Friday, June 26, 2009

On the writing of lives

Presented to the Club by Richard L. Floyd in February, 2006

When Izaak Walton, the seventeenth century writer best known for The Compleat Angler, set out to write a life of poet and divine John Donne, there was as yet no word in English for a biographer, and the very concept of a biography as we know it did not exist. There were “Lives” written going back as far as Plutarch and Suetonius, of course, but these were in no way distinguished from history. There were also “Lives” of the saints written for the edification of the faithful. It was works such as Walton’s “Lives” in the seventeenth century and Johnson’s and Boswell’s in the eighteenth that helped to create the literary genre we know today.

You would never know by the popularity of biographies today what recent phenomena they are. The Twentieth Century saw the blossoming of the genre, beginning with Aylmer Maude's Life of Tolstoy, first published in 1910. Since then the floodgates of biography have been opened and never closed. “Of the making of books there is no end,” wrote St. John The Evangelist, and this is particularly true of biographies today.

How popular are biographies? Last Sunday’s (this was written in 2006, but make the necessary changes) New York Times Book Review had reviews of new biographies of John Cassevetes, Phyllis Schafly, Ronald Reagan and Christopher Marlowe.

Half of the books on the current New York Times Best Seller list for non-fiction are either memoirs or biographies, although there is more than a little doubt now whether James Frey’s new book, My Friend Leonard, has as much fiction in it as did his Million Little Pieces, which tops the paperback list.

Frey’s situation is a case in point of the popularity of the factual over the fictional. Unless you are one of those rare souls who actually reads books rather than hearing about them on TV, you probably are aware of the flap caused by the disclosure that Frey’s Million Little Pieces, which was published as a memoir, contains a considerable amount of what charitably could be called fiction.

Oprah Winfrey, a force to be reckoned with in the book world, had strongly recommended Million Little Pieces, sending it to the top of the lists, and, when the expose broke, she at first defended Frey. Oprah called in to a Larry King Live show where Frey was taking a beating, and told Larry and his TV audience she thought the criticisms were no big deal, and to stop picking on her guy.

After some days of reflection, and a blizzard of editorials about her, Oprah recanted, and invited both Frey and Nan Talese, his editor, onto her show. There she delivered to the unsuspecting objects of her wrath a rather severe admonition about the importance of truth in general and publishing in particular. Nan Talese made some half-hearted attempts to defend the lying by saying that memoirs involve the intersection of fact with imagination. I will return to the fascinating subject of where the line is between fact and fiction, but for now let us note that the negative publicity hasn’t seemed to hurt sales of either of Frey’s books. But the nugget of fact that I find most fascinating in this tale is the recent disclosure that Frey had originally submitted Million Little Pieces as fiction to 17 publishers, and had been rejected each time. When he reclassified it as a memoir, he had a ready publisher and public.

In other words, many of us love a tale we think is true, better than one that is simply well told. A purported true story may find an audience where fiction cannot, as Frey discovered. This may help to explain today’s flourishing biography trade, and the peculiar fact that people will buy literary biographies of author’s whose books are no longer to be found in the same bookstore in which the biography was purchased. It’s not always true, of course, that biographies of authors are more interesting than the fiction that made the authors famous, but it often is. How many of you wouldn’t rather read about Gertrude Stein, for example, who is fascinating, than actually read her books, which are impenetrable, at least to me.

One of the marks of modernity is a fascination with the individual, and since Isaak Walton’s time the rise of the biography has coincided with the rise of the individual. There were great men in antiquity, of course, whose lives were well worth knowing about, but the focus of writing about them was on their place in a larger narrative of history, a story of battles and empires. Today we read biographies of people who have nothing to do with the sweep of history, some of whom are merely famous for being famous, such as the ubiquitous Paris Hilton.

We are greedy for biographies, and they cover every literary brow, from high to low. Whether your taste runs to the British Royal Family and Hollywood celebrities or to the literati of the 1930’s you’re in luck. The menu has almost too many choices. Recently there have been major biographies of Lords Byron and Nelson, John Coltrane, Edvard Munch, Rudyard Kipling, Emma Goldman, W. B. Yeats, St. Augustine, D. H. Lawrence, Samuel Pepys, Sandra Day O’Connor and John James Audubon, to name but a few. Even James Boswell himself, the Ur biographer, is the subject of a new major biography. There were two biographies released simultaneously of Madonna, the singer, not Mary the mother of Jesus.

