Literary critic, essayist, biographer, and educator
Phyllis's first book was a biography of Virginia Woolf, Woman of Letters, published by Oxford University Press in 1978. A finalist for the National Book Award, it was in the forefront of feminist re-evaluations of literary figures and contributed to the surge of interest in Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury in the late 1970s.
In 1983 Knopf published her Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, which, taking as its model Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, considered a large issue (the institution of marriage) through portraits of individual marriages. Anatole Broyard in The New York Times called it a “brilliant and original book. It has stayed in print for over 25 years. Nora Ephron told Time Magazine in 2009 that she read it every four or five years.
Wanting to address issues of race and American culture, interested in attempting to write the life of someone who didn't leave a literary record, Phyllis next chose to write about the African-American dancer, Josephine Baker. The result, Jazz Cleopatra, was biography as cultural history. The book was supported by grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. It has been translated into many languages. Research for this book took Phyllis to Paris for six months, where she met her husband, so she has a special feeling for it.
Throughout her career, Phyllis has reviewed books and published essays in national magazines and newspapers. As a reviewer, she was particularly interested in promoting work by women. As an essayist, she has often sought to address the connections between literature and life. Some of her early feminist book reviews, along with related essays (a long piece on Willa Cather) were published in Writing of Women (Wesleyan University Press, 1985) and many of her short essays in Never Say Goodbye (Doubleday, 1991). The latter volume contains the ten pieces Phyllis wrote when she was a weekly guest columnist for the New York Times.
A large project of the early 1990s was The Norton Book of Women's Lives, an anthology of selections from women's diaries, journals, and memoirs. She selected the texts for this book and wrote the introductions to all 61 selections. The Hungry Mind Review called it a “magnificent, handsome, handful of an anthology.” The book is still in print after almost 20 years.
Phyllis's next writing project combined memoir and literary criticism. She set out to read all of Proust's In Search of Lost Time and to write about the experience. This was The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, published by Scribner in 1997.
After that, Phyllis took a long sabbatical from book-writing and devoted herself to photography, specializing in portrait photography. Currently she is back writing and working on several projects having to do with both literature and photography. She is based in Key West, Florida and spends a lot of time also in New York City. She is married to Laurent de Brunhoff, the author and illustrator of the Babar books, with whom she collaborates on the texts.
Phyllis graduated from Radcliffe College in 1964 summa cum laude and spent a year at Yale studying English literature. She returned to Harvard to finish her graduate studies, specializing in nineteenth-century English literature and writing a dissertation on Dickens which became the basis for her classic work, Parallel Lives.
She began teaching English literature in 1969 as an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut where she spent her entire career, becoming a full professor with tenure in 1976 and retiring in 2005. She spent one year (1981-82) as a visiting professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley.
At Wesleyan, she taught a wide range of subjects, including the Victorian novel, the modern novel, Shakespeare’s plays, and fiction writing. In the latter stage of her career, she innovated in the teaching of fiction writing by using guest editors on the Internet to comment on students’ work. This enabled fiction writing to be taught to larger groups than usual.