My piece on Brian Doyle for Notre Dame Magazine just went up on their website: “The Story Catcher.”
My Piece on Brian Doyle in Notre Dame Magazine
Excellent Article on Biography Today Features Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax
The September issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, one of the premier magazines for creative writers in the U.S., features an excellent article on biography by biographer and ethnographer Joanne B. Mulcahy.
I’m happy to say that one of the four biographies Mulcahy evaluates in the piece is my book, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. The other three are: Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009); Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc (2014); and Deborah Baker’s The Convert (2011).
With Mulcahy’s permission, I’ve reprinted the entire article below. You’ll find Pure Act discussed in section III.
The Lives of Others: A Reconsideration of Biography
by Joanne B. Mulcahy
“My God, how does one write a Biography?” Virginia Woolf asked as she grappled with shaping the life of painter and art critic Roger Fry. Hermione Lee opened her biography of Woolf with the same question, one any biographer might ask. The exasperated tone speaks to the audacity of the task. Beyond the seeming impossibility of apprehending another’s life, how does one write it? What design fits the subject: a birth to death chronicle, a partial and focused portrait, or some entirely new form? Should the author’s voice be audible or disappear into third person? What weave of private life and historical setting will create a compelling narrative?
You might expect similar questions to animate the critical literature, book reviews, and teaching of the genre. In fact, biography and its forms are often ignored. While the National Book Award and Pulitzer categories include biography (along with autobiography), few MFA writing programs in the US teach the genre. Calls for biographical portraits rarely appear in literary journals that publish nonfiction. Book reviewers often critique the life rather than the writing, as though literary form could be assumed—a cradle-to-grave assemblage of facts gleaned from dusty archives and predictably presented. Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, complained long ago, “Reviewers and critics have learned how to judge plays, poems, novels—but they reveal their helplessness in the face of a biography. They reflect their uncertainty about the facts, which they can’t immediately verify, and so they discuss their own interest in the details or gossip of a life rather than in the art of representation which a biography must be….”1 A recent review of a biography of Stalin’s daughter shows the endurance of this neglect. Noting Svetlana Alliluyeva’s dramatic life, the critic writes, “It would perhaps be difficult to write a dull book given the material.”2 Difficult, perhaps, but entirely possible; boring biographies of fascinating people exist. What makes a person live on the page is what animates strong writing in any genre—fluid prose, well-wrought scenes, a structure appropriate to the material, narrative drive, and compelling description and characterization.
What weave of private life and historical setting will create a compelling narrative?
Maybe, as Edel suggests, critics fear that they can’t sort the literary wheat from the gossipy chaff. Focus then turns to the biographer’s research methods. On one hand, the writer earns applause for years of assiduous digging into archives, interviewing friends and family, and scouting out places where the subject lived. But the flip side is a darker portrait, one acknowledged by biographers. Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life, writes, “There may well be something parasitic, pathological about the business, which involves peering unapologetically into other people’s medicine cabinets.”3 In The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm’s critique of books about Sylvia Plath, she indicts the biographer as a “professional burglar” who drags the reader into his or her sordid enterprise. These accusations, of course, ignore that all writers are spies and thieves of sorts. Biographers, like historians, make their pilfering visible with footnotes. But given this disdain, it’s no wonder biographers often resort to the old trope about falling in love to justify the work. An irrational desire seized us and we can’t do a thing about it.
Why has biography been slighted? Perhaps because it falls short of the invention of the novel, a genre often compared to biography. Both tell stories, though biographers utilize rather than invent dramatic moments. But given the rise and recognition of creative nonfiction, this is perplexing, especially since memoir and biography share terrain. Neither replicates a life; rather, each represents a version filtered through a writer’s vision and design. Like memoir, biography has stretched to include lesser-known lives as well as those of “great men and women.” As memoir’s repertoire has grown, so too have biographical structures expanded from predictable birth-to death-chronology to more diverse, sometimes fragmented, and inventive literary forms.
In fact, biography’s forms have always varied. Even the full, straight path from birth to death, conventional as it seems, was once new. Childhood and early life rarely appeared in biographies until the 20th century. Peering into medicine cabinets was hardly the norm for the form’s earliest practitioners, who focused on public, not private lives. Though Plutarch wanted to reveal innate character in his lively Parallel Lives of Greek and Roman statesmen, he sought generalized lessons on moral behavior. Similarly, early hagiographers plumbed the public lives of Christian saints for models to emulate. Not until Freud did the search for inner hidden dimensions become de rigueur. His influence flowered in the works of the early 20th-century “New Biographers” who rebelled against the hagiographic portraits of Victorian England. Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians used acerbic wit, irreverence, and selective pastiche to expose the private lives of revered figures like Florence Nightingale. But Strachey’s manipulation of the facts toward invention provoked critique.4 Even his fellow Bloomsbury group member Virginia Woolf, whose modernist experiments and focus on women helped revolutionize biography, agreed that her friend sometimes stretched the genre’s limits. The fact-fiction boundary Strachey pushed remains controversial, continuing to play out in current debates.
Contemporary biographies embody varied aspects of earlier designs, from straight chronology to structural innovation. But these historical shifts and conventions must be made visible before we can assess them. The writers who have done so most often are, like Woolf and Lee, biographers themselves. Phyllis Rose, Josephine Baker’s biographer and author of Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages, points out, “Every choice of form makes a statement about the way life is, changes the illusion of reality conveyed by a piece of writing.”5 Rose looks at ways writers vary chronology, create character, and change perspective. These shifts may be subtle or invisible to readers, notes Catherine Drinker Bowen about her many biographies, but to the author, each book assumed “shapes as different as the square and the cone.”6 Leon Edel created a schema that remains relevant, broad, and flexible: 1) The chronicle of a life from birth to death, 2) The portrait or “pictorial” form focused on a part of a life, sometimes examined via the subject’s works (which includes literary biography), and 3) The novelistic form which plays with time, chronology, and/or point of view.7
I’ll use Edel’s categories with some variation to examine four recent American biographies: Linda Gordon’s Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (2009); Kathryn Harrison’s Joan of Arc (2014); Michael McGregor’s Pure Act: The Life of Robert Lax (2015); and Deborah Baker’s The Convert (2011). My idiosyncratic selection reflects books I’ve read in the past year that reveal a range of biography’s possibilities. I focus on three essential elements: the voice of the writer, the creation of literary form, and how each biographer places the individual in historical context—what Virginia Woolf called “the stream” in which the fish swim. In some, the scaffolding stands out; in others, it’s nearly invisible. While the risk-takers might attract more notice, the conventional modes of storytelling are equally imaginative, argues biographer Paula Backscheider, “because they must achieve the same effects while wearing heavier shackles.”8
While many biographers use existing sources without question, Gordon interrogates their validity, revealing how written and photographic documentation privilege the view of the dominant.