The recent biographies of America’s founding fathers are a regular growth industry. We have had recent major biographies of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton.

Any Civil War General worth his salt has his own Life; I have read biographies of both Grant and Lee in the last year and started one about Longstreet, but decided after a few pages that I didn’t want to know that much about him. Nonetheless reading several biographies can often make you intimate with a period better than a standard history.

So what is a biography? If biology is the study of the organization of life, biography is the writing about life, from the Greek words bios for life and graphein, to write. Like many words biography has expanded from its strict meaning, so now it can be used to denote the mere facts and information about a person. Used in this looser sense, a Wikepedia entry on the Internet, or a Hollywood biopic are both biographies.

But biography, in the strict sense, is a life in writing. It isn’t the life itself, but a written account of it. By way of analogy, I have often explained to people over the years that my written sermon manuscripts are not actually sermons, but only literary artifacts of oral events. To read the sermon is not the same as to experience the sermon. The manuscript has words on a page, but it leaves many questions unanswered. How many people were in the congregation? Were they alert or sleepy? Was the preacher animated, somber, or amusing? Did he mumble or speak up? What was he wearing? Was there a thunderstorm going on outside, or a baby crying? You get the idea.

In much the same way a biography is also a literary artifact, but of a much less ephemeral event, not a half-hour oration but the entire life of a person. This is no easy task. The complexities and nuances of a human life can only partially be captured in words. If only the bare facts of a human life were needed, then a biography could be condensed into a few paragraphs. Where did he live? What did she do? Why is he famous? When did she die? (That sort of thing.) Dictionaries of biography can sum-up several lives this way on a single page, but a full-dress biography, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, for example, do far more.

They try to capture something of the genius of the life they portray, as a portrait painter tries to do more than simply mirror the physical image of the subject. An engaging biography leaves you feeling you understand something of the person’s inner life, his passions and motivations. And since every life must to some extent remain a mystery, even to its closest intimates, even to oneself, good biography is made up of both careful research and deft art.

The biographer must ask, “What made this person tick?” What is it that she accomplished that makes her a worthy subject for the biographer? Leon Edel, the distinguished biographer of Henry James, put it like this: “The secret of biography resides in finding the link between talent and achievement. A biography seems irrelevant if it doesn’t discover the overlap between what the individual did and the life that made this possible. Without discovering that, you have shapeless happenings and gossip.”(Jay Parini, SALON | Nov. 19, 1997.)

I have said that good biography is made up of both careful research and deft art, and both are necessary. Without careful research, the art will not create a good biography. So how does the biographer go about the task of finding the information necessary? Edel was asked the secret to biographical research, he said, “Get a big desk.” The biographer is like a detective, putting together the pieces of the puzzle, some of which are missing. There will be gaps and silences as well as letters and diaries. James Boswell, who did as much as anyone to create the modern biography, was blessed with a personal acquaintance with Samuel Johnson. He ate with him, drank with him, and traveled with him. He egged him on into lengthy discourses while he took notes in shorthand. In other words, he had access. But that is the exception.

Most biographers aren’t so lucky. The paper trail can be hard to find. Letters are lost, or even burned by protective family members or lovers. Ian Hamilton has written a fascinating account of the obstacles placed in the way of biographers in his book, Keepers of the Flame. He himself knows something of these frustrations in his own attempt to write a life of the notoriously reclusive J. D. Salinger. Hamilton’s book is full of stories of widows and executors fighting off those they perceive as predatory biographers.

Some examples: Lord Byron’s executor put Byron’s memoir to the flames. Thomas Hardy destroyed most of his life’s papers and then conspired with his second wife to pretend she was the author of a biography he was actually writing about himself. Jane Austen’s sister destroyed letters she thought revealed personal material. Poet Ted Hughes, husband of Sylvia Plath, destroyed her last two journals, and then published his own edition of the rest.

