Probing the lives and work Barbara Comyns, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Carson McCullers, these literary biographies, out this week, take a fresh look at three of our most visionary writers.

Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence

Avril Horner. Manchester Univ, $44.95 (372p) ISBN 978-1-5261-7374-4
The power of Barbara Comyns’s novels “derives from a life often lived on the edge,” according to this rewarding biography of the British writer. Horner (Women and the Gothic), an English professor emeritus at Kingston University London, notes that Comyns (1907–1992) was born to affluent parents and enjoyed a tony upbringing. The death of Comyns’s father when she was 18 inaugurated a nearly lifelong struggle with financial hardship and forced her to take a smattering of odd jobs that included housekeeping and modeling for artists. After moving to London in 1929, she adopted a bohemian lifestyle and rubbed shoulders with poet Dylan Thomas and artist Victor Pasmore in the Fitzrovia district’s taverns before trying her own hand at writing. Drawing revealing parallels between Comyns’s fiction and her life, Horner points out that the 1950 novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which follows an artist’s wife who has a child by another man, tracks Comyns’s own romantic entanglements closely enough to be called autofiction. Horner weaves a satisfying late-in-life success story from the flurry of attention Comyns received in the years before her death in 1992, and makes a strong case that her “life was as extraordinary as her novels.” This should earn Comyns some new fans. Photos. (Mar.)

Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson

James Marcus. Princeton Univ, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-691-25433-3
Literary critic Marcus (Amazonia) serves up a distinctive biography of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that homes in on “those elements of Emerson’s life that spoke to me most directly.” Fortunately, Marcus’s instincts are a good guide to the shifting sands of Emerson’s life and thought. Examining how grief shaped his subject’s outlook, Marcus explains that Emerson was distraught after the deaths of his first wife in 1831 and his eldest son at age five 11 years later, leading him to adopt a solipsistic view of human consciousness as fundamentally lonely and unable to close the gap between self and other (“The soul blots out everything else, including your wife’s soul, and maybe your dead son’s,” writes Marcus). Elsewhere, Marcus grapples with Emerson’s complicated views on race (he was an abolitionist who claimed that whites were superior to Black people) and his tumultuous friendship with protégé Henry David Thoreau, whom Emerson was at first enamored with, but came to view as a disappointment after Thoreau’s poetry career stalled. Marcus provides astute insight into how Emerson’s life influenced his transcendentalist beliefs, and the empathetic portrayal of Emerson’s decline into dementia and tender relationship with his eldest daughter, who was his primary caregiver at the end of his life, is a poignant highlight. The result is a discerning take on an essential 19th-century American thinker. Photos. (Mar.)

Carson McCullers: A Life

Mary V. Dearborn. Knopf, $40 (512p) ISBN 978-0-525-52101-3
Biographer Dearborn (Ernest Hemingway) delivers a penetrating portrait of Southern novelist Carson McCullers (1917–1967) as a brilliant but difficult writer whose life was marred by alcoholism and illness, which began with an untreated strep throat infection she contracted sometime before age 20 that precipitated a series of strokes throughout her life. Dearborn describes how McCullers’s mother believed her daughter was destined for greatness even before she was born, a prophecy that came true after McCullers’s first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was released to critical acclaim when she was just 23. Calling queerness “Carson’s defining trait as an artist,” Dearborn delves into McCullers’s tumultuous romantic life, which included getting married at age 19 to Reeve McCullers, with whom she maintained an on-and-off relationship as she pursued “older, more worldly women who sometimes returned her affection but who... seldom wanted the passionate physical relationship she sought.” Dearborn provides astute psychological insight into McCullers, describing her as a headstrong if “needy” writer who demanded “constant expressions of love,” and offers a tender depiction of her close friendship with Tennessee Williams, whom she met after he wrote her a letter of admiration and who helped take care of her after her second stroke left her partially paralyzed. This skillful biography satisfies. Photos. Agent: Georges Borchardt, Georges Borchardt, Inc. (Feb.)