I. The Historian’s Chronicle
In Linda Gordon’s introduction to Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits, she confesses she is not a photographer or a biographer, but “Once Lange came to my attention, I could not let her go.”9 In the work of the pioneering documentary photographer, Gordon found a passion that paralleled hers as an historian: the quest to represent reality and further social justice. Gordon’s mix of first and third person reflects the duality in documentary, which like history, is both factual and selective. After the introduction, she shifts to the historian’s third-person reportage, but her selectivity emerges when she questions sources, asserts an opinion, or offers analysis that contradicts the written record. Even without the use of first person, her presence, once established, remains palpable throughout.
The book’s form is a full chronicle of Lange’s life, one framed by historical, political, and gender-based analysis. We begin in her childhood, its twin traumas of polio and her father’s desertion set against the backdrop of Hoboken, New Jersey. When Lange’s single mother moved the family to New York City, the twelve-year-old Lange walked the streets undeterred by her polio-deformed foot. Gordon describes the city’s street scenes that would linger in Lange’s consciousness, later contributing to her social awakening via photography. She highlights the contradictions in Lange’s life: a middle-class upbringing turned to adult documentation of America’s invisible factory and migrant farm workers; two marriages—a troubled one to celebrated painter, Maynard Dixon, and a happier union with progressive economist, Paul Taylor—balanced by a professional identity forged in an era hostile to women’s independence; her documentation of others’ families even as she had to desert her own at times, for she and Dixon, and later, Taylor, often boarded the children with friends or private families so they could work.
Structurally, the book divides Lange’s life into sections that mirror broader social periods. A “scene” that describes a photo on the opposite page introduces each segment. Chapter One opens with a searing image of Lange’s polio-deformed foot. In 1957, she’d given her students at the California School of Fine Arts the photo assignment: “Where do I live?” When they challenged her to do her own version, her foot emerged as synecdoche for the prison of her body. Each photo and short narrative creates a frame for the longer sections. Many scenes work metaphorically as exemplified in this first photo, underscoring the book’s title of refusing limits.
Historical context is given equal weight to private life. Part II, for example, “Depression and Renewal,” traces the widespread economic devastation alongside a shift in Lange’s psyche and work. “Scene 2” displays the photo, “The White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1932”; the juxtaposed story relates Lange’s move from portrait photography of wealthy patrons to street documentation.
A dearth of source material dictated Gordon’s narrative choices. Lange didn’t keep a diary and none of her letters survive. Therefore, Gordon mines the photographs and surrounding documentation, along with articles and interviews from Lange’s later life. As befits an historian, she compares Lange’s recollections with those of others, finds contradictions, and reads between the lines and into the gaps in Lange’s experience. Gordon’s moving account of the terror of polio in the early 20th century, for example, comes from the records of other sufferers but is so well integrated that readers experience the story as Lange’s.
While many biographers use existing sources without question, Gordon interrogates their validity, revealing how written and photographic documentation privilege the view of the dominant. The Farm Security Administration, Lange’s employer from 1935 to 1939 as part of the New Deal, followed political directives from the Department of Agriculture. These included: “No blacks and whites in social contact, no references to racial oppression, no images of racial inequality or abuse of blacks were to be shown.” 10 Individual memory also distorts. In writing about Katharine Whiteside, the first wife of Lange’s second husband, Paul Taylor, Gordon alerts the reader to possible distortion in Whiteside’s memories. Gordon’s knowledge comes from Whiteside’s unpublished memoir, writing influenced by her perspective as a Jungian analyst and possibly, by her self-dramatizing personality.
Harrison’s Joan is consecrated as a spiritual and feminist model of resistance, an individual swimming against the “stream” of her own time.
A strong example of how Gordon marries a storytelling voice, available documentation, and critical analysis circles the iconic photograph of farmworker Florence Thompson, “Migrant Mother.” Gordon begins in narrative mode: “She was driving north on US 101 on a cold and miserable rainy day in February 1936…,” en route home from a month on the road alone taking photos. Lange initially ignored the hand-written sign, “Pea Pickers Camp” near Nipomo, continuing toward San Luis Obispo. Something made her return. With quotes from an article Lange later published, Gordon recreates her subject’s internal monologue to build tension around the possible “road not taken.” “She conducted… an argument with herself: ‘Dorothea, what about that camp back there?… Nobody could ask this of you, now could they?… Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on this subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same?’” (italics in original)11 Careful analysis of the photo follows, showing how Lange captured a mother’s contradictory selflessness, victimization, and strength. Unlike the traditional Madonna and child, where the mother gazes lovingly at the baby, Thompson turns away, her face exquisite and anguished. This juxtaposition of social injustice and beauty marked Lange’s work, committed as she was to the dignity of her subjects. Gordon asserts that the extraordinary depth of this image emerged from Lange’s identification with Thompson’s anxiety “…because it was hers, as well. Nothing in Lange’s personal life was as fraught as her own motherhood and she lived with contradictory impulses every day.”12
Gordon’s respect for the power of Lange’s photography and her courage in defying the dictates of her time illuminates the story. But this is not uncritical praise. She doesn’t erase the contradictions or make the narrative smoother than the life. She also argues at times with Lange’s interpretation of her own images. Captioning images of workers leaving a plant in a 1942, Lange wrote: “Notice how these people are entirely unrelated to each other. This is the story of these times and the shipyard.” This, writes Gordon, “is an overreaction. To me, the people in this famous photograph look tired and eager to get home…”13
Gordon shows how a chronicle can reveal subtle shifts of voice, narrative choices, and the mix of individual and social history. Is it any less artful for its “shackles” to a scholar’s questions and the conventional pattern of birth through death? A useful comparison comes from Gordon’s discussion of documentary photography. Some critics see documentary as largely instrumental, thus not artistic. Gordon disagrees, as did Lange, who once said, “I believe that what we call beautiful is generally a by-product. It happens when the thing is done very, very well.”14 The same could be said for Gordon’s biography or any artfully arranged chronicle of a life.
