Biography Redux
New interest in an old standard

Dana Greene, Dean Emerita, Oxford College


Vol. 9 No. 1
September 2006

Return to Contents


Who's Afraid of the IRB?
How the Institutional Review Board stepped into the research culture gap

Bolstering the Infrastructure

"If you look at the exponential growth in the amount of research dollars at Emory in 1990 as compared to 2005–06, it’s clear that we hadn’t invested in the overall infrastructure to keep pace with the volume of research and research dollars flowing through the institution."

"The granting organizations aren’t stupid. They’re going to go where they think can get a trial done fastest. If we’re slow, they’ll know about it and go somewhere else. When people approach me about doing clinical trials, they ask me how fast our IRB is. It’s one of their first questions."


Biography Redux
New interest in an old standard


Keeping Cultural DNA Intact
The Italian Virtual Class Chiavi di lettura method


Mixed Messages
Ten years after the Emory Commission on Teaching


Encouraging Words
Suggestions from the Manuscript Development Program

Reading to help you write


Emory Indicators


Endnotes

Over the last few years during my weekly Sunday morning ritual—coffee in hand, I read the “Book Review” section of the New York Times—I have noticed a pattern: biography is being reviewed more frequently. One year, 2000, I counted: there were 188 reviews of books related to biography, amounting to three-plus reviews each Sunday. Curious, I dug around in the Bowker Annual and confirmed my inkling. In 1994, 1,758 biographies were published in the United States; seven years later, 4,887 appeared. Why is there greater public interest in this old standard?

There are some perennial explanations. A life is a fascinating topic of exploration, to which all can relate. And its form, the narrative, a story, is not only accessible, it parallels communication in everyday life. All of us gather information, evaluate it, ferret out cause and effect, create explanation and meaning, and express ourselves in non-technical language. Lytton Strachey claimed that biography was “the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing”; it is as well relevant and germane to our lives. Ultimately, and somewhat paradoxically, readers’ interest in biography may not lie so much with its subject, but with the self.

For these reasons, biography has a long and venerable history. One thinks of Plutarch separating “lives” from history—the latter explaining events, and the former character—or of Giorgio Vasari memorializing for posterity the lives of Italian Renaissance artists. The medieval world produced its own life-writing, hagiography, which tracked the transforming power of God in the lives of holy men and women. But it was not until the seventeenth century that the word “biography” came into usage, presaging the form which emerged in England in the next century and epitomized in James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Biography proliferated in nineteenth-century England and America. Its form was the ponderous “life and letters” with sparse narrative and thick documentation. The Romantics provided an alternative by emphasizing the hero and celebrating the subject’s inner life.

But biography as popularly recognized today owes its character to Lytton Strachey, who set the standard in Eminent Victorians (1918). For him biography was an interpretation of a life, and full disclosure was the norm. He offered the provocative image of the biographer rowing out over the great ocean of facts and lowering down a small bucket in which a specimen of the life is pulled up, revealing the subject’s character in all its fullness. With Strachey, the adulation of the nineteenth-century biographer gave way to exposé. He found inspiration in Freud, and by the 1940s the impetus for a new subfield of
psychobiography was underway.

If biography had a spokesperson at mid-century it was Leon Edel, founder of the journal Biography. Like Strachey, Edel provided a guiding image for his craft. A biographer searched for “the figure under the carpet,” the pattern exposed on the underside of a life, one woven inextricably with the design on the top of the life, the public visage.

In spite of this history, or perhaps because of its deeply personal, probing nature, as a genre, biography grew up largely independent of the academy. It was seen as the work of self-trained amateurs or of those who have fallen off the wagon of their disciplinary training. It did not fit neatly into the curricular organization of the university. Irrelevant to literary critics, it was too narrow in scope for historians. Few journals or conferences explored biography, and university degree programs were almost nonexistent. One consequence of this isolation was that biography remained largely immune from the critique of deconstructionists. While it still has little prestige (no majors, departments, or professors of biography) in the academy,
biography flourishes with the public.

Nonetheless biography has always endured withering attacks. Nabokov claimed the biographer was a “psycho-plagiarist”; Edward Sackville-West, “a hyena”; Janet Malcolm, a “transgressor” and “busy-body.” W. H. Auden thought biography was “superfluous and always in bad taste,” and Kipling “a higher form of cannibalism.” Joyce Carol Oates called it “pathography,” and Germaine Greer, “rape.” Oscar Wilde said it was “usually Judas who writes biography,” and Alexander Pope allowed that “biography gave a new fear of death.”

But what of this resurgence of public interest right now? Why is it that university presses report a 6.3 percent increase in new titles between 2003 and 2004, with the expansion principally in history and biography?

If biography’s objective is neither denigration nor adulation, but understanding of a life, then potentially it offers an opportunity for the reader to increase appreciation both of the human condition and creative responses to it. Biography invites vicarious entrance into another life, another time, space, and culture. It creates a space for dialogue with another, and hence allows for a broadening of one’s experience. But because it also forces the reader to encounter persistent human realities, biography can also cause deeper self-reflection; it becomes a school for personal meditation. In this sense, biography offers an occasion for personal growth and interpersonal dialogue, carried out in solitude.

If it is to meet public expectations, biography must resolve the conundrum advanced by Søren Kierkegaard: life has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards. This backward understanding of a life emerges by “showing” it forward, in the unsettled present as lived by the subject. In order to understand a life, the biographer must get to what W.B. Yeats called the “life-myth,” the principle of organized coherence which gives a life its shape, the hierarchy of desires and aspirations that jostle and compete but ultimately establish some pattern over time. A compelling biography offers a coherence of contradictions held together by nothing but the subject’s living itself. This elusive coherence entices the reader and gives instruction. Albert Camus understood this attraction: “[P]eople read biography,” he wrote, “because they envy the coherence that lives achieve when recorded.” The created life of biography gives such coherence, and when done subtly and with artistry, the result causes “envy.” It is this need to make sense of life, one’s own and that of others, that has deep resonance. At its most sublime, biography can even heal. Isak Dinesen’s remark: “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them,” gives testimony to the solace biography can provide for the sorrows in our living.

The search for meaning is greater at some historic times than at others. Writing in 1925 in The Development of English Biography, Harold Nicolson allowed that “the less people believe in theology the more do they believe in human experience. And it is to biography they go for this human experience.” If Nicolson is right, then the decline in institutional religious affiliation, the fraying of communal identifications, and the weakening of
political ideology all help to explain the appeal of biography as a means of illuminating the individual quest to make sense of life.

Many argue that biography is profoundly conservative, supporting and reinforcing the values of the past. Others, like Virginia Woolf, claim the opposite, that “the biographer goes ahead of us like the miner’s canary, testing the atmosphere, detecting falsity, unreality, obsolete conventions.” In either case, biography is a literary form specifically suited to helping the reader make sense of life. It offers the chance both for self-reflection and dialogue with those who have shaped lives quite different from one’s own. Might biography help us learn to converse across the seemingly unbridgeable divides of race, religion, and party politics? Might it help us critique our own meaning systems? Are these expectations too great for what Richard Holmes called “the mongrel art” of biography?

It is reasonable to assume that in contentious and fragmented times biography will continue to play an important role in popular culture. Hannah Arendt made the observation, “In dark times we have a right to expect some illumination and some lives can cast light upon the world.” Contemporary readers know their needs. They “envy” coherence; they “have a right to expect some illumination.” They turn to human experience, wagering that the ancient craft of biography will help them in the labyrinth of their own dark times.