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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Biography and the search for meaning


The weekly Sunday morning ritual: Coffee in hand, I read the book review section of The New York Times. As I do so week after week, year after year, it dawns on me that there is a pattern here. Biography is being reviewed more frequently. One year, 2000, I counted 188 reviews of books related to biography, which is three-plus reviews each Sunday. Curious, I dug around in The Bowker Annual Library and Book Trade Almanac, and my inkling was confirmed. In 1994, 1,758 biographies were published in the United States; seven years later 4,887 appeared. University presses report a 6.3 percent increase in new titles between 2003 and 2004, with the expansion principally in history and biography. Why is there greater public interest in this old standard?

Biography has a long and venerable history. One thinks of Plutarch separating “lives” from history, the latter explaining events and the former character, or of Giorgio Vasari memorializing for posterity the lives of Italian Renaissance artists. The medieval world produced its own life-writing, hagiography, which tracked the transforming power of God in the lives of holy men and women. It was not until the 17th century that the word “biography” came into usage, presaging the form that emerged in England in the next century. Biography proliferated in 19th-century England and America in the ponderous “life and letters” with sparse narrative and thick documentation. The Romantics provided an alternative by emphasizing the hero and celebrating the subject’s inner life.

But biography as popularly recognized today owes its character to Lytton Strachey, who set the standard in his Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. For him biography was an interpretation of a life, and full disclosure was the norm. He offered the provocative image of the biographer rowing out over the great ocean of facts and lowering down a small bucket in which a specimen of life is pulled up, revealing the subject’s character in all its fullness. With Strachey, the adulation of the 19th-century biographer gave way to exposé. He found inspiration in Freud, and by the 1940s the impetus for a new subfield of psychobiography was underway.

If biography had a spokesperson at midcentury, it was Leon Edel, founder of the journal Biography. Like Strachey, Mr. Edel provided a guiding image for his craft. A biographer searched for “the figure under the carpet,” the pattern exposed on the underside of a life, one woven inextricably with the design of the top of the life, the public visage.

While popular with the public, biography has endured withering attacks from literati. Vladimir Nabokov claimed the biographer was a “pyscho-plagiarist”; Edward Sackville-West, “a hyena”; Janet Malcolm, a “transgressor” and “busybody.” W.H. Auden thought biography was “superfluous and always in bad taste” and Rudyard Kipling said it was “a higher form of cannibalism.” Joyce Carol Oates called it “pathography,” and Germaine Greer, “rape.” Oscar Wilde said it was “usually Judas who writes biography” and Alexander Pope allowed that “biography gave a new fear of death.”

Nonetheless, biography’s claim on the public imagination has never been stronger. There are some perennial explanations for this resurgence. A life is a fascinating topic of exploration, one to which all can relate. And its form, the narrative, a story, is not only accessible; it parallels communication in everyday life. All of us gather information, evaluate it, ferret out cause and effect, create explanation and meaning and express ourselves in nontechnical language. Strachey claimed that biography was “the most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing,” one relevant to our own lives.

If biography’s objective is neither denigration nor adulation but understanding of a life, then potentially it offers an opportunity for the reader to increase appreciation both of the human condition and of creative responses to it. Biography invites vicarious entrance into another life, another time, space and culture. It creates a space for dialogue with another and hence allows for a broadening of one’s experience. But because it forces the reader to encounter persistent human realities, biography can also cause deeper self-reflection; it becomes a school for personal meditation. In this sense, biography offers an occasion for personal growth and interpersonal dialogue, carried out in solitude.

If it is to meet public expectations, biography must resolve the conundrum advanced by Søren Kierkegaard: Life has to be lived forward but can only be understood backward. This backward understanding of a life emerges by “showing” it forward, in the unsettled present as lived by the subject. In order to understand a life, the biographer must get to what W.B. Yeats called the “life-myth,” the principle of organized coherence that gives a life its shape, the hierarchy of desires and aspirations that jostle and compete but ultimately establish some pattern over time. A compelling biography offers a coherence of contradictions held together by nothing but the subject’s life. This elusive coherence entices the reader and gives instruction.

Albert Camus understood this attraction: “People read biography,” he wrote, “because they envy the coherence that lives achieve when recorded.” The created life of biography gives such coherence, and when done subtly and with artistry, the result causes “envy.” It is this need to make sense of life, one’s own and that of others, which has deep resonance. At its most sublime, biography can even heal. “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them,” Isak Dinesen remarked.

The search for meaning is greater at some historic times than at others. Writing in 1925 in The Development of English Biography, Harold Nicolson allowed that “the less people believe in theology” (and we can substitute any ideological or meaning system here) “the more do they believe in human experience. And it is to biography they go for this human experience.” Can it be that biography is flourishing today precisely because our systems of meaning are more frayed and tentative than in previous decades?

Many argue that biography is profoundly conservative, supporting and reinforcing the values of the past. Others, such as Virginia Woolf, claim the opposite, that “the biographer goes ahead of us like the miner’s canary, testing the atmosphere, detecting falsity, unreality, obsolete conventions.” In either case, biography is a literary form specifically suited to helping readers make sense of life. It offers the chance for self-reflection and dialogue with those who have shaped lives quite different from our own.

It is reasonable to assume that in contentious and fragmented times, biography will continue to play an important role in popular culture. Hannah Arendt made the observation: “In dark times we have a right to expect some illumination and some lives can cast light upon the world.” Contemporary readers know their needs. They “envy” coherence; they “have a right to expect some illumination” and hence they turn to human experience. The ancient craft of biography might help us keep alive “living theology,” the glints of God incarnate in human lives.

Dana Greene is a professor of history at Oxford College of Emory University, Atlanta. She is author of two biographies, Evelyn Underhill: Artist of the Infinite Life and The Living of Maisie Ward.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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