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

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview

Two
The Figure under the Carpet

Leon Edel

A portrait gallery -- a national portrait gallery -- evokes great pages of history, the distant and the near past. It is an exhilarating experience to come upon faces of characters one has known only in history books. I remember a particular thrill of my youth when I wandered into the rooms of Britain's National Portrait Gallery housing the eminent Victorians -- so eminent, so assured, so rubicund, so gouty, so marked in feature and countenance. At that moment I crossed a magical threshold of the past. I was at large in the nineteenth century with Spencer and Huxley, Darwin and Green, Gladstone and Disraeli. Equally thrilling was the experience of finding myself among writers all the way back to the Romantics -- Byron, sexy and sultry in his Eastern turban; Shelley, looking startled; Coleridge, broad and large as life; the Brontës on a primitive canvas painted by their brother, the canvas by which/we alone know them. There is a fascinating relationship between the painter or sculptor who, with his plastic resources, gives us the visual appearance of a life and a personality, and the biographer who traces these features in an essay or book. It is fairly obvious that a painted portrait or a chiseled bust cannot be a total biography. But at its best, when the bust or the portrait comes from the hand of a master, it is certainly more than a mask, it is an essence of a life, usually a great life, and it captures -- when painterly eyes and shaping hands have looked and seized it -- certain individual traits and features and preserves them for posterity, for that life beyond life, of which Milton so eloquently spoke. Biography seeks to arrive at similar essences. I speak inevitably of the large figures, of endowed renderings. We need not concern ourselves with "camp" biographies or daubs, the ephemeral figures of movie stars, dope addicts, Boston stranglers; they belong to certain kinds of life histories written by journalists in our time. They belong in a wax works. They are documentary and often vividly mythic; they are more related to the photographic, the visual

-18-

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Prologue ix
  • One - Biography as a Work of Art 3
  • Two - The Figure Under the Carpet 18
  • Three - Walking the Boundaries 32
  • Four - Biography as an Agent of Humanism 50
  • Five - The Biographer's Relationship With His Hero 65
  • Six - The "Real Life" 70
  • Seven - The Burdens of Biography 77
  • Eight - Biography as a Prism of History 93
  • Nine - Reaassembling the Dust 104
  • Ten - Biography as High Adventure 124
  • About the Biographers 139
  • Index 143
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