Biography as High Adventure: Life-Writers Speak on Their Art

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview

Prologue

Biography is currently enjoying immense popularity in the United States. The number of biographical titles published each year has virtually doubled since the 1960s, and for good reason. Biography may now be the preferred form of reading in America. A recent survey by the Library of Congress indicated that more people had read a biography in the previous six months than any other kind of book.

How to account for biography's appeal? For one thing, it personalizes events, demonstrates that the individual does count -- which is reassuring to people in our complex, technical age, who often feel caught up in vast impersonal forces beyond their control. For another, "people are naturally curious about lives," says biographer Nancy Milford. "What we really want to know is, 'How do I live?' So to read about other people's lives is a sort of guide."

Biographer Jean Strouse offers another reason. "We read biography the way we used to read novels. For access to human experience: a life that has a beginning, a middle, and an end." Biographer W. Jackson Bate agrees. The current popularity of biography, he contends, is "the result of the decline of the old Victorian novel as a big panoramic portrayal of a slice of life. In most novels since Thomas Mann, story and hero have been lost. The novel is no longer the prevailing form. Biograhy is stepping into the breach, portraying particular people and times the way the great novels of the past did."

Bate, of course, is talking about a particular kind of biography -- the kind that epmloys fictional techniques without resorting to fiction itself. The life-writer who does this, as Desmond McCarthy says, "is an artist on oath." He cannot invent facts, but he can give them narrative from to tell a story. Paul Murray Kendall calls this "pure biography," whose mission is "to elicit, from the coldness of paper, the warmth of a life being lived."

This form of biography needs to be carefully distinguished from two other biogaphical approaches: the critical study and the scholarly chronicle. All, to be sure, are legitimate methods of writing about individuals -- in fact, many biographies contain elements of all three approaches. Yet in their ideal form they have different purposes and techniques, and for clarity we need to understand what these are.

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