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

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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. …