A Biography of the Biography

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, November 9, 2009 | Go to article overview

A Biography of the Biography


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

When was the last time a notable person with lots to hide (obsessive-compulsive disorder, a refusal to bathe, the fact that he wore wigs that didn't fit) insisted that his biographer measure and record every fault with seismographic precision? It may well have been a good 236 years ago, on the morning in 1773 when Samuel Johnson divulged his theory on biography to James Boswell: "I well remember that Dr. Johnson maintained, that 'If a man is to write A Panegyrick, he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life, he must represent it as it really was:' And in the Hebrides he maintained, as appears from my Journal, that a man's intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life."

Clearly--clear to Boswell anyway--he was not merely recording one more of Johnson's opinions. He was getting his marching orders. Johnson, the greatest literary critic of his time, was telling Boswell how to write what would eventually become his Life of Johnson. What neither man could foresee was that Boswell's biography would one day be far better known and beloved than its subject. Johnson, besides being a fine critic, was also our most accomplished lexicographer, having almost singlehandedly compiled the first major dictionary of the English language. He was an accomplished poet and no mean essayist. And yet, we remember him best not for these accomplishments but as the garrulous subject of Boswell's Life. Today it's Boswell who is the more widely read. Such is the power of biography.

Since long before Plutarch, the story of a life has been our most durable and most enduringly popular literary form--it was Johnson's favorite reading. In our time alone it has multiplied into a dizzying number of forms--authorized, unauthorized, oral biography and autobiography, the group biography, the biographical novel, not to mention the online biography. What is Facebook, or most blogs, but a slew of autobiographies constantly in progress? But the most extraordinary thing about modern biography is how much, at its best, it still resembles the Boswellian model. In writing the life of Johnson--and following his subject's dictates on how to do it--Boswell did not only give us a great biography. He gave us the formula: painstaking research, strong narrative, and in-depth, unflinching portraiture. Were either man to come back to life, he would have no trouble recognizing what he helped create.

What might shock both men, however, are the ends to which their techniques have been directed. Boswell was blushingly frank in his journals, and Johnson was blunt in his judgments, but both men were circumspect, a word not often associated with biographies today, when the history of biography can be said to parallel, where it does not overlap, the history of the erosion of private life. There's no denying the proliferation of what Joyce Carol Oates defined as "pathography"--works in which a biographer fastens on to every loathsome detail of a subject's life, with the result that the subject is not cut down to size but simply cut down. (But is that so new? A century ago Oscar Wilde observed, "Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.")

But the path to pathography was surprisingly long. Nineteenth-century biographers weren't interested in flaws or the interior lives of their subjects. Their motto might well have been "Never look under the hood." The result was a century's worth of two- and three-volume hagiography that might easily be confused with embalming. Then, in 1918, Lytton Strachey brought the art of biography back from the dead. No book is more frequently cited as a model by contemporary biographers than Eminent Victorians, Strachey's withering demolition of four prominent individuals (Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Gen. Charles Gordon, and Dr. Thomas Arnold) who, as Strachey saw it, personified the hypocrisy, prudery, sanctimony, and maudlin patriotism that had condemned hundreds of thousands of young men to needless death in the Great War. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

A Biography of the Biography
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.