II. The Novelist Confronts Myth and History
Kathryn Harrison’s storytelling gifts illuminate Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured. The book exemplifies Leon Edel’s “novelistic” form “in which the materials are melted down and in which the biographer is present in the work as omniscient narrator.”15 A first-person voice never interrupts the seamless story. Though Harrison’s extensive research is obvious, she doesn’t reveal her process. Nonetheless, the reader trusts the authoritative tone established in the opening line: “By the time Joan of Arc proclaimed herself La Pucelle, the virgin sent by God to deliver France from its enemies, the English, she had been obeying the counsel of angels for five years.”16 The fluid prose lacks the qualifiers biographers often use. There are few “it might have beens” or “she would haves,” and no talk of “purported voices.” God and angels speak to Joan who speaks to Harrison who speaks to us. Though the story is well-known, Harrison weaves a distinctive plot around Joan’s refusals: to submit to her inquisitors regarding the source of the voices, to abandon men’s clothing, to yield to any authority except the Divine. Joan stands firm; so does her biographer. Belief is reinforced, if not in a God or gods, at least in the power of a story that continues to electrify readers.
The first chapter establishes a palimpsest of “transfigurations”: spiritual, historical, mythic, and artistic versions of Joan’s life and death. Each story line is deftly integrated. The historical persona emerges from the extensive record, including letters dictated by Joan, others written about her, chronicles from her lifetime such as the anonymous Journal de siege d’Orleans, and the transcripts of the trial and its nullification process twenty-five years after her death. Harrison vivifies the backdrop of the 15th-century world of war, famine, and disease into which Joan was born. The spiritual Joan emerges via rebirth as La Pucelle and through explicit comparison to another transfigured character, Jesus Christ. Joan’s response to the voices of saints and angels was not preposterous to the medieval mind, Harrison explains. The Church’s unquestioned authority stabilized a society reeling from the Plague and the Hundred Years War. But history alone could not contain a story like Joan’s, which “invites invention.” Folklore, which Harrison both explains and deconstructs, entered the gaps. Soothsayers had long predicted that a “virgin from the marshes of Lorraine” would restore France’s power. Varied myths gathered layers even in Joan’s time. Locals assigned her the birth date of the Epiphany, January 6, and depicted her as a poor shepherdess, which Joan herself tried to deny.
Harrison judiciously integrates source material to achieve her novelistic results; the trial text reads like fictional dialogue. It helps that the unlettered Joan was savvy and articulate, often astounding her inquisitors. Asked during her third interrogation, “Do you know if you are in God’s grace?” Joan responded immediately with well-known liturgical language the judges could not contradict, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me…,” then added her own words, “I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”17
Selected aspects of social history illuminate Joan’s inner life. Joan’s fierce protection of her virginity was a logical source of power, given that a woman in the early Church could be virgin, wife, or widow, but “only a virgin escaped the pollution inherent to her sex.”18 Sartorial details also communicate Joan’s character. Here she is almost schoolgirl silly: “From one fitting to the next, there was never a bride more excited by her gown than Joan was by her armor.”19 Here is the warrior Joan preparing for battle after she was “roused by her voices’ strident call” to discover the French under attack. Two women dressers worked from her feet up “with the leather shoes worn under the armored boot, called sabatons… and then, one [person] to a leg, moved up to the greaves, or shin plates, followed by a plate for each knee and thigh, followed by the gambeson—worn under the shirt, like a bulletproof vest—over which went a tunic of chain lined on top with a layer of leather, the hauberk, the cuirass (breastplate), spaulders (which protected the shoulders), gauntlets, and at last the helmet.”20 Harrison’s technical terms establish historical credibility but also highlight the weight and masculinity of the dress. The gradual accretion of metal serves as metaphor for a persona built layer by layer in specific historic context but defiant of its limitations. Harrison insertion of sources never derails the story’s narrative momentum because she has, in Edel’s terms, “melted down and refined” the documents so that the person emerges “in immediate action and against changing backgrounds…. The biographer is so saturated with documents as to be free from their bondage.”21
Alongside the historical, mythic, spiritual Joan rests a series of complex, ever-evolving artistic versions from Cecil B. DeMille’s “Joan the Woman” to Bertolt Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards.” At times, Harrison’s “melting down” of research seems to give equal weight to literary and historical sources. In one example, the Joan from French writer Jean Anouilh’s 1952 play, “The Lark,” responds to her “voices”—“I was only born the day you first spoke to me.” In the next paragraph, the historic Joan speaks directly from her trial transcript to explain why she “had taken as little part as possible in games or dancing” once she heard the angels.22 Some readers might question such juxtapositions, but the smooth integration moves the narrative forward.
Though Harrison’s narrative is “novelistic,” we might also call it “hagiographic” if we reconsider that term’s pejorative meaning of uncritical praise. In the literal sense of “holy writing,” Harrison’s Joan is consecrated as a spiritual and feminist model of resistance, an individual swimming against the “stream” of her own time. Harrison creates a complex character through a layered narrative that leaves certain mysteries intact. Joan’s story will never be laid to rest, Harrison says, followed by the question: “Is this because stories we understand are stories we forget?”23
How far does the generic boundary stretch? We need to open these and other questions about truth and design to lively debate among writers, readers, and critics of biography.
III. A Literary Portrait
In Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, Michael McGregor recounts the story a 20th-century writer until now better known for the company he kept than for his poetry and spiritual quest. A lifelong friend of Thomas Merton, companion to Jack Kerouac and numerous other writers and artists, Lax lived in pursuit of faith, love, and an ever-increasing simplicity expressed in his poetry.
