Am reading or re-reading two of the great macho writers: Dashiell Hammett and Robert E. Howard. Both were emasculated after death by female biographers who were close to them. Novalyne Price's posthumous quotes from Howard make him seem like another mere angry right-winger ranting about the death of civilization. Lillian Hellman in her intro to The Big Knockover dwells on Hammett's illnesses, drinking, and years as a non-productive writer.* I haven't read Price's Howard bios, only the quotes a Howard scholar lifted from them but REH sounds like an ass, which he is anything but in his supremely confident writing.
Price admits not liking one of his main creations, Conan the Barbarian. It's hard to see how this wouldn't color her impressions of the man. "Oh yeah, world, you like that big brawler? Well let me tell you about the mama's boy who created him (after he is safely dead)."
The interesting stories, O Long-Lived Women, are not the bundles of frailties behind the legends but how the frailties were transcended or sidestepped in writing that endures. In her Knockover intro Hellman tells us nothing about how the young Hammett could be so smart about human nature or how his years with the Pinkerton detective agency prepared him for his intricately-wrought plots. Instead we get emphysema, hoarding, booze and jail. You have to keep reminding yourself as you read what Mary McCarthy famously said about Hellman. Conan, as Howard paints him, is more akin to a philosopher-king than Schwarzenegger muscleman, and the stories, like Hammett's, have a preternaturally wised-up world view for having been written by someone so young (and even less travelled than Hammett). That's what we want to know about, not his personal opinions on, say, how decaying societies become sex-obsessed. In fairness to Price, perhaps her biographies bristle with more insight than the few quotes I've read -- will read them and let you know.
And of course, biography is not literary criticism and we shouldn't hold that standard to people who tell us about people. Unfortunately literary critics look at any scraps of biographical info (especially about tight-lipped writers) to explain the stories. Hence this short gripe.
*Update: A friend commented that Hellman also attests to Hammett's intelligence and character in that intro. True, but her compliments seem backhanded: the lingering image is of a man reading a stack of complicated books on a variety of subjects yet no longer assimilating them into art.