A study from life

Louis Menand writes about the biography business for The New Yorker, taking on two recent defenses of literary keyhole-peeking and diary-rummaging:

"Still, Hamilton is right that people love biographies, and he is right about some of the reasons. We learn about ourselves by reading about the lives of other people, for one thing. And biographies of the powerful and the famous that humanize their subjects may play some kind of egalitarian social role. It's naïve, though, to suppose that the forces driving the appetite for "critical, incisive" (that is, highly revealing) biographies are all about democracy and demystification. Secrest is more to the point: people are prurient, and they like to lap up the gossip. People also enjoy judging other people's lives. They enjoy it excessively. It's not one of the species' more attractive addictions, and, on the whole, it's probably better to indulge it on the life of a person you have never met."

Hmm. Yes. I suppose. But surely, there's much more to all of these books and biopics and Biography cable shows than just prurient interest -- and a little self-knowledge. For once, Mr. Menand seems a little reductive, too easily dismissive (a perfectly understandable response, given Nigel Hamilton's inadequate Biography: A Brief History).

On the jump, a feature story book/daddy once wrote about "the bio boom" (still going strong) and what it all means.

The Bio Boom
In books, film and video, these are the times of their lives

by Jerome Weeks
Feature story
The Dallas Morning News
Jan. 14, 1996

We have been living through a monsoon of biographies -- in books, films and videos. ours may not be an Age of Great Biographies, but it certainly is an inundation of memoirs, revisionary portraits, exposes and intimate studies.

In 1995 alone, three biographies of Thomas Mann were released. Five current best sellers are biographies or memoirs -- from David Herbert Donald's Lincoln to My Life in High Heels by Loni Anderson. Last year saw such films as Cobb, Nixon, Tom & Viv, The Madness of King George and Jefferson in Paris. Biography is the top-rated show on the A & E channel, and next week, PBS' American Masters enters its 10th season with Richard Avedon: Darkness and LIght.

There's a biography of a toy (Forever Barbie). There is even what one might call The Ultimate Bio: God: A Biography by Jack Miles.

Increasingly, we seem to be heading for what poet W. B. Yeats predicted, that point when "nothing exists but a stream of souls," when "all knowledge is biography."

In which case, most knowledge turns out to be checkout-line gossip.

"It's impossible to talk about biography as a single form," says Leon Edel, considered the dean of American biographies for his landmark study of Henry James and for Writing Lives: Principia Biographica, a textbook on the art of biography. "What's primarily being read are the biographies of actresses written by their Hollywood press agents and the ghost-written memoirs of ex-presidents."

So celebrities and scandals sell -- they sell magazines, films, perfume or tell-all bios. Big news.

Even so, it's difficult to describe all of this publishing and media activity as just another puddle in our celebrity saturation. Some critics believe that print biographies have even begun to supplant the novel in something of a historic shift. They're taken over the traditional narrative, taken on the Victorian sense of a life story.

"In Victorian times," says Norman Sherry, the biographer of Graham Greene, "people believed in Dickens' characters as living people. Novels no longer live in the same way for many of us, whereas biographers have learned some of the tools of fiction. They don't write fiction, but they do try to capture the singular greatness of a person."

On TV, the spate of copycat biography series is partly attributable just to economics. They're cheap to produce. Susan Lacy, creator of American Masters, notes that her specials cost on average $450,000. That can be half the cost of an hour-long network drama.

So it's not merely a matter of star power pushing the merchandise. Unknowns, oddities and has-beens are being unearthed and spotlighted. Even among classical music buffs, Carlo Broschi's name was not one to be dropped for a great clang of recognition. Yet the 18th century castrato singer got an entire biopic last year -- called Farinelli, after his stage name. Gossip columnist and Red-baiter Walter Winchell had all but disappeared from popular memory. Yet Neal Gabler's Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity was declared the best book of 1994 by Time magazine.

"I believe we may be living in a second Golden Age of Biography," says Michael Holroyd, the biographer of George Bernard Shaw. "The same thing happened with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell [whose 1791 book on Johnson is considered the first 'modern' biography]. It was a scandalous age, an age when all sorts of books and slanders were printed about people.

"I don't think you can have the one kind [of biography] without the others. They all grow in a great, fertile, unweeded garden."

Obviously, if there are different species of biography, then biographies are being read and watched for different reasons.

Curiosity about the private lives of public figures has always been a factor, of course, says David Leeming, the biographer of James Baldwin. "It's a perfectly natural act, to want to know more about the person who wrote that novel, who was in that film.... Biographies appeal to people who want the real thing about artists or basketball players."

Paradoxically, biographies may also be a substitute for the real thing. It's the Consumerist's Path to Enlightentment. Been there, done that, bought the bio and stuck it on my coffee table. I am now educated.

"It's treating biographies as reference books," says Mr. Holroyd, "which they are to a degree. But it's predicated on the idea that there can be a definitive biography, and there's no such thing. There's always a different perspective, new evidence."

