No Thanks

As a biographer, I believe the true and legitimate purpose of acknowledgments is to thank those who helped me: people who were interviewed, and sent unpublished letters and photographs; contemporary authors who wrote about what the subject meant to them; librarians who facilitated research; experts who answered specialized questions; friends who supplied addresses, books, and useful information, or who provided hospitality and fed the starveling author while he was on the road; my wife and traveling companion who helped with research, edited the book, and compiled the index.

But there are two other kinds of acknowledgments that exceed the bounds of decency and should be absolutely forbidden. One of these suggests fulsome self-promotion; the other expresses dubious gratitude. Those thanked in the first kind didn’t actually help the author, while those thanked in the second actually hurt him.

In the first kind, the author shows by name-dropping how important he is—I love these people, so they must also love me—and puffs himself by imitating the Academy Award acceptance speeches. The exalted and effusively thanked notables are literary equivalents of Righteous Gentiles in Israel or Living Treasures in Japan. They include ancestors, sometimes going back to Egyptian dynasties; parents who conceived the author so the book could also be born; the spiritual guru who believed in the author; the analyst who put up with years of the author’s kvetching; the author’s...

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About the Author

Jeffrey Meyers, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has published Hemingway: The Critical Heritage (1982), Hemingway: A Biography (1985), and Hemingway: Life and Art (2000), as well as Samuel Johnson: The Struggle (2008), The Genius and the Goddess: Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe (2009), George Orwell: Life and Art (2010), and John Huston: Courage and Art (2011).