Though we follow Lax through his lifetime, the structure is, in Edel’s terms, more portrait than chronicle, unfolding via themes in the poet’s life and work. The book begins on Patmos, Greece, where “Lax lived at the center of a labyrinth…,” which also serves as metaphor for Lax’s sometimes-torturous path to this life of peace.24 He moved a dizzying number of times, gave up his Ivy League connections, jobs at The New Yorker, as a film critic for Time magazine, and for at period, as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Lax remained impoverished for most of his life, mainly due to choices that privileged his spiritual quest and devotion to writing over material comfort.
One frame for the book is McGregor’s parallel search for spiritual and artistic meaning. In his twenties, McGregor spent three years traveling to impoverished countries doing interviews and writing. His experiences prompted self-examination and existential questions similar to those Lax asked throughout his life. McGregor first encounters his subject when he arrives on Patmos to write, having bought a copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain en route. In seemingly preordained fashion, McGregor discovers that Lax, Merton’s closest friend, lives on the very island where he finds himself. The first person voice reappears mainly in chapter openings as McGregor describes his journey through archives, interviews, and visits to Greece, to Olean, NY and other places where Lax lived. The first person accounts also document McGregor’s growing friendship with and apprenticeship of sorts to Lax.
The book circles the elusive and alluring concept of the title, Pure Act. The idea comes from Thomas Aquinas’s belief that only God was “pure act” while all else “languishes in potentia.” We reach for the God-like, Lax believed, when we act in love. A variation on pure act also served as shared code between Lax and Merton. First connected through Jester, Columbia University’s student humor magazine, they haunted New York’s jazz clubs in the 1930s. The spontaneity of jam sessions inspired their desire to improvise yet remain in harmony. Competition dissolved. “One man playing his best,” writes McGregor, “in fact, improved the playing of them all.”25 Beyond ego, pure act engendered peaceful and creative partnerships. Later, in his experiences with the circus acrobats and Greek sponge divers he befriended, Lax found the same jazz-like, spontaneous approach to life. Pure act differs from the popular notion of “mindfulness” or “be here now.” For Lax, it signaled a move beyond materialism, war, violence, and the constant striving of professional life in the US.
McGregor’s book is its own sort of jazzy pure act, carefully constructed scenes built around riffs on recurrent themes, long notes alternating with short. Lax’s poetry provides a central high note. Lines from poems sometimes serve as chapter titles. “Lo, the Sun Walks Forth,” for example, comes from an anti-war poem published in The New Yorker in 1940. “A New Poetics” explores Lax’s friendships and artistic exchanges with Jack Kerouac and abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, building toward, “A Saint of the Avant-Garde.”
McGregor departs from a common structure of artist biographies, one which Phyllis Rose delineated: the subject’s talent lies latent in childhood, an obstacle emerges, the artist breaks through to adult flowering, then onto inevitable demise. This progression was reinforced, Rose argues, by “Freudian psychology, which we must also hold responsible for the tedious way that most biographies begin with the least interesting part of a writer’s life.”26 McGregor ignores established chronology and highlights only relevant aspects of Lax’s childhood. Though his subject’s talents emerged early, his life followed an uneven, even devolutionary path. He wrote poems in high school, then for Jester at Columbia, for Jubilee and other Catholic publications, and for The New Yorker. At many points, he might have persevered with one job and succeeded in conventional terms. His journey can seem passive as he drifts from varied parts to Europe to the US and back but the internal search for pure act never wavers. McGregor details the multiple rejections from Guggenheim, from different publishers, and other failures. It’s easy to forget that such inclusions are choices; McGregor might have written the story to highlight the early success and downplay the poverty and hardship.
McGregor sets each aspect of Lax’s emergence as a writer against expansive social contexts: the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 40s; the Depression; and the period before and during World War II when he found himself at odds with family and some friends over his pacifism. The evolving literary world also takes shape against a broader backdrop. The New Yorker’s shift in focus, for example, from humor to politics emerges alongside the entrance of the US into World War II.
Pure Act also alters the point of view, shifting our collective perspective on mid-century American literary history. McGregor steers the narrative away from “major” figures like Kerouac and Merton to the ostensibly “minor” Lax. The author also underscores the unquestioned acceptance of portraits created by the already successful. Merton’s description of Lax in The Seven Storey Mountain, written years after their life at Columbia and after he entered the monastery, was skewed by time and Catholic censorship. One of the achievements of Pure Act is to make us question “major,” “success,” and other labels and given categories. McGregor’s quiet but insistent voice offers an alternative perspective on social and literary history, a dual quest narrative, and an intriguing model for literary biography.
One of the achievements of Pure Act is to make us question “major,” “success,” and other labels and given categories.
IV. A Collage at the Fictional Edge
Deborah Baker’s The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism also rests on serendipitous discovery and explores religious life but in very different ways from McGregor’s book. This unconventional biography is a multilayered portrait of Margaret Marcus, who converts from Judaism to Islam, moves from the US to Pakistan, and becomes Maryam Jameelah, a prominent spokesperson for the superiority of Islam over the West. Baker, the author of two previous biographies, creates a collage of voices, alternating archival material with her reflections on biography, truth, the history of Islam, and the US relationship with the Muslim world.
Part I, “The Marble Library,” opens with a description of the New York Public Library’s collection of Jameelah’s correspondence, visual art, and writing. Baker discovered the materials while “on the prowl” for a new biography subject. Commenting on the news photo of Jameelah’s arrival in Pakistan wearing a burqa, Baker writes, “I looked at that photograph for a long time. It was a photograph of a woman who, after a lifetime of hiding, now wanted to be seen.”27
Baker’s voice immediately establishes her quest to uncover the woman beneath the burqa. She finds in Jameelah some resonance with her own Big Questions about life and death. Baker moved on to smaller, more manageable concerns, and to poetry for answers. Yet she admired Jameelah’s resolute pursuit of the existential, even as she recoiled from her subject’s extremism and “hectoring voice.” Baker’s voice feels close and urgent, using the first person to ask hard questions and to recount her travels to Pakistan and to Jameelah’s childhood home in Mamaroneck, New York. At times Baker sympathizes with her subject; at others, she interrogates Jameelah about her radical writings and turn against the West.
