Biography illuminates psychological, emotional and social truths as demonstrated by the actions and statements of its subject. By shining a spotlight on a person – living or dead – biography attempts to preserve that person’s odyssey from childhood to maturity and to death. It resembles fiction in that it is about character developed over time. A biographer, however, lacks the freedom of a novelist to present his or her own version of the truth. Biographers cannot apply their imaginations to a set of facts, altering them to make their work more engrossing to readers. In fiction the characters, of course, belong to the author. Novelists invent people and are allowed to do whatever they wish with them. A novelist has omniscience; a biographer does not. In biography a subject’s inwardness can be re-created only if sufficient self-communication has been bequeathed in the form of diaries and letters.
Accurately charting a person’s actions and reactions, achievements and mistakes, passions and indifference is never an easy task. It is what the writer does with the results of research – with the facts – that determines the success or failure of a biography. (The biographer who writes about a living person has an extraordinary advantage over the biographer who works from documents.)
As Leon Edel points out in his landmark work, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica, the task of a biographer is to sort out themes and patterns in a subject’s life and allow these to dictate the book’s form. A strictly chronological work filled with dates will not hold a reader’s interest. The same narrative devices that make for accomplished fiction give strength to a biography – for example, flashbacks, summary chapters, and jumps from childhood to maturity and back again.
Edel explains that the very core of biography is a subject’s public façade in contrast to his or her private self-concept. Every human wears a mask in public. A subject’s rationalizations, postures, and self-delusions must all underpin a biography.
Biography is not authentic unless it credibly places the subject within history and within the texture of a social complex. The challenge that confronts a biographer is that of extracting an individual from the chaos of her or his times while at the same time creating the illusion that she or he is indeed in the midst of life. Biography must depict an era as well as an individual. Edel writes about the difficulty inherent in portraying a contradictory, mercurial, flowing human spirit that “delights in defying order and logic.” How does a writer extract the essence of a life from the inexorable clutter of days and years?
Amazingly, countless biographers have succeeded. Boswell’s 18th Century life of Dr. Samuel Johnson is certainly the most famous biography written in English. For centuries critics have disparaged the short amount of time Boswell actually knew Johnson, but that measurement is not as significant as the depth of intimacy that existed between author and subject. It was the sheer emotional power of Boswell’s affection for Johnson that equipped him, against all odds, to write such a remarkable, penetrating book.
Fortunately, in the past few years there has been a flowering of exceptional biographies. All of David McCullough’s efforts have been impressive. (See review of his 1992 Truman on this website.) Catherine the Great by Robert Massie, Homesick at the New Yorker, Angela Bourke’s life of Maeve Brennan, Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton – to name just a few – are all outstanding biographies.