Biography's Story, a Right Hand Man

Article excerpt

Byline: John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Who would imagine Nigel Hamilton's compact, erudite book about the history and practice of biography called Biography: A Brief History (Harvard, $21.95, 327 pages) could be so wide-ranging and provocative?

From prehistoric cave drawings (the animals are fully drawn while the hunters are stick figures) to today's films (the author himself won an award for a documentary based on his biography of Field Marshal Montgomery), Mr. Hamilton moves briskly through the centuries, highlighting how the depiction and recording of individual lives has changed from early oral sagas and cuneiform writing to Internet blogs. In essence, the author provides a short course on past societies viewed through their individuals, plus insights into the nature of individuality at certain periods in human history.

The author's "freeze-frame" approach encompasses the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Bible ("the best-selling work of biography of all time"), the confessions of Saint Augustine and hagiography (the lives of the saints) in the Middle Ages. "Without Christianity and Christian biography, would illiterate Europe have succumbed after the sixth century to its rival, Islam a religion that eschewed individual life depiction as insulting to the majesty of Allah?" asks the author.

The rise of the secular state in Europe, he says, revived interest in secular individuals and created "a ready market for Shakespeare's dramatizations of nonreligious lives (he never did write about a saint)." However, Shakespeare's contemporary, Sir Walter Raleigh, became biography's first martyr for being "too sawcie in censuring princes."

In the late 18th century, Mr. Hamilton notes, Samuel Johnson appealed for an end to hagiography because "[i]f nothing but the bright side of characters should be shewn, we should sit down in despondency and think it utterly impossible to imitate them in any thing." Boswell's life of Johnson, says the author, "provided a classic example of the new warts-and-all biography: messy, vivid, and colorful as life itself."

Autobiography became popular following the American and French revolutions, to be succeeded by a Victorian "demand for patriotic and exemplary, rather than honest, lives." This "life-laundering," of course, stimulated a backlash, led by Lytton Strachey's sardonic "Eminent Victorians," in which Strachey knocked four icons off their pedestals: "ambitious Cardinal Manning, dotty Florence Nightingale, the mad General Charles Gordon of Khartoum, and the sinister Dr. Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby School for boys."

Mr. Hamilton moves on to discuss the rise of film, particularly Leni Riefenstahl's hagiography of Hitler as well as Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," which was "designed and titled to bring a fictional 'great man of history' down to ordinary size." The author also describes the post-World War II explosion of print biography and televised programs about real lives, and a new flowering in the 1960s, when Michael Holroyd sympathetically tackled the complicated sexual relationships of Lytton Strachey and the whole Bloomsbury set.

With respect to the role of biography at the end of the 20th century, Mr. Hamilton asks, "Was it the age-old ritual of commemoration? Deeper insight into personality, identity, and the self? Factual record? The raising of individuals and groups from obscurity? Entertainment? Artistic license, especially in autobiography?

"The short answer must be: all of the above."

Mr. Hamilton, a distinguished and prolific writer who has taught biography on both sides of the Atlantic, has distilled enormous wisdom into his remarkable little book. …