And those are only some of the problems associated with writing about dead people; there is a whole different set of problems when dealing with the living. First there is the problem of authorization. If you seek permission to write an authorized biography, does it make you beholden to the author and family so as to skew the final picture? On the other hand, an unauthorized biographer can be perceived as not much better than a stalker.

Listen to Janny Scott of The New York Times tell of the trials and tribulations of two biographers of living subjects: Carole Klein, who was writing about Doris Lessing, and Ann Waldron, who was writing about Eudora Welty:

“These may be boom years in the biography business, but the economics of publishing and popular tastes have put pressure on writers to select living subjects instead of the kind one biographer calls ‘nice and dead.’

The problem is that the living ones tend to say no. Some even encourage their friends to do the same. Which can make spending three or four years reconstructing a hostile subject's life a lonely, dispiriting way of paying the bills.

Letters go unanswered, calls unreturned. Sources hang up when the biographer introduces himself over the phone. One potential source let Ms. Klein fly all the way to London before canceling their lunch date.

'“I will never, never do another living person,'' said Ann Waldron. ‘I have a pretty thick skin but not that thick to undergo this for the rest of my life.’

Ms. Klein was ‘a tremendous fan'’ of Mrs. Lessing's books, interested in the social and cultural context of her life. As she puts it: ‘I had this feeling that we would connect.'’

Mrs. Waldron and Ms. Klein . . . each approached their subjects before making a book proposal. They had known them, at least slightly, before. . . . But Miss Welty and Mrs. Lessing said no, repeatedly. They were not interested in having biographies done, they said. They gave reasons subjects often give: Miss Welty said she wanted her writing to stand on its own; Mrs. Lessing said she was writing a memoir.

‘I was a fool,’ Mrs. Waldron said in retrospect. ‘I rushed in where angels would have feared to tread.’ She said she allowed herself to believe Miss Welty was not adamantly opposed. And being from the South, like Miss Welty, she figured she would be able to get Southerners to talk.

One of the first people she called was a man she had interviewed for an earlier book. ‘I’ll have to call Eudora,’ she remembers him saying. When he called back, he said he had been asked not to cooperate. He said Miss Welty had said: ‘Ask Ann to call me.’ Mrs. Waldron didn't. “She’d just talk me out of it,'” she explained.

Mrs. Waldron went to Memphis and tracked down a retired college administrator who had known Miss Welty years before. Does Eudora know you're working on this book? The woman asked over the phone. Mrs. Waldron said yes. Do you have her permission? No. The woman hung up.

Mrs. Waldron wrote to another man; he never answered, then declined to talk when she reached him by phone. Still another agreed to see her as soon as he returned from Europe. When he got back, he called her. ‘Don't come,'’ he said. ‘I've talked to Eudora.’

Mrs. Waldron drafted and redrafted a letter to him, explaining how much she wanted and needed the interview. She offered not to quote him, if that would help. To try to convince him she was a serious literary biographer, she sent along a copy of one of her earlier books.

He sent the book back unopened and a one-line letter saying: ‘The last thing Eudora needs at this stage in her life is an unauthorized biography,’ Mrs. Waldron said.

Ms. Klein ran into similar problems. When she published an author's query in The New York Times Book Review, looking for correspondence and personal recollections about Mrs. Lessing, Mrs. Lessing's agent sent a frosty letter to the editor that was then published in The Book Review.

‘I am writing on behalf of Mrs. Lessing to say that this biography is totally unauthorized, that no permissions will be granted for extracts from the author's work and that her letters are also copyrighted and cannot be used without her permission,’ the two-paragraph letter said.

