Bobble-Heads, Curses, and Buffism: Current Issues in Biography (Part1)

  • June 16, 2011

Biographers' Powers— New and Old— to Resurrect Lives (Watch for Part 2 Next Tuesday)

By Charles J. Shields

Biographers— and I am one— are snoops. In public I use the term “literary detectives” because it sounds more respectable. But we are the equivalent of gossips peering over the backyard fence with binoculars and taking notes. We do it because we are curious about people’s lives; and for the intellectual and personal satisfaction; and in the hope that we will make a contribution to history or literature.

The subjects of biographies are not private individuals; usually they’re famous, or at least well-known: writers, performers, or politicians, for example. They’re the type of person a biographer thinks other people will want to read about. Once I delivered a forty-minute presentation about the life of the notoriously secluded Harper Lee, author of one of the most popular novels in American literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. An audience member came up to me afterward and said, “How would you like a biography written about you?” Nevertheless, he had come to hear me despite the cold and the rain and stayed until the end.

Fame or notoriety also ensures that we can write about a person because there are resources available. “Famous people leave records— letters that recipients save, recollections others record,” says H.W. Brands, a historian and biographer whose most recent book is American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900. “They also tend to be people who changed the world— that’s why they become famous. But there is an element of celebrity involved as well. We want to know what Washington had for breakfast in part because we think we know him already.”

Regardless of the person chosen, the art and craft of biography hasn’t changed appreciably since Suetonius, a mild-mannered Roman historian, scrutinized and judged twelve Caesars. If we could get biographers— ancient, modern, and contemporary— to sit around a table, I feel reasonably sure that we could agree that the essence of our profession is this: we breech the walls of our subject’s privacy and try to make sense of what we find there.

We begin by learning everything that’s already known about our subject for the sake of constructing a rough chronology. (This is usually the best period of the project— we get to read a lot and say we’re working.) Then we travel and root through libraries and museums looking for rare books, love letters, ticket stubs, family photographs, journals with entries tantalizingly deleted (Sophia Hawthorne, Nathaniel’s devoted wife, crossed out love-besotted passages in her diary). Sometimes friends and family members join us in the hunt, brushing aside the cobwebs in their attics for clues, or prying open the rusted lock on a saintly great-grandmother’s steamer trunk. (If this happens, it’s best to affect an air of carelessness. If you act too eager, you might inspire the wrong reaction. “There’s money in this!” hooted an elderly friend of one of my subjects. She wrote her own memoir about him, as a result.)

If this sounds like Scrooge’s charwoman pulling down his bed curtains, “rings and all, with him lying there,” I suppose the analogy is apt. But as Samuel Johnson observed, “There are many who think it an act of piety to hide the faults or failings of their friends, even when they can no longer suffer by their detection…. If we owe regard to the memory of the dead, there is yet more respect to be paid to knowledge, to virtue, and to truth.” Fidelity to the facts about people is a duty, he told Boswell because “if nothing but the bright side of characters should be shown, we should sit down in despondency, and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in anything.”

Carl Rollyson, most recently author of Amy Lowell Among Her Contemporaries scoffs at the idea that biography, now more than before, trespasses on privacy. “Biographers have always been accused of invading privacy. Edmund Burke learned to be circumspect in Boswell’s presence because Burke knew anything he said was bound to be repeated.  Biographers will always offend someone. For me, biography is about a concern with all aspects of a subject’s life and death.”

We have new powers to help resurrect lives now: we are the first generation of biographers to benefit from research that is Internet-enhanced. We can fly with Google Earth over roads our subjects traveled, and word-search for their names appearing in digitalized newspapers. Louise Knight, while researching Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, discovered a small news item about President Woodrow Wilson sending Addams a bouquet of sixty long-stem roses while she was recovering from surgery in April of 1916. Later, Knight ran across in personal archives she was examining by hand that Wilson had also sent Addams another sixty long-stem roses the following October because she endorsed his candidacy. This pattern of courtly attention underscored Addams as the nation’s most influential political woman during Wilson’s re-election year.

Make no mistake: details, like roses, carefully selected, are as important to wooing readers in nonfiction as in fiction. Gesture reveals character; weather creates mood; speech captures emotion. As an editor said to me about one of my subjects, “I want to feel I’m putting my foot down on the sidewalks of her town.”

Personal details, in particular, offer a paradox that biographers use to their advantage: intimacy magnifies a subject’s inner self by atomizing his outer life. A red-letter day occurred for Jonathan Eig during his research for Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig. Eig found the name of Gehrig’s dog in a digitalized search of the New York Times. The greatest first baseman to ever play the game had entered his pet in a kennel club competition and the results were printed in eye-straining agate type, the smallest type size that can be printed on newsprint and still remain legible. Gehrig, the child of German immigrants and a humble man had put his German Shepherd dog against the best of a breed.

The cybersizing of research, on the other hand, has presented unanticipated and frustrating problems. Like Aladdin bursting into the cave of the forty thieves, biographers see riches everywhere. But how do we sift through it all, distracted by cries from agents and publishers to, “Finish the book! Finish the book!”

T. J. Stiles, author of The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, winner of both the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award in 2009, added months to his research by using the newspaper and documents databases Proquest and Readex. “Being thorough, I looked at every hit for the word ‘Vanderbilt’ (among other words) from about 1810 through 1880. I discovered there was a great deal of property advertised for sale on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, listed in classified ads, and that Judge John Vanderbilt in Albany got a fair amount of press attention. In addition, many newspaper articles reported the same events virtually the same way, creating enormous redundancy. So, as a researcher, it was often tedious. In terms of the final product, it was wonderful.  I suspect, however, that for contemporary biographers, the ephemeral nature of digital communications is a great curse.”

Boiling down whole libraries into websites creates an uncanny feeling of never really reaching the end of it all. As the Red Queen said in Through the Looking Glass, “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Brian Jay Jones, currently working on a biography of Jim Henson, worries that “I’ve missed something important just because I didn’t know how to search for it— I either didn’t type it into the search engine right or I forgot the quotes around it or whatever, which left something laying in plain sight somewhere that I will now never have.”

But deadlines are sacred, as my high school journalism teacher liked to intone, and reluctantly we must retreat to our offices or studies and begin writing. Frankly, it is the least enjoyable part of practicing biography because we are shoving off on a difficult, lonely journey at last. Locating a central question like a pole star to steer by is vital: Was John Wilkes Booth a brilliant manipulator of dupes? (Michael W. Kaufman, American Brutus) Would we have had Louisa May Alcott without her child-like father? (John Matteson, Eden’s Outcasts) Did Henry Ward Beecher galvanize the abolitionist debate by speaking to people’s hearts? (Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America) In addition, identifying patterns of behavior creates lines of latitude and longitude for a map of the subject’s progress through life. It’s tempting along the way to drop anchor at an uncharted place you’ve suddenly discovered and explore that too because it looks enchanting. But unless you keep going, you may never reach your destination. As it is, you might be at sea with your work for two, ten, or twenty years. There are tales told of biographers who don’t live long enough to complete the journey and join their subjects in an unending embrace.

[Part II of this blog will be posted on Tuesday, June 21.]

Charles J. Shields is the author of And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Henry Holt & Co. November 2011) and vice-president of Biographers International Organization.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

comments powered by Disqus