www.common-place.org · vol. 3 · no. 2 · January 2003
Kenneth Silverman is professor emeritus of English at New York University. His biography of Samuel F. B. Morse will be published this year by Knopf.
"History concerns what Napoleon did; biography concerns what it meant to him."
Biography and Pseudobiography
Like wrestling with an angel, writing a biography is hard work against long odds. And the effort has lately been much under attack. A recent collection of scholarly essays calls itself The Troubled Face of Biography (Houndmills, Eng., 1988). Most of the criticism takes off from the view that biographies are constructs, fictions not essentially different from novels. On this ground it's charged that biographers prepackage their subjects' lives, or invent them, or falsify them for dramatic effect.
In a recent New York Times op-ed piece entitled "Minutiae Without Meaning," Stanley Fish, dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois, knocked biography as a "bad game." Fish observes that biographers obsessively collect details. Since these details "don't mean anything in particular, or can mean anything at all . . . the biographer is compelled to invent or fabricate a meaning by riding his or her favorite hobbyhorse until every inch of the subject's life is covered by some reassuring pattern of cause and effect."
To me, Fish's grumbling betrays unfamiliarity with the history of biography in the West and with how serious biographies get written. There are many types of biographical expression, each with unique objects and demands. Fish has in mind the biographical study—psychobiographies, for instance, such as Stuart Feder's searching life of Charles Ives, My Father's Song (New Haven, 1992). Feder unfolds the composer's relation to his musician-father not so much for its narrative interest, as to show how Ives's music grew from an unconscious fantasy of father-son collaboration.
But at the other end of the biographical spectrum are works that seek no pattern at all: the classic life and letters, for instance, which does little more than assemble the subject's literary remains, or the recent subgenre of testimonial biography, such as Frances Kiernan's 845-page Mary Plain (New York, 2000), which links by bits of commentary the impression Mary McCarthy made on some two hundred people who knew her. Between these extremes of tightly focused analysis and collage lie many other, varying biographical forms, some more "patterned" in Fish's sense, some less—memoir biographies such as Boswell's Life of Johnson, brief lives such as Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (London, 1918), nonhuman biographies such as the best seller Seabiscuit (New York, 2001), family biographies such as Brenda Wineapple's Sister, Brother: Gertrude and Leo Stein (New York, 1996), cultural biographies such as David Reynolds's Walt Whitman's America (New York, 1995)—as well as critical biographies, children's biographies, TV or Hollywood biopics, the archaic forms of Graeco-Roman biography, and the saint's life.
Wrong as it is to accuse all biographers of imposing on their subjects' lives a pattern of cause and effect, it's more deeply wrong to accuse them of drawing from the pattern a "meaning." Fish does not say meaning of what. The meaning of the subject's life? Biography is not metaphysics, nor is it history. Except for writers of obituaries and elegies, no serious biographer judges his subject under the aspect of eternity. The biographer seeks what the subject's life meant to the subject, how the subject's experience registered on his or her consciousness, the satisfactions it supplied, dilemmas it produced. This inwardness is what distinguishes biography from history. History concerns what Napoleon did; biography concerns what it meant to him.
Two related fallacies about pattern making also deserve putting down. One often hears that biographies are autobiographies, that the biographer is always writing about himself. This is just a swipe. What chromosome makes biographers any more narcissistic than other people, any more incapable of empathy, of trying to see things as another human being saw them? On the contrary, serious biographers seek and welcome the unfamiliar, however troublesome to account for. Ron Chernow, the author of rich biographies of J.P. Morgan and of John D. Rockefeller remarks that biographers "like to stub their toes on hard, uncomfortable facts strewn in their paths. They want information that will explode, like a prankster's cigar, in their faces." Such encounters with the unaccountable are opportunities for breaking out and breaking through, in new directions, to fresh understanding. I'd say that unless the biographer sometimes feels at sea in the material he's doing something wrong.
One also often hears that biographers must like their subjects. That would of course rule out such vastly important subjects as Hitler or Stalin. In practice, the biographer must like the subject not as a person but as a subject. Some are good subjects for you, some bad. And what makes one subject better than another for you is wildly overdetermined. Some of the reasons are purely practical. Does the subject need a biography? Virginia Woolf again? Are the materials available? Forget doing J.D. Salinger, like him though you may. How much time do I have? Benjamin Franklin? That's fifteen years' work, maybe twenty. A biographer's knowledge and ability also determine the choice. Albert Einstein is a great subject and you like him. But can you write about quantum mechanics without seeming like a dumbbell? Personal idiosyncrasies matter, too. I've always stayed in one place, but prefer subjects who moved around a lot. I'd like to write about Hemingway in Paris, Key West, and the Serengeti Plain, but couldn't possibly write about Proust in his cork-lined room. Gertrude Stein yes, Emily Dickinson no.
In choosing a subject, the biographer's main question should be, Can I make an effective book out of this person's life? Day after day for years, the biographer will be trying to untangle chronology, compress relationships without distorting them, keep the main narrative clear while carrying forward several intricate strands of the subject's life. What pushes most biographers on in this wilderness is not affection for Mary Wollstonecraft or André Gide, but the feeling, fingers always crossed, that they are writing a good book.
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