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

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview
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The Biographer's Relationship with His Hero

Catherine Drinker Bowen

"One should write only about what one loves." ("On ne doit pas écrire que de ce qu'on airne.") Renan, the biographer and historian, said it in the last century and for this writer at least it is profoundly true, the more impressive because in Renan's lifetime he withstood prolonged literary attacks. If so tough fibered an author confessed that he loved his subjects, why might not the rest of us do the same? For a considerable time it was unfashionable to admire one's biographical hero; the debunking period lasted a full generation. Lytton Strachcy started it and on the whole it was a healthy movement, a reaction against the laudatory familial biography of the nineteenth century. But Strachey was a brilliantly talented writer; his imitators and followers had not his genius and the art of biography suffered. We outgrew the fashion, perhaps because debunking is easy and what is too easy does not hold up. Trollope said, "There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily." But the stigma remained; a book was not true unless it was malicious.

After the debunking era, biography went through no more literary fashions. Indeed, to the general surprise it has become immensely popular. One of the advantages of being a biographer is this freedom from changing literary modes. People want to read the authentic record of other people's lives and they do not want the story clothed in fashionable obscurity, imagery, symbolism. The modem biographer, if he chooses, can write as John Aubrey wrote two centuries ago in Brief Lives, or as Isaac Disraeli wrote in The Literary Character, or The History of Men of Genius -- provided the modern writer is equally talented. He can use facts, dates, explanatory parentheses. He can proceed from point to point, from incident to incident with no apology for being old-fashioned, outmoded. Punctuation too is a matter of choice. The biographer can sprinkle the page with commas


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


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