Supermaud dangled a tasty bit of bait in front of my nose the other day:
Colin Burrow argues, while reviewing a new biography of John Donne, that “literary biography is intrinsically pernicious.” I wonder how biographers, including my friend Terry Teachout (who penned a biography of H.L. Mencken, and talked a bit about the experience here), would respond.
I’ll see you and raise you, Maudie.
First, though, here’s the context for that nose-thumbing sound bite:
Literary biography is one of the background noises of our age. It’s a decent, friendly sort of hum, like the Sunday papers or chatter on a train. It gives the punters a bit of history and a bit of literature, and perhaps a bit of gossip, and what’s more it saves them the trouble of reading history. And poems too, for that matter. Not to mention the ordeal of ploughing through a load of literary criticism. But there are two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done. The first is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life….The other problem is that even the best examples can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom–epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins.
Yeah, well, O.K., I get the idea, and I even agree with it, sort of. Far too many new biographies–including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year–are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.”
I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah. Who among us hasn’t thrown up his hands in despair at the prospect of reading another such book, especially when it’s nine hundred pages long? Repeat after me: show, don’t tell. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Or, as Our Lord and Master Henry James instructed us, Dramatize, dramatize!
On the other hand, I don’t think my biographies are like that, and even if you beg to differ, I’m sure you can think of any number of biographies that fail to fill Colin Burrow’s bill of attainder. Most people, after all, are complicated, and the biographer’s job is to give literary shape to that complexity. Of course we simplify–every human utterance more elaborate than a wordless howl is an act of simplification–and on occasion we pocket pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit our story line. Nevertheless, the smart biographer never papers over or tries to explain away his subject’s inconsistencies. Instead, he treasures them, for they are the salt that gives savor to the story of a life.
For what it’s worth, here are five first-rate biographies that in my opinion succeed in presenting clear, coherent accounts of their subject’s lives without stooping to rigid reductiveness:
• W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson
• Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life
• Tim Page, Dawn Powell: A Biography
• Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art
• Anthony Tommasini, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle
I will be sinfully proud if Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong ends up being half as good as any of these books.