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

By Stephen B. Oates | Go to book overview
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Eight
Biography as a Prism of History

Barbara W. Tuchman

Insofar as I have used biography in my work, it has been less for the sake of the individual subject than as a vehicle for exhibiting an age, as in the case of Coucy in A Distant Mirror; or a country and its state in the case of Speaker Reed and Richard Strauss in The Proud Tower; or a historic situation, as in the case of Stilwell and the American Experience in China. You might say that this somewhat roundabout approach does not qualify me for the title of biographer and you would be right. I do not think of myself as a biographer; biography is just a form I have used once or twice to encapsulate history.

I believe it to be a valid method for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it has distinguished precedents. The National Portrait Gallery uses portraiture to exhibit history. Plutarch, the father of biography, used it for moral examples: to display the reward of duty performed, the traps of ambition, the fall of arrogance. His biographical facts and anecdotes, artistically arranged in Parallel Lives, were designed to delight and edify the reader while at the same time inculcating ethical principles. Every creative artist -- among whom I include Plutarch and, if it is not too pretentious, myself -- has the same two objects: to express his own vision and to communicate it to the reader viewer, listener, or other consumer. (I should add that as regards the practice of history and biography, "creative" does not mean, as some think, to invent; it means to give the product artistic shape.)

A writer will normally wish to communicate in such a way as to please and interest, if not necessarily edify, the reader. I do not think of edifying because in our epoch we tend to shy away from moral overtones, and yet I suppose I believe, if you were to pin me down, that aesthetic pleasure in good writing or in any of the arts, and increased knowledge of human conduct, that is to say of history, both have the power to edify.

-93-

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