The book’s three-part structure is thematic rather than chronological, organized around the extensive correspondence. The initial letter invites Jameelah to Pakistan to live with Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi, a renowned religious leader and founder of the radical Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami. It’s 1962, and Jameelah is soon writing contentedly to her family about new life in a Muslim household. This section includes background on Mawdudi and his philosophy, and discussions of Pakistani politics and US relations.
In the first section, Baker also encounters contradictions as she struggles to shape a coherent narrative. Jameelah’s letters suddenly arrive from a town outside Lahore where’s she’s been sent by Mawdudi to live with a childless couple for “rehabilitation,” then from a Pakistan mental hospital. One letter insists she’d left Mawdudi’s home of her own accord, then a later note reveals she’d been sent away after her erstwhile protector tired of her difficult presence.
Titles of chapters work on multiple levels. “Doubt” speaks to the biographer’s confusion as she confronts gaps in the story, her questions about mental illness, and to religious uncertainty surrounding the voluminous “ahadith”—stories of the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Doubt also surrounds the events of 9/11, which move Baker from anger and confusion to uncertainty about her own belief system. How had her status as a citizen of a powerful and well-armed nation shaped her? “By what mechanism did America and the world’s Muslims suddenly become each other’s evil caricature?”28
In Part II, Baker excavates Jameelah’s 1940s troubled childhood. A perennial outsider, she was drawn early on to Islam; in a favorite game, she always played the Arab. Diary entries and letters detail Jameelah’s earlier life in American mental institutions as the author builds a compelling portrait from the perplexing shards. This section’s title, “Jahiliyya: The Age of Barbarism and Ignorance,” plays with the reader’s expectations. Barbarism suggests the state of psychiatry in mid-20th-century America and in the mental hospitals that exacerbated Jameelah’s erratic behavior. But another interpretation points to Mawdudi’s sexism, which contributed to Jameelah’s banishment. She consistently contradicted Pakistani gender norms—refusing potential marriage partners Mawdudi suggested, looking men straight in the eye, even once brazenly baring her leg to ask for a razor.
Part III, “The Concrete Library,” echoes the opening at the New York Public Library but with a twist. Baker is now in Lahore, having discovered that Jameelah is still alive. Mawdudi is dead, buried behind the house said to contain a concrete-encased library of Urdu, Persian, English, and Arabic books. The library underscores Jameelah’s odd position in her adopted household, where the women shared bedrooms but she held a separate place, the book-lined corridor alongside Mawdudi’s study. The concrete encasement also stands metaphorically for varied concealments. What, Baker asks, could Jameelah really know of Mawdudi? She adds, “I asked this question equally of myself. Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi and the world he was part of seem as inaccessible as his library.”29 Jameelah in person proves equally beyond reach, at odds with the woman in the archives. When Baker finally meets her subject in a stifling attic room—an arthritic woman rocking in place—she longs to flee.
Earlier, Baker pondered how the contradictory evidence she found would affect the shape of the biography: “Every narrative possibility turns on a question of character. In this case, the characters of Mawlana Mawdudi and Maryam Jameelah. I could imagine any of these as possible scenarios, but before I could advance any further, there was one more question I was obliged to consider. Which one did I secretly want to be true?”30 It’s a question many a biographer has asked. Yoked to facts, which do we select? How do we confront our own biases? Do we ever approach the “real subject?” In an afterward published later, Baker notes Jameelah’s reaction to the book. She was, she wrote the author, “satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal,” followed by a letter to the New York Public Library asserting that the book was filled with untruths and “unfounded allegations.”31
The Convert is the most narratively inventive of the books reviewed here, “novelistic” in a different way than Harrison’s. Jameelah’s compelling story reads as smoothly as a detective tale, despite the jumps in time, integration of different sources, varied points of view, and the author’s consistent questions about her process. But the stretch toward fiction occurs on another level, too. In the final section, “A Note on Methodology,” we discover that Baker has “rewritten and greatly condensed these letters.” She adds “I have also moved an anecdote or thought from one letter to another, or taken an anecdote or thought from an essay and put it into a letter. I do not ascribe to her feelings or thoughts that she did not have. I do not make anything up.”32 Baker acknowledges that some readers may feel betrayed by her reshaping but defends her choices as a way to make narrative sense of the complex, contradictory world Jameelah’s life presented.
Baker is not the first to reorder archival material or challenge biography’s conventions. Lytton Strachey and other predecessors provoked both praise and condemnation for doing so. Even the more traditional biographer Catherine Drinker Bowen admits, “my own earlier biographies used fictional methods: with Tchaikovsky, the Rubinsteins, Holmes and Adams I transposed letters and diaries into speech and had the characters think or speak accordingly.”33 How far does the generic boundary stretch? We need to open these and other questions about truth and design to lively debate among writers, readers, and critics of biography.
Facts remain foundational, even as how we shape them shifts. In “The End of Biography,” James Atlas predicts a gradual slimming and eventual disappearance of the 800-page, fact-stuffed biographies that meet what he calls the biographer’s mandate: “to be as complete as possible.”34 Increasingly distracted audiences, as well as the demise of real letters, he laments, will change how biographies are written. But British writer Stuart Kelly argues for an escape from predictable forms. “For literary biography to survive as a genre, it ought to take its lead from literature and go even further… a life told innovatively and imaginatively holds out a lifeline to the form.”35 Facts, argues Phyllis Rose, are not the enemy. “The enemy is an Anglo-American respect for fact which makes biographers timid,” afraid to admit that no matter how fat a tome the writer produces, something gets left out.36
Biographers, like historians, make their pilfering visible with footnotes.
Writers of autobiography and memoir face the fragmented, often deceptive nature of memory as they excavate their own lives for meaning. Biographers confront an additional challenge, for a vexing question underlies Virginia Woolf’s opening query. Before writing another’s life, how does one apprehend it? Finally, after the arduous research, the culling from mountains of paper, the shaping of a narrative, how do we gauge how close we’ve come? Leon Edel suggests that biographers must be participant-observers, venturing into a “foreign” life the way ethnographers explore other cultures. Both admit that the closest they come to “native” knowledge is an approximation.
