Timothy Brennan Wins Award for Edward Said Book
Since last March when it was published, Professor Timothy Brennan’s book Places of Mind, A Life of Edward Said (Farrar Straus and Giroux) has been celebrated and debated, scrutinized and lionized, in a staggering number of magazines and newspapers across the globe: from The New York Times and The Financial Times to The Hindu and Al-Akhbar (Beirut), from The London Review of Books to Foreign Policy. On November 24, it was honored with the Palestine Book Award for Biography. Already a popular invited speaker at universities and on radio, Brennan has discussed the book for audiences in France, Ireland, Israel, Canada, Germany, England, Norway, Lebanon, Jordan, the Occupied Territories, and across the US. Widely excerpted (including in a Serbian magazine), the book so far has been translated into eight languages.
“When I took on the task of writing the biography,” says Brennan today, “I wondered whether people would still remember Said almost two decades after his death, much less be fascinated by him. It turns out I underestimated how much he still matters to people (from Istanbul to Buenos Aires and Beijing). If anything, his fame seems to have grown in his absence.”
The charismatic literary critic and advocate for Palestine was Brennan’s graduate thesis advisor at Columbia University, and Brennan remained a friend until Said’s death in 2003. Still, the professor of English and Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature was surprised when a New York literary agent called “out of the blue” and informed him that not only were mainstream publishers interested in an intellectual biography of Said, but that Brennan was the person to write it. As the author of six scholarly books dealing with issues of intellectual history, cultural theory, and theories of colonialism and imperialism, Brennan didn’t immediately agree. “I’d never undertaken a biography proper,” he says. But he was convinced to write a proposal, and it quickly sold.
Among other honors, Professor Brennan has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the South Asian Literatures Association for Contributions to South Asian Studies and Camargo and Fulbright Foundation fellowships, as well as being named the University’s Samuel Russell Chair in the Humanities (2014-2020). Below, he describes the challenges and joys of publishing this “intense and rewarding book” (Wall Street Journal).
What were some difficulties in writing the book you wanted to write?
The problem from the start for me was how personal to be. This was very explicitly sold to me as an intellectual biography. But you can't tell the story of the man's ideas without telling us something about the man as a person in the world, especially someone is captivating as Edward. It was always a balancing act: the publisher pushing me more towards anecdotes and dramatic vignettes; and (although I obliged her in this and even offered many on my own) me holding out for a narrative line that was based on the drama of his ideas. I was especially interested in trying to show how for Said, being a literary critic and theorist of continental philosophy was not some early life detail that he happily outgrew, but what informed him politically and made his public interventions effective and memorable.
Maybe the biggest adventure for me in writing it was how to remain true to Edward's challenging theoretical tastes—these difficult books of philosophy and music theory and linguistics that formed him intellectually—but ending up with a book that the general public could read. Think of members of Palestinian student organizations or mainstream historians or journalists, all of whom have a stake in its legacy but know very little about his intellectual points of departure.
Places of Mind was reviewed everywhere, seemingly, with reviews still being published more than six months later. Were you especially surprised or pleased by any response?
I think a lot of people appreciated that the biography was about an intellectual, and that it treated his intellectual ideas seriously and tried to make them accessible. Sure, there was a lot of personal stuff in the biography too (love affairs, head-on car crashes, FBI investigations, accusations of terrorism, etc.). But the narrative arc was about a funny, passionate, insecure, almost frighteningly intelligent man fighting the anti-intellectual mainstream, making difficult ideas attractive, squaring off for the humanities, and bringing the university into the public sphere with a vengeance. A lot of people who wrote me personally—childhood friends of his, old colleagues of mine from the past, or just general readers—appreciated that aspect of the book, and that made the process worth it.
As you’ve stated, “Said fought throughout this career against the prejudice that poets and authors were primary witnesses, whereas critics were mere commentators on their work”—which made your discovery of Said’s two novel manuscripts particularly noteworthy.
It wasn't only these substantial, if abandoned, efforts at novel-writing that grabbed my attention, but their quality. How finely done they were shouldn't really have been a surprise, since his memoir Out of Place (which very consciously for him took the place of the novels, and polemically displaced fiction in favor of history) was in command of storytelling, filled with emotional risks, delicate pacing, and the attention to detail of all great novelists. A lot of literary scholars try their hand at fiction at some point or other. Said, though, really could have written a brilliant novel, and decided not to because he wanted to promote criticism.
To me, though, other discoveries were more important. I was unprepared to learn how deeply Anglicanism had left its stamp on him (even though he was, officially, an atheist), or how closely this left public intellectual had apprenticed under a right-wing anti-Islamic Lebanese statesman [family friend Charles Malik] and taken many of his early ideas from him. In general, the degree to which he was a classical Arab intellectual of the Nahda (Arab enlightenment) was something neither I nor others had considered earlier. In addition, before researching the book, I had no idea how many writers of his generation (Nobel Prize-winners like Nadine Gordimer and Kenzaburo Oe) looked up to him, befriended him affectionately, and took their leads from him. In letters they say he broke them out of their doldrums and changed their fiction! That's news, I think.
How did the writing process differ in writing for a public versus an academic audience?
Well, I had to re-write the book three times. The first draft, I thought, did the job—it was certainly different from what I do for journals like Critical Inquiry or New Literary History. But my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Ileene Smith) disagreed. One imagines that an editor at such a publishing house will line-edit your prose, crossing out verbiage, suggesting alternatives, and so on. It didn't work that way. What she did instead was mark up whole passages with a long line in the margin and then say something like "condense" or "you're getting lost in the weeds.” It was left to me to figure how to fix it. By the third draft, I had finally gotten the idea, and I would say that I learned a lot about how to imply content without openly stating it, how to go lightly, how to mix action with reflection, and, most of all, how to cut. Like Mark Twain says in Pudd'nhead Wilson: "As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out."
Favorite works to teach these days?
Cervantes' Don Quixote, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, Henri Lefebvre's Critique of Everyday Life, Lucretius' The Nature of Things.