Ms. Klein was stunned. ‘If you were an unsophisticated person reading this, you would have thought it was illegal to answer,’ she said. ‘I did think that was out of bounds. This was cutting off the most valuable research tool a biographer has. It was such an extreme step, particularly for a writer to do to another writer.” (New York Times article October 6, 1996. “For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile” by Janny Scott)

And yet, can we not understand why someone would be leery of a lurking biographer? Most subjects of biographies are famous people, and most biographers are not. Can this writer be trusted with something as precious as the way posterity will view ones life? These doubts are natural, and if truth be told, not all biographers are reliable, fair or even truthful. The market for scandalous biographies is insatiable and often lucrative. Who can resist? Many cannot, and the tradition of scurrilous lives is as old as the emerging genre of modern biography.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, as the literary life became increasingly detached from the royal court, writers began to earn their bread in the marketplace and rogue publishers would accommodate their publications to public tastes. The poet Alexander Pope battled one Grub Street hack named Edmund Curll, who has the distinction of being the first peddler of scandalous biographies:

“It occurred to (Curll) that, in a world governed by the laws of mortality, men might be handsomely entertained on one another’s remains. He lost no time in putting his theory into action. During the years of his activity he published some forty or fifty separate Lives, intimate, anecdotal, scurrilous sometimes, on famous and notorious persons who had the ill-fortune to die during his lifetime. He had learned the wisdom of the gravedigger in Hamlet, and knew that there were many rotten corpses nowadays, that will scarce hold the laying in. So he seized on them before they were cold, and commemorated them in batches. . . . His books commanded a large sale, and modern biography was established.” (Walter Raleigh, Six Essays on Johnson, Clarendon Press, 1910, p 117 quoted in Hamilton, p 50)

So a tradition of suspicion and distrust towards biographers began at the creation. But even with cooperation the research into biography is hard work. James Atlas describes his ten-year effort to write a biography of Saul Bellow: “Over the next decade, I made my biographer's rounds, like the postman deterred neither by sleet nor snow--nor by occasional emanations of reticence or frostiness from my subject--from the routine (often a fascinating routine) of poring over his unpublished manuscripts in the rare book and manuscript division of the University of Chicago Library; lugging my laptop all over America in quest of high-school classmates, cousins, friends, and lovers of my famously peripatetic subject; driving Avis rental cars into the remotest suburbs of Los Angeles and flying into Buffalo, N.Y., in pursuit of letters in private hands. Biography is no vocation for old men; it requires physical stamina. By the time I'd filled up my cupboard with the building materials for my book, I was, to borrow one of Bellow's favorite words, bushed.” (James Atlas, “The Last Word: How it feels to finish a 10-year writing project.” Slate. Posted Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1999)

After all this collecting then the biographer must choose what to leave in, and what to leave out. Out of his particular collection of information, including the gaps and silences, the biographer must sift and sort to create a literary artifact that conveys a living life. What you leave out may be as important as what you put in, and the holes must be respected. Julian Barnes once wrote that a net may be defined two ways, as a meshed instrument designed to catch fish. . . But you could, with no great injury to logic, reverse the image and define a net . . . as a “collection of holes tied together with string.” (Quoted in Lee p 5)

And what to leave out is no easy matter as authors get attached to their research like parents to their children. James Atlas again: “The trouble is that you've gone through so much pain to collect the damned junior-high-school transcript or the quote from Bellow's landlord in Paris in 1948 that you feel you have to put it in--just to get credit. Only after you have a completed manuscript does your confidence build to the point where you can go through the top-heavy pile of pages and, encountering the third reference to Bellow's occasional book reviews for the New York Times Book Review, decide: Who cares? and slash it with the red pen. On my second go-round I cut 200 pages. . . . On the third pass, recalling Proust's admonition to one of his correspondents that if he'd only had time he would have written a shorter letter, I managed to cut another 200 pages.”

And when does the biographer know that the research part of the project is over? Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, about which we have had a paper here in the Monday Evening Club, tells of her plight as she finished her research:

“It was July of 2004, and I had just turned in the 765-page manuscript of my biography of the Peabody sisters—three women at the center of New England's Transcendentalist movement of the 1830s and '40s—a project that had taken me nearly 20 years to complete. Free at last—or so I thought—I was on vacation in New Hampshire when a family friend asked me, hesitantly, over gin-and-tonics at a cocktail party, ‘Have you finished your book yet?’ For once, I sensed, this question didn't carry the usual subtext: Why haven't you finished your book yet? She'd been poking around in her attic, my friend told me, and found a trunk full of letters that had belonged to her husband's great-grandmother. One thick packet, tied in pink ribbon, was labeled ‘Mary T. Peabody’—the middle of the three sisters. Would I be interested in reading more letters? Or was it, finally, too late?