At the end of her Woolf biography, Hermione Lee stands in the garden of the house where her subject once lived. She writes, “I can allow myself to suppose that I am seeing something of what she saw. My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.”37 Regardless of the form we choose as biographers, we hope for a view that touches, however lightly, that of our subjects.
Joanne B. Mulcahy is the author of Remedios: The Healing Life of Eva Castellanoz and Writing Abroad: A Guide for Travelers (with Peter Chilson, forthcoming). Her essays have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Her current project is a biography of 20th-century artist Marion Greenwood. She teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR and The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
- Leon Edel. Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1984), pp. 31–32.
- Olga Grushin. “Leaving the Fatherland,” New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 14, 2015, p. 9.
- Stacy Schiff. “The Dual Lives of the Biographer,” The Opinionator, The New York Times online, November 24, 2012.
- Leon Edel, p. 82.
- Phyllis Rose. Writing of Women: Essays in a Renaissance (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1986), p. 75.
- Catherine Drinker Bowen. Biography: The Craft and the Calling (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1968), p. 16.
- Leon Edel, pp. 175–176.
- Paula R. Backscheider. Reflections on Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 181.
- Linda Gordon. Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2009), p. xix.
- Ibid., p. 263.
- Ibid., p. 236.
- Ibid., p. 239.
- Ibid., p. 336.
- Ibid., p. xviii.
- Leon Edel, p. 176.
- Kathryn Harrison. Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured (New York: Random House, 2014), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 264.
- Ibid., p. 43.
- Ibid., p. 114.
- Ibid., pp. 147–48.
- Leon Edel, p. 181.
- Kathryn Harrison, p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Michael N. McGregor. Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), p. 9.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Phyllis Rose, p. 76.
- Deborah Baker. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism (Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf Press, 2011), p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 59.
- Ibid., p. 172.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- Deborah Baker, “The Subject Talks Back,” The Paris Review, July 7, 2011.
- Baker, The Convert, p. 225.
- Catherine Drinker Bowen, p. 97.
- James Atlas, “The End of Biography,” The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 2014.
- Stuart Kelly, The Guardian, “Biography’s Victorian values: why do modern Lives adhere to a 19th-century model?” Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014.
- Phyllis Rose, 81.
- Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 761.
Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine
My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27. Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.
I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue. If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at email@example.com
Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.
To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.
Ann Curry, Susan Orlean and a Dry Martini: The Interview as Conversation — Writing About Others #3
I’m thinking today about interviewing. The first person I ever interviewed as a journalist was the principal of my high school, who moonlighted as a referee for what was then Pac-8 football and had been selected to officiate in the upcoming Rose Bowl game, a singular honor. I was just a scared little student but he treated me with respect, answering all of my questions with patience. I suppose I learned two things that day: that journalism opens doors, and that interviewing is mostly about two people talking.
I learned the principles of interviewing from my favorite professor in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism, Ken Metzler, who wrote a book called Creative Interviewing. Metzler liked to tell a story about Ann Curry, the former host of NBC’s “Today” show, who was two years ahead of me in school. Curry, Metzler said, went to interview a prominent woman while still in school and was dissatisfied with how the conversation was going so she suggested they go to a nearby coffee shop to talk more. There, while gesturing, Curry spilled her coffee. “Mortified,” Metzler writes in his book, “she thought she had blown the interview. But, to her astonishment, the woman began talking more candidly.”
What Curry discovered that day, I discovered later: that interviewing usually goes best when the pressure of doing an interview is gone. To put people at ease, I’ve interviewed them while jogging, walking through a museum, building a theater set, and inspecting a building site. This kind of casual interviewing is one of the keys to New Yorker profile writer Susan Orlean’s success. She starts her research of a profile subject by simply hanging around, asking the questions that arise naturally and letting what happens determine the direction of the conversation.
In his otherwise interesting and entertaining book Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, Stephen Miller states that “an interview is not a conversation” because it has a purpose: to elicit information. Yet his definition of conversation—a witty exchange that happens naturally, giving pleasure to all involved—is certainly possible in interviewing. The best interviews I’ve done have come from being prepared, of course, but also from being willing to indulge in an exchange of ideas, personal disclosure and even prolonged asides. My subject will surely say more than me and I’ll make sure I ask the important questions, but our interaction will be as close as possible to the conversation of friends or maybe strangers who meet in an intimate environment.
Good reporting—and, in the end, good writing—comes from recognizing that interviewing and every other aspect of writing about other people is a human activity. This point was driven home to me one night in Manhattan when I’d gone to interview an old friend of my book’s subject, Robert Lax. I’d mistaken the location of the man’s address, thinking it was close to one subway stop and discovering only after I’d gone there that it was somewhere else. To get to the right location, I had to walk through rain that became a downpour. When I arrived, late and drenched, the man took one look at me and asked if I needed a martini.
Martinis in hand, we sat in his comfortable living room and I took out my recorder. He was as kind and solicitous as he could be, but when I asked my first question, he said he didn’t remember. I tried another and got the same response. When he shook his head at the third one, perplexed and sorry, I realized that he had simply grown too old to remember things that happened so long ago.
He was a delightful man, however, so I put my pad and recorder away and just enjoyed the experience: the dryness of the apartment, the martini and his still-lively wit. One of the things we talked about was his love of dance, and when I got up to go, he said the next time I came to New York we’d have to go dancing together. I still think of that evening as one of my best interviews ever.
We Want the Omelette: Writing About Others #2
This morning I was looking at a book by Ira Bruce Nadel called Biography: Fiction, Fact & Form, published in the mid-1980s, when a number of books about writing biography appeared, perhaps because Leon Edel, the influential biographer of William James, had published a book called The Poetics of Biography in 1977. I’ve only dipped into Nadel’s book but I like what I’ve read so far. Early on, he writes: “The need to understand the literary techniques and strategies of biography parallels its emergence today as perhaps the most popular, widely-read body of non-fiction writing.” His three epigraphs foreshadow his belief that biography is an art and should be more seriously studied as such:
“Facts related to the past, when they are collected without art, are compilations; and compilations no doubt may be useful; but they are no more History than butter, eggs, salt and herbs are an omelette.” —Lytton Strachey
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that’s all. There are no beginnings…But everything changes when you tell about life; it’s a change no one notices: the proof is that people talk about true stories. As if there could possible be true stories; things happen one way and we tell about them in the opposite sense.” —Jean-Paul Sartre
“The biographer, after all, is as much of a storyteller as the novelist or historian.” —Leon Edel
The art of biography lies in the interpretation of the facts discovered, Nadel says, and also in the choice of form and language. “No biographer merely records a life,” he writes. “Every biographer, no matter how objective he declares himself, interprets a life.” And as soon as a writer “becomes conscious of language, conscious of how it alters what he describes from a factual representation to an independent verbal object, he transforms his craft into an art.”
