The Experience of Biography: Decisions in Organizing and Writing Chapter One

By Smith, Louis M. | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Experience of Biography: Decisions in Organizing and Writing Chapter One


Smith, Louis M., Vitae Scholasticae


1. Purpose

Writing a biography involves a number of decisions. The first chapter of the biography poses some of the most difficult of those decisions. Where to start? At birth? If not there, where, why? Catherine Drinker Bowen (1) began her biography of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes with some 70 pages recounting the nature of New England where Holmes was born. She presents his family, particularly his father, Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was important in his life. All this occurs before she formally introduces Chief Justice Holmes. Without this knowledge one cannot understand Holmes--so she argues. Nonetheless, that's a long introduction. Similarly, in Nigel Hamilton's (2) discussion of his biography of President John F. Kennedy, the book does not begin with Kennedy's birth but with an account of Kennedy's funeral. Hamilton argues that this is the scene everyone knows, and the funeral allows him to present some very different views held by Kennedy's wife Jackie Kennedy and mother Rose Kennedy. Aspects of these differences, really conflicts, will appear throughout Hamilton's book of Kennedy's life. The decisions of Bowen and Hamilton were not reached easily nor necessarily early in the thinking and writing of the lives. These openings have considerable power in the later telling of the lives. The accounts indicate what I mean about decisions in organizing and writing the first chapter.

In the present essay I will present the content of Chapter One of Nora Barlow and the Darwin Legacy, (3) my biography of Nora Barlow (nee Darwin). I will recount the struggles and decisions underlying each part of this first chapter of the biography. I have italicized the parts of this essay that constitute my reflections on Chapter One, while the actual chapter is presented in normal font. The chapter begins after another italicized comment.

2. Images

Nora (4) is an unknown person to most of the readers I see as my audience, bright young women such as those I have in my classes of undergraduates at Washington University in St. Louis. I thought and decided that vivid images of Nora scattered throughout her life would not only be informative but enticing to my readers. That decision came after finding and sorting through an immense amount of data gathered over several years.

2.1 The Dominant Intellectual Image

In the autumn of 1933, the University Press at Cambridge published the book, Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. (5) Shortly thereafter, The Times Literary Supplement did a front page review. A nearly fifty-year-old woman, Nora Barlow, the editor/author of the Diary (6) took the first giant step that was to earn her a place in one small strand in the history of science, the beginning of what one day would be called "the Darwin Industry." But it was not only the London Times that reviewed the book. Shortly thereafter, the New York Times Book Review, Nature, and dozens of other journals reviewed it as well. But it was The Cambridge Review (7) that caught Nora Barlow's contribution in glowing terms:

   There were two things which Dr. [Samuel] Johnson felt himself
   fitted to do very well. One was an "introduction to a literary work,
   stating what it is to contain and how it should be executed in the
   most perfect manner. "The other was" a conclusion, showing why the
   execution has not been equal to what the author promised to himself
   and to the public." Mrs. Barlow would have had no reason to fear
   the doctor's censure. He would surely have smiled upon her. She
   sets forth exactly what the work she is editing contains, and her
   editing with its bibliography, notes, maps, critical apparatus and
   index comes as near to perfection as is humanly possible. (8)

The later steps of Nora Barlow's intellectual career would include editing three more books on the Darwin manuscripts. Her volume of Charles Darwin letters from H. …

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

The Experience of Biography: Decisions in Organizing and Writing Chapter One
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

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

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.