After a certain point in the research, as any biographer will tell you, such information induces a shudder of dread. Letters take a long time to read, especially handwritten ones like those I'd plowed through by the hundreds for my book. . . . (And) there was the all-too-real possibility that some new information in these letters would throw off everything I'd written. What if I had to start over again—as I'd already done once before? That was after a manuscript find at the 10-year mark turned up Elizabeth's adolescent diary, the daily journals she'd kept while visiting Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late 1830s. The same material yielded my greatest scoop, Elizabeth's confession of love for Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer who ended up marrying her youngest sister, Sophia, a landscape painter, in 1842.

In truth, far more of the material I uncovered in the Peabody sisters' letters had to do with intellectual disputes than with love triangles. Yet the confessional nature of the manuscripts I was working with seemed to bother some people when I talked about them. ‘Don't you feel guilty, reading all that private mail and then quoting from it in your book?’ my friends would ask. It's a common attitude: What was written in private is meant to stay that way. A few years ago I had a tough time trying to convince my own aunt not to pitch a diary my grandmother kept as an Army bride in Paris during WWI, which gave a rare glimpse of civilian life in wartime; she was only trying to protect my grandmother's privacy, my aunt protested.

. . . Perhaps most biographers are plagued with the worry, as they near the completion of their books, that they haven’t been as faithful to the facts as they might have been. As a first-time biographer, anxiously proofreading nearly a hundred pages of documentary endnotes, I certainly was. The farther a biographer is removed from research in the archives, the more she suspects the characters in the historical drama she is constructing may have become her own creations—not invented out of whole cloth, as in a novel, but shaded to make certain personality traits more vivid and to fit a larger narrative. But reading these new letters, I was struck by how distinct each sister's voice was, emerging from the clutter of pages, and how true to the characters I'd put forward in the book. I could almost predict what each one would say as I pulled her letter from the pile. It was as if the Peabody sisters were speaking to me, one last time, across the centuries.” (“The Spirit of the Letter: What biographers find in other people's mail. By Megan Marshall.” Slate. Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2005. Megan Marshall is the author of The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.)

In these accounts we get glimpses into the creative process of putting the material together. This is where the deft art comes in to shape the research. With or without cooperation you have your big table full of research, now what do you do with it? The biographer must get a feel for the material and find the way to convey the truth of it. The English writer Richard Holmes has described the biographical process as a “haunting, an act of deliberate psychological trespass, a continuous living dialogue between subject and author as they move over the same historical ground.”

Although the idea of some objective magisterial biography still lingers among us, careful thought tells us that biographers must have a point of view. That point of view can enlighten the picture or distort it. Two opposite besetting sins of biographers can be an excessive love of their subject, hagiography, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, an excessive preoccupation with the dark side of their subject, what Joyce Carol Oates calls “pathographies.” It is all right to like the subject of the life you are writing, after all, who wants to spend that much time with a distasteful subject? But one can overdo it, and biographers often do. The historian Thomas Macaulay called Boswell’s worship of Dr. Johnson “Lues Boswelliana,” or disease of admiration. For as useful and interesting as Boswell’s Johnson is, many later biographers have faulted him for excessive attachment to his subject, what has been called biography as a work of love.

On the other hand, a biography can be a good place to settle scores or get even. I am thinking of Hannah Tillich’s biography of her husband, theologian Paul, in which she depicts his marital indiscretions. Or Susan Cheever’s fine biography, Home before Dark, about her father, writer John Cheever, in which she discloses his promiscuity and alcoholism. These purgings of the soul are often done in the name of healing, but to my mind they often seem like a cheap shot.

It is clear by now that every biographer is an artist, not conjuring up a spirit, but creating in words a facsimile of the life in question. This means each biography, even of the same subject, will be unique. We nod to this reality when we talk of Ellman’s Joyce or Edel’s James. Biographers call this versioning.

