Lives out of Letters: Essays on American Literary Biography and Documentation in Honor of Robert N. Hudspeth

By Robert D. Habich | Go to book overview

The Perils of Writing Biography

Robert D. Richardson

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF BIOGRAPHY. EVERY BOOKSTORE AND EVERY LIBRARY has a biography section; publishers print and people buy and read biographies. As Phyllis Rose has remarked, we don’t know how to lead our own lives and we are dying for information on how good lives have been led.1 Colleges and universities are, perhaps fortunately, structured in such a way that biography is not an academically recognized or rewarded field of study. Nevertheless, serious biographical work receives serious attention, even while biography as a craft flies mostly below the academic radar. Anyone who so wishes may write a biography without first going through a long credentialling process. Everything necessary for a golden age of biography is present, so why am I talking about perils?

Precisely because it is all around us, biography has acquired opponents and nay-sayers. Janet Malcolm has said that biography “is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world.” Perhaps she meant only the kind of book Joyce Carol Oates calls “pathography,” but the remark was not qualified. Sigmund Freud once issued a blanket dismissal, saying “anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth does not exist.” John Updike grumbles about scholars “‘barnacled’ to the underside of [a] ‘stately gliding’ reputation.” Henry James, Sr. once refused to read his friend James John Garth Wilkinson’s biography of Swedenborg on the grounds that biography contained only “low information.” A book was valuable for Henry Sr. “only when read symbolically.” Roland Barthes murmured some time ago that biography is merely “a novel which dares not speak its name.” And now comes Stanley Fish to diss the whole enterprise, saying that biographers “can only be inauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie, can only substitute their own story for the story of their announced subject…. Biography, in short, is a

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