Scott Donaldson, Biographer of Literary Titans: “He was hired by The Minneapolis Star as a reporter, a job he credited with instilling the discipline necessary to write prolifically.”

From a New York Times obit by Neil Genzlinger headlined “Scott Donaldson, Biographer of Literary Titans, Dies at 92”:

Scott Donaldson, a biographer who specialized in literary giants, among them Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever, although he called the task of capturing such personages between the covers of a book “the impossible craft,” died on Dec. 1 at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. . . .

Mr. Donaldson began his career as a newsman but eventually made his way to academia, teaching American literature at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., for 27 years. He found himself drawn to the life stories of literary figures and the relationship between their experiences and their writings.

His first biography, “Poet in America: Winfield Townley Scott,” published in 1972, told the story of a not-particularly-famous poet whose work Mr. Donaldson found intriguing. . . .For his next subject, he went considerably higher up the literary ladder: “By Force of Will: The Life and Art of Ernest Hemingway” was published in 1977.

Plenty of books had already been written about Hemingway, who died in 1961, but Mr. Donaldson took an unusual approach. Each chapter examined what Hemingway thought, wrote and did in relation to a particular theme — sports, religion, politics, sex and more.

“While many of the books on Hemingway have been written by friends — and some by enemies — Mr. Donaldson plays his cards close to his vest in this respect,” Anatole Broyard wrote in a review in The New York Times. “It does seem, though, that his documentation shoots quite a few holes in the Hemingway Legend.”

He tackled another often-written-about titan six years later in “Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald,” in which he posed the theory that the author’s life and work had been dominated by “an overweening compulsion to please.” In 1999 he published “Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship.”

In his later years Mr. Donaldson collected his thoughts in “The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography” (2015), which examined both the pleasures and the pitfalls of biography writing. . . .

John Scott Donaldson — he dropped “John” while still a young man — was born on Nov. 11, 1928, in Minneapolis. . . .As a teenager he was a nationally ranked tennis player in the 15-and-younger group; he continued to enjoy the sport for more than 60 years, giving it up only when he tore a calf muscle at age 80.

Mr. Donaldson was an English major at Yale University, graduating in 1950, and earned a master’s degree in English at the University of Minnesota in 1953. Then, with the Korean War near its end, he enlisted in the Army Security Agency, an intelligence branch, where he was trained as a Morse code intercept operator.

“I wasn’t very good at the work, which consisted largely of copying five-letter code groups from barely audible radio signals,” he wrote in “The Impossible Craft.” “It did teach me for the first time how to use a typewriter, the one good thing that came out of my military experience.”. . .

He was later stationed in Kyoto, Japan, and made a stab at a writing career. “I sent a fact piece to The New Yorker,” he recalled in “The Impossible Craft,” “about the life of an enlisted man in the Orient — ‘Letter From Japan,’ I pretentiously called it — and am still waiting for acknowledgment of its receipt.”

After military service, he was hired by The Minneapolis Star as a reporter, a job he credited with instilling the discipline necessary to write prolifically. . . .

Mr. Donaldson’s other biographies included “John Cheever,” published in 1988, six years after Mr. Cheever’s death at 70. In an interview with The Times, Mr. Donaldson said the seed for the volume was planted in 1976, when, while working on an article about Mr. Cheever, he shared a drink with him on Nantucket.

“His openness was extraordinary,” Mr. Donaldson recalled. “Especially the way he talked about all his love affairs. Maybe he was just trying to shock the bourgeois professor.”. . .

In 1984, by then working on the Cheever biography in earnest, he spent the summer in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.

“It was only a few miles from the Cheever house in Ossining, and I had a chance to see a great many of his intimate friends and a great many writers in the Northeast for the summer,” Mr. Donaldson recounted. “In one glorious day, I met Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren and Eleanor Clark.”

Mr. Donaldson’s other books included “Archibald MacLeish: An American Life” (1992) and “Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet’s Life” (2007). . . .

Mr. Donaldson said that although the market for biographies might not be spectacular, he could count on a steady readership for his type of book.

“That will not stop,” he wrote in “The Impossible Craft,” “until humans lose their curiosity about each other, and about the way they lived and loved and did their work.”

Neil Genzlinger is a writer for the Obituaries Desk. Previously he was a television, film and theater critic.

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