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

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview
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Six
The "Real Life"

Justin Kaplan

It is almost a commonplace now to speak of an ongoing "golden age of biography" that had its beginnings in the mid-eighteenth century. Since then the strategies, understandings, and supporting disciplines of biography have become more complex. Contemporary writers and critics occasionally acknowledge its speculative and crypto-fictive nature along with the existence of an old question: whether biog- raphy is a branch of history or a branch of literature, a work of record or an imaginative exercise. Some believe, as I do, that the biographer is essentially a storyteller and dramatist -- Henri Troyat's superb Tolstoy is much to the point here -- and that a strong case should be made for enlarging the term "literary biography" to include books that have literary qualities and not necessarily literary subjects.

But the stated aims of biography have remained remarkably consistent during two centuries and also consistently touched with a degree of presumption. "The business of a biographer," Samuel Johnson said, "is . . . to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies and display the minute details of daily life." Boswell's purpose was to enable mankind to see the subject "live, and to 'live o'er each scene' with him, as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life." Another familiar declaration, this one by Henry James, is more congenial to us in its terminology but not different in its fundamental emphasis on the flow of experience. "To live over people's lives is nothing unless we live over their perceptions, live over the growth, the change, the varying intensity of the same -- since it was by these things they themselves lived."

We continue to expect biography to render not only the public and private events of a life but its intimate existential and perceptual textures, all adding up to the whole sense of a person. Freud and Jung on the one hand, Proust and Joyce on the other are among those who have provided models for the intricate and nuanced notation of interior states of being. And in the faith of a long "golden age" we tend

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