When I teach profile writing, I always tell my students that the profile they write is not the one true story to be told about their subject but rather a description of an encounter. Preparation and interpretation are part of what results, but so are the writer’s interests and knowledge, facility with words and mastery of tone and metaphor. There’s even a huge dose of randomness: we learn one fact but not another, we interview our subject on a day she’s feeling well or ill, a friend will talk to us but not a family member. In the end, we make the best sense we can of what we have.
As Nadel says, narrative is central to how we write about others, and narrative has “properties other than that of recording events.” There is voice in narrative and point of view, a sense, however muted, of the narrator’s perspective, personality and understanding. The corrective to this (if one is needed) should be a more explicit laying out of bias and approach rather than the faux-objective voice and stance so many profile writers and biographers adopt.
“Those who accept language as a transparent medium of representation and believe that if they only use the right word for describing an event the meaning will be clear, illustrate an inadequate sense of the creative nature of language and its role in biography,” Nadel writes. “Such empiricists, who place their faith in language for conveying fact, write biographies of maximum detail and minimal interpretation, believing the latter to be the function of some other form of composition. But the principal interest in biography, the reason for its popularity with authors as well as readers, remains its ability to provide meaning for an individual’s life, transmitting personality and character through prose.”
In other words, we want the omelette. And to get it, we need writers who know how to cook.
Do You Have the Right to Write About Her?
I’ve committed myself to posting one entry a week on memoir and one on writing about others for the next two months. Although I’ll be reading books about both subjects during that time, my plan is to concentrate on my own thoughts. I want to see what I can puzzle out. What questions come. I’m hoping to find intersections and exclusions: thoughts about one that are applicable to the other, and thoughts that aren’t.
My first entry each week, appearing on Monday (I hope), will be about memoir, and I’ve already made that entry this week. So here I’ll concentrate on writing about others. I want to start with something memoir-related, however: writing about family. This is the place where memoir and writing about others most often intersect. Virtually every memoir about childhood paints a picture of one or more parents in some way, and many paint profiles of siblings too.
In my classes on personal writing, I always tell my students, “Be careful about bringing parents into your writing. They have a tendency to take over.” This warning comes from experience–from seeing a brief mention of a father in a personal essay, for example, prompt a class full of readers and would-be critics to beg or even demand to learn more. Maybe we’re all just Freudian after all, believing that childhood experiences and relationships determine who we become. It seems more likely, though, that writing about parents is simply more highly charged than writing about anyone else. And once a reader feels that emotional charge, she hungers for more.
Most books that deal with writing about others focus primarily on biographies of people already dead. They talk about going to archives and interviewing survivors. They discuss the need to interpret a writer’s thoughts based on her works or a politician’s values based on his actions. They recommend researching and recreating the times in which your subject lived. And some, if they’re good ones, talk about how to bring your subject to life on the page. What they don’t discuss is how to think and write about someone with whom you’ve had an actual encounter.
The thing is, it’s easy to form opinions and settle on themes when you’re writing about someone you’ve had no relation to. You can treat that person as history, a collection of facts and writings and relationships with other dead people. But what if you’ve seen a person alive? What if you’ve witnessed his or her actions and words over time? What if that person had a great influence on your own life, for better or ill? How do you separate your own strong feelings from what someone else might call “the facts”? In the case of a parent, how do you distinguish your own development from the independent changes that person might have been going through at the same time?
I struggled with most of these questions while writing my biography Pure Act, in which I was writing about a man I loved who taught me much. They loom even larger as I embark on a memoir in which my mother’s life and death play a significant role. To some degree, they are questions of fairness, and they aren’t asked often enough about memoir or about writing about others, whether that writing be profiles or even biographies of the dead.
As I write these entries over the next two months, I expect this question of giving others a voice in the telling of their own stories to regularly pop up, along with an even larger question: In this age when every form of supposed appropriation is suspect, do we have the right to tell another person’s story at all?
Last Portland PURE ACT Reading at 6:30 p.m. This Tuesday, February 23…and Future Plans
After over 30 readings and other appearances over the past few months, I’m down to my last scheduled talk. It will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, in room 333, Smith Memorial Union, on the Portland State University campus. If you live in the Portland area, please join us. To mark the occasion, we’ll have copies of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax available at a discounted price.
A big thank you to those who came to last week’s readings in the Bay Area, where a standing-room-only crowd listened to poet John Beer, author S. T. Georgiou and me talk about our friendship with Robert Lax at City Lights Books in San Francisco, and another good crowd heard me read from Pure Act at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.
Among those in attendance at City Lights were Gerald Nicosia, one of Jack Kerouac’s biographers, and Mike Antonucci, a Bay Area journalist who is the nephew of Lax’s first publisher and close friend, Emil Antonucci. It was fun for me to read a passage from my book about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a space where their spirits lingered.
My readings around the country have kept me from writing as much on this blog as I would have liked, and now that they’re over, I hope to write more. Starting some time in March, I plan to try a unique experiment. I’ll be teaching two courses in memoir writing while working on a memoir of my own AND a book on writing about other people. I’m planning to make two posts a week from my research and thinking, one on memoir and one on writing about others (biography). It will be interesting to contemplate how these two types of writing, one looking inward and the other outward, parallel and diverge.