So if the old God’s-eye view has been discredited what takes its place? Contemporary biographies now often fly their ideological flags openly, for example the feminist versions of Jane Austen that have proliferated since the seventies. Some of these say she was a feminist and some say she was an anti-feminist. Modern biographers often operate with a hermeneutic of suspicion of class or race or gender. “Was Lincoln gay?” a recent biographer asks, on the basis of documents showing that he once shared a bed in a rooming house with another man, a not uncommon practice in the nineteenth century.

Or if it is not Marx behind the curtain, it is often Freud and his gang. Perhaps Lincoln wasn’t gay at all, but depressed, as another recent biographer has suggested. These make me long for the magisterial Lives of yesteryear, such as Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln, or even Gore Vidal’s.

One would think you couldn’t get someone long dead on the therapists couch, but it has been tried. Our former neighbor from Stockbridge, Erik Erikson, wrote psychoanalytic biographies of Gandhi and Martin Luther. In the latter, Young Man Luther, Erikson’s interpretation suggests that Luther’s famous Anfechtung, often translated as “doubt” or “despair,” was, at least in part, caused by his recurring constipation, which would explain why there is often more scatology than eschatology in Luther’s Table Talks. But I find Erikson’s hypothesis, apart from being unprovable, highly, may I dare say, irregular.

And the canons of biography change from generation to generation. If Victorian biographies were sanitized, today’s are anything but. Bodily ailments, mental illness, sexual infidelities or fascinations, are standard fair. A spate of recent biographies about British writers in the 1920’s tells us more about their sex lives than what motivated their work.

Which illustrates that biographies in every generation say as much about us and about our times as they do about their subject. This recalls Albert Schweitzer’s famous dictum in his book Quest of the Historical Jesus, that each generation peers as if down a deep well in search of the face of Jesus and instead sees its own reflection.

This should make biographers modest about their claims. Some subjects are well documented, while others leave a scant trail. For example, we know practically nothing about Shakespeare’s life, although a whole industry churns out their best guesses. Theories that Marlowe or Bacon wrote his plays flourish because we know so little real facts. He had no Boswell, and kept no diary. On the other hand, we do know a good deal about Samuel Pepys, but only for the nine years in which he kept his diaries. Biographers can only use the materials they can find, but the temptation to say more is often irresistible.

So in my view good biography is a modest work. The biographer should make no claims he can’t substantiate. Where she makes inferences from the record she should say so. Too often the biographer says that her subject “must have felt” or “must have thought.” Who knows what they felt or thought? Unless there is a journal or a letter speaking of the subject’s interior states and deepest thoughts we are left to guess. If it is a guess, let it be an educated one and say it is a guess!

Otherwise the truth is not served, although a story might be. Those who saw the film version of The Hours will always think of Virginia Woolf as a young Nicole Kidmann with a prosthetic nose calmly walking into the river to her death on a lovely spring day. It was, in fact, an unwitnessed death that took place on a cold, dark, winter day. This is versioning twice removed from an actual event, and raises the question, at what point does biography become fiction? It’s a fine line.

A responsible biography, I am thinking of Hermione Lee’s Woolfe and Victoria Glendenning’s Trollope, for example, will leave questions as questions and honor the essential mystery of a human life. The holes will be acknowledged as such. Yet the biographer will shape and serve up the facts as they can be known in a flowing narrative which can be every bit as engaging to the reader as the very best fiction. This doesn’t happen too often, but when it does a life comes alive, and if we don’t know the subject with completeness, we know enough to feel they would have been worth knowing.


Atlas, James, “The Last Word: How it feels to finish a 10-year writing project.” Slate. Posted Tuesday, Aug. 17, 1999

Hamilton, Ian. Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography from Shakespeare to Plath. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf’s Nose: Essays on Biography. Princeton, 2005

Marshall, Megan. “The Spirit of the Letter: What biographers find in other people's mail.” Slate. Posted Tuesday, May 17, 2005.

Scott, Janny. “For Unauthorized Biographers, the World Is Very Hostile” New York Times article October 6, 1996.

Photo by Daniel Y. Go — used under Creative Commons License

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