You are on page 1of 184
Introduction to the New Edition (2013) FIRST, a confession. When I wrote Reflections on Biography, I was not a reader of biography. I certainly did not read biographies for pleasure, and, like too many literary scholars, I forgot to consult them for my research and, in fact, did not know how much they have to offer critics. Now biography is my favorite pleasure reading, and I have a capacious appetite for exploring the ever-expanding ways that they are being written and the places that sophisticated examples are now found. Biography continues to be the genre read by the largest cross section of readers in America and Great Britain. Sveve Jobs by Walter Isaacson sold 379,000 copies the first week it was published (Nielen Bookscan). Everyone agrees that biography sells. Edward Champion writes rather snidely, "Trade and university presses show no reticence in chipping and pulping the forests on behalf of almost any conceivable figure."' Oxford University Press's 2012 Christmas web- site advertisement proves him right, as it featured the covers of eight biographies ranging from the traditional The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson and Bismarck: A Life to the now-established celebrity category represented by Dust! Queen of the Postmods (about Dusty Springfield, the British pop singer) and Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway. Arranging their covers in two neat rows of four, the titles carefully promise that they are "lives." In sharing my leisure reading in this new introduction, I will survey a range of biographies that captured my imagination and a few of the most-discussed issues regarding them. Biographies are all around us, and even those written for ephemeral purposes are expected to be skillfully researched and written. Notably journalistic biographers are expected to have some training as researchers or to have support staff that do.? Sports Illustrated featured a biography of Wonman Joseph Williams, a defensive back on the Virginia football team who at the time of the story was part of a INTRODUCTION (2013) Living Wage Campaign. Williams's biography was illustrated with iconic pictures of activist athletes including Bill Walton demonstrating against the Vietnam War and Arthur Ashe behind a fence agitating to expel then-apartheid South Africa from the International Lawn Tennis Association (July 9-16, 2012). Good Housekeeping lists a biography such as William J. Mann's Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand almost every month in its "Good Reads" column. The little biographies in Opera News are among its most popular features, and it treats readers to such specials as "Opera's Next Wave: The Voices and Faces of the Future" (August 2012). The photographs do, indeed, bring the faces into play, and portraits and featured photographs and other visuals are now expected in biography. Darren K. Woods, general director of Fort Worth Opera, is smiling in a classic business suit, but with a paisley tie that just hints at creativity. Isabel Leonard, the mezzo-soprano, evokes Maria Callas by lounging in a vintage chair wearing a black dress and stilettos. Latonia Moore, who became a star when she substituted in the title role of Aéda at the Metropolitan Opera in March 2012, is featured in her costume, while Alek Shrader, the tenor who describes his training as "very blue collar," poses at the Met in blue jeans and a Western shirt adorned with an embroidered long horn at the collarbone. In a review of the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Edward Rothstein easily summarizes the controversies about Roosevelt ("a defender of liberty; no, a power-hungry mountebank... a farseeing visionary, an energetic clerk") and then chides the Museum for listing his general "vocations" without specifics. Those specifics are arresting, as good, recovered biographical information is: Roosevelt was NYC police commissioner, head of the federal Civil Service Commission, created 51 bird reservations, wrote eighteen books, and was part of two scientific expeditions to Africa.> This is how available biography is and what it can do--astonish, educate, remind, change opinions. It can also startle and intrigue with its adaptation of traditional biographies as this one does of the Great Man type. When I wrote Reflections on Biography, | was certain we were at the beginning of an explosion of creativity in biography writing, and we were. Now the recognition of this explosion in forms, styles, subjects, methodologies, and purposes is widespread. The blending of genres and the breakdown of respected limits of speculation in biography and of the borders between, for instance, entertainment and xii REFLECTIONS ON BIOGRAPHY the historical record and academics and journalists has accelerated. As Michael Holroyd said in 2003, "Biography will continue to change, will become more personal, more idiosyncratic, imaginative, experimental, more hybrid, and will move further from the comprehensive."* In this brief introduction to the reissuing of this book, I want to look briefly at what some of the most influential changes are, even within those forms of biography that seem to be maintaining their traditional shapes and prefaces. In the conclusion, I will return to the relative lack of theory in biography studies, a topic I highlighted in the introduction to Reflections. Writing a new preface to a book always arouses thoughts of what might be done differently. I think the first section of this book, “The Basics," the part about the decisions that biographers make, stands the test of time well. Every biographer must grapple with each of them: voice, relationship between biographer and subject, evidence, and choice of perspective. As the biographer Ann Thwaite said of Reflections, "There is no other book like this," and Xolela Mangcu wrote, "Your book has been on my bedside for so long while I was writing my biography of Steve Biko."> Indeed, there is still no other book that probes the decisions biographers make as relentlessly as mine. Establishing a voice and a perspective determines the bio- grapher's relationship to reader and subject, the person or persons written about, and maintaining that steady presence is harder than it might appear. Surprising to me was how hard it was to keep the same steady, engaged, clear tone and register throughout the 541 pages of my Daniel Defoe: His Life, thus "Voice" was the natural place to begin. The relationship between biographer and subject is complex from the moment the decision of subject is made, and the second chapter reveals possibilities as well as cultural and personal forces that configure that growing and changing dynamic. Evidence--finding it, evaluating it, presenting it--is the greatest test of the biographer and is the subject of the third chapter. Creativity, perseverance, diligence, stamina, time, and money are required almost beyond the ordinary person's imagination. The fourth and final chapter in this section takes up the most controversial topic, the impact of theories of personality. Some believe that in the best biographies, none of these decisions should show. So seamless should the biography be that the reader never senses the effort that each choice demands, but, regardless, the decisions are always made. And they determine everything from the perception of an authoritative account to the experience of being