A Biography of the Biography

Article excerpt

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. …