have of African Americans compelled Rose to switch topics, from Hemingway to Josephine Baker. Whereas Woman of Letters combines biography with literary criticism, and Parallel Lives combines biography with autobiography (“I congratulated myself on how discreetly I was telling the story of my own marriage and divorce”), Jazz Cleopatra uses biography as a means to rewrite cultural history.
Rose has also published collections of her essays. Writing of Women is divided into two categories, lives and works. Lives comprises reviews of biographies of other female artists and, in one case, the wife of several artists. Works includes essays about the works of female writers: “These pieces are united by two enthusiasms: my enthusiasm for the revolution in literary history by which women have begun to receive their due as writers, and my enthusiasm for biography in what I see as a golden age.” The essays here, written between 1979 and 1984, urge reassessment of previously neglected or undervalued writers. Never Say Goodbye presents essays that speak of Rose’s own experiences from the vantage point of her own success. They are full of humorous and sharp impressions of day-to-day concerns. Writing of Women celebrates female artists who deserve more lasting attention, while Never Say Goodbye (in attractively self-deprecating ways) celebrates herself. In The Year of Reading Proust, she produced a full-fledged autobiography that connects readers to her experiences in marriage, friendship, childhood, childbirth, and issues of mortality through the books that have given her life meaning and clarity. The homage to Marcel Proust is in recognition of what he taught her about writing autobiography–that it requires patience, candor, and the vigilant pursuit of truth.
In 1993 Rose served as editor for The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, an anthology of women’s autobiographies. In the introduction she writes, As I see it, the literature of women’s lives is a tradition of escapees, women who have lived to tell the tale. By and large, they seem determined to prove that womanhood is no handicap, that women can live as freely as men. They are remarkably inventive about their lives. They resist captivity. They get up and go. They seek better worlds.
As I see it, the literature of women’s lives is a tradition of escapees, women who have lived to tell the tale. By and large, they seem determined to prove that womanhood is no handicap, that women can live as freely as men. They are remarkably inventive about their lives. They resist captivity. They get up and go. They seek better worlds.