One impulse behind reading or watching bios, biographers believe, is the search for gurus, for role models -- even for just inside info. Success stories in business, politics and sports always find a market -- from Margaret Thatcher's The Downing Years to Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner by Connie Bruck. One imagines people flipping through God: A Biography for tips on how He managed it.

As self-interested as the pursuit may be, reading a biography becomes a human encounter with history, Mr. Holroyd says. "The reader finds one of two things. Either the subject looks just like me -- I've had these troubles, and here I have a barrister speaking for me --- or the subject is utterly unliike myself. And I learn from him or her what that means."

Such an impulse helps explain public interest in Farinelli or Carrington, the current film bio about British painter Dora Carrington, based on Mr. Holroyd's celebrated biography of Lytton Strachey. Ms. Carrington had a long and unusual relationship with Mr. Strachey, an important biographer in his own right who was gay. Both Carrington and Strachey were members of the Bloomsbury group, the literary-arts-philosophical-social network in the '20s that included Virginia Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes -- and many, often bisexual, affairs.

Crudely put, the appeal here is unconventional sexual lives, other ways of living outside marriage -- amid picturesque settings. More precisely, scholars say, Sigmund Freud and such subjects as the highly self-analytical Bloomsburyites have left a legacy of psychosexual inquiry and debate for biographers. Strachey himself helped pioneer the use of Freudian analysis and debunking irony in biographies.

"A biographer has always had to address the inner life of his subject," says Mr. Leeming. "Before Freud, you just couldn't have done it as explicitly. Today, you can't talk about the inner life of James Baldwin without discussing his homosexuality."

In tellling people's life stories, no matter how unconventional, biographies are basically reassuring, notes Matthew Bernstein, an Emory University film professor and the biographer of Walter Wanger, the producer of Cleopatra and Riot in Cell Block 11. "They make sense of things, make life seem manageable" when it's often just one thing after another.

As a result, Mr. Bernstein says, the biopic has long suited Hollywood's primary aesthetic: individuals make things happen. Hollywood doesn't tell stories about groups or causes or historic moments -- except through the star. The movie industry was into heroic individualism long before Ayn Rand.

"The story of a charismatic individual has been the basic Hollywood narrrative," he says. "And in this time of the high-concept film -- a film that can be reduced to a single phrase -- a biography gives you that easy, marketable story. Gandhi, Malcolm X: You just say the name, and people know what you're talking about."

Most biopics, Mr. Bernstein believes, have a large element of nostalgia; they're costume dramas. Inevitably, all biographies in print or film look back. And it may just be a mater of one generation's passing and the next getting access to previously unavailable archives, but the recent spate of books on such major midcentury figures as Simone de Beauvoir, James Thurber, Tennessee Williams, Albert Speer and Orson Welles imparts a sense of taking stock. Biographers seem to be summing up the 20th century, certainly the modernist movement.

"The best biographies often find a context," Mr. Leeming says. "Their subjects are representative of a whole period."

Ms. Lacy reports that American Masters is producing its own attempt at context and reassessment: the Millennium Project. It's a thematic repackaging of some of the show's profiles into school-ready videos and support materials. it's a way of finding links and influences among the series' 85 artist-subjects, she says.

The print biography itself is a product of the 20th century -- the post-Freudian, post-World War II, scholarly biography, that is, with all of its attendant apparatus: the footnotes, the archives, the high-academic respectability that biographers once lacked. Perhaps that kind of biography is peaking, perhaps it will pass with the century.

Mr. Edel fears that the increasing use of computers will starve biographers of the paper documentation they need. There may never be another era when people regularly write five volumes of letters and several more of diaries. And in the wake of Watergate and Sen. Robert Packwood's diaries, politicians and lawyers have learned where the delete button is.

Conversely, Mr. Edel also sees libraries preserving mountains of artifacts and doodles. Austin's Lyndon Baines Johnson Library has half a million photographs of the late president, he points out. That kind of vaccuum-cleaner approach to archives makes research back-breaking -- and the resulting bios can be "just gatherings of data."

Consequently, Mr. Holroyd speculates that biographies "may go on a diet."

"In 50 years' time," he says, "people may look back at the parade of objectivity that goes on in a typical biography today and wonder about its purpose -- for what is essentially a personal narrative."

Biographies may become more like portraits, he says, less academic, more confessedly subjective. He cites as models Richard Holmes' studies of Robert Louis Stevenson and Samuel Johnson, which have caused a stir among biographers.

Mr. Holmes immerses himself so intently in his subjects' lives that he traveled on donkey-back, just as Stevenson did, through the south of France. His books then rigorously interpret his own engagement with these writers as much as the writers' lives and works.

Whether it's quickie hack work cashing in on a celebrity death or an investigative TV program, biographies are a collaboration between the living and the dead -- "a way of keeping the dead employed," as Mr. Holroyd puts it. This is biography as recycling program, perhaps another reason for our current fascination with historic private lives. Biographers resurrect that past and lay it to rest, again and again.

We are both haunted -- and consoled.

copyright, 1996, The Dallas Morning News

August 11, 2007 4:13 PM |



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