“The fact is, we are much more afraid of life than our ancestors,” Robert Louis Stevenson is heard remarking in “Footsteps” (1985), Richard Holmes’s sideways memoir of the “adventures of a Romantic biographer.” This feeling that the present is a time less adventurous in spirit than the past runs through Holmes’s vast body of work; in “Falling Upwards,” about balloonists and ballooning, it rises and spreads like a jet of fire-heated helium, making the new book at once lighter than Holmes’s other books and harder to read straight through.
No writer alive and working in English today writes better about the past than Holmes. The man who once dated a check 1772 (it bounced) while working on a biography of Shelley has lived imaginatively in the 18th and 19th centuries for four decades now, emerging every few years with a propulsive, pioneering book. The Shelley biography (published when he was 28) gave free play to the poet’s radical politics. A two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge drew on six volumes of letters to make the subject’s voice ring out Mariner-like from every page.