Questioning Conventional Approaches To Writing About People
This posting comes from a journal entry I made on July 14, 2013, shortly after I began the final revision of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. I had just read the second of two books by prominent biographers about their craft, part of my early research for the book I’m working on now: about the history, process and ethics of writing about people. As you’ll see, I was already having doubts about conventional approaches to biography:
“What surprised me about the book was how fairly shallow the author’s thinking was. There was plenty of researched detail but the conclusions were all conventional. It’s as if those who think about biography are willing to explore only a limited range of thoughts, most of which deal with the practice of writing biography, not the larger questions the act of writing about others raises, such as: Why do we write about others in the ways we do? What does it mean to take responsibility for defining another person’s time on this earth? What obligations do we bear when we appropriate the creation and presentation of another person’s identity? What are we ethically bound to reveal about ourselves in the process?
“This latest (and I hope last) revision of the Lax book is bring my own thoughts on these questions to the surface. I feel more comfortable now that I’ve brought myself into the story. I tried to keep myself out, thinking I was somehow being truer to Lax’s story by not entangling it with mine. I see now that by stepping more fully into the book, I’m giving the reader a better reason to be interested in Lax’s story and being more honest in a way, showing my biases.
“I’ve begun to look at the book quite differently. Instead of a chronological movement through Lax’s life, I’ve begun to see my project as a pile of material drawn from the different parts of his life that I need to arrange in a way that will interest my reader. Whereas I moved through his life in a straightforward fashion in my previous drafts, now I’m using the story of my interactions with him as the organizing element, pulling in information from the different periods of his life as it fits this scheme. So my curiosity and developing understanding of him over the years propel the story forward, and elements such as his ancestry come in where they are necessary to satisfy that curiosity or further that understanding.
“Put another way: I didn’t learn about Lax’s ancestry until I’d known him quite a while, so it doesn’t need to be at the beginning of the story. Putting it at the beginning means taking on a God-like role, suggesting that you can step back and impartially observe the sweep of a human life. Letting that information come in at a more natural place and speaking of what I’ve learned about it more provisionally allows the story to feel more natural. Isn’t that how we learn about people ordinarily in life? We don’t learn someone’s ancestry when we first meet him. Generally we learn the most interesting bits and pieces of his life, the stories he knows are good stories to tell, before our curiosity and a deepening trust allow us to delve deeper. That’s more the way I’m trying to tell the story now.
“My models for this approach aren’t the biographies I’ve read (other than A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo, perhaps, or maybe Boswell’s Life of Johnson) but novels such as The Great Gatsby, Zorba the Greek and maybe Lord Jim, in which an embodied narrator talks about a person he’s met and come to know better over time.
“Edmund Morris must have had a similar impulse when he created his fictional witness for Dutch. It’s related, too, to what one of my students said after reading George Plimpton’s book about Capote, which is a pastiche of commentary on Capote from various people who knew him or had dealings with him. She liked this approach to biography, she said, because it seemed less artificially mediated. Instead of working to create a composed (and imposed) structure, the person compiling the biography allows those who knew the subject to give their testimony, their perspective, with the compiler only correcting errors and arranging the various commentaries into a natural progression.
“In using this more natural approach, I’m going back to the roots of writing about people, which is talking about people—gossip and then legend and then myth. Myth or legend doesn’t have to be about someone great or powerful or even ancient. It only has to be about someone interesting.”
Judases, Jackals or Just Curious Souls?
Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Every great man has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” I came across this barb in a book by biographer Michael Holroyd while researching attitudes and approaches to writing about people. Wilde, of course, knew he was destined to become the subject (or, as he might have said, the target) of someone’s research someday. Not only was he an important literary figure but he challenged his society’s norms and had enough skeletons in his closet to cast the fight scene in Jason and the Argonauts (if you haven’t seen it, look it up: it gave me nightmares as a child in 1963).
Other writers have been equally brutal in their depictions of biographers, even those like Henry James who believed we need to know about an author’s life to fully appreciate his writings. James’s bête noire was the snoop who seeks to go where the work doesn’t go, prying into hidden letters and private moments that have little to do with art. The salacious scribblings of these pretenders, he wrote, are “the trivial playing at the serious.” Before he died, he burned as many of his papers as he could. Even so, Leon Edel managed to find enough material to write a five-volume version of James’s life. Edel took his work seriously enough to win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, but he enjoyed the game of it as well: the scavenger hunt, the hide-and-seek.
Two things have particularly surprised me in my research: How vituperative some writers are at the mere mention of biography, and how defensive biographers are about what they do. I’ve looked at hundreds of books and essays by biographers about biography. A disturbing number begin with a defensive stance or, more alarming still, an admission that what biographers do is indefensible. These guilty souls pour their sins out on the page. Then, like Catholics coming from confession, they go out and sin again. As if researching biographies is like crack addiction. Or maybe serial killing.
And perhaps it is. It’s certainly obsessive and some people are more susceptible to it than others. It is often done in dingy and bad-smelling places. And there is definitely a high each time you find that vein, that mother lode, that deed or line or tryst that seems to explain the previously inexplicable or opens up new areas of inquiry.
I tend to think, however (maybe because my first biography will soon be published) that most biographers are less interested in finding dirt or getting thrills than simply learning about people. Especially people similar to them who have been more successful or better known or more intriguing in some other way. They want to know what makes these people tick, at least in part because they want to know what motivates and shapes themselves.
Yes, there are those who want only to pin Gulliver to the ground or, like the jackal, eviscerate the mighty lion. And yes, even the best-intentioned biographers love to open long-sealed letters or listen to what no one can pretend is anything but gossip. But we live our lives surrounded by strange, mysterious beings. We observe them and we listen to them. We wonder why they said or did that. And even the best of us, including those self-righteous writers who dismiss biographers as scum, evaluate and sometimes judge others—to learn from them and be inspired, to see life differently and maybe change, to be amused and entertained by them, and yes, to shake our heads at cautionary tales…or just to feel superior.
Fragile, Ephemeral and Precious
The publication of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, on September 1 this year, marks the culmination of 14 years of research and writing about the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known. I met Lax on the Greek island of Patmos in 1985, when I was 27 and he was 69, and exactly how we met was extraordinary too. (You’ll find that story in my book. ) We became friends immediately and he impressed me from the first, but I didn’t consider writing about him until ten years later.
Even then, I wrote only a single article. It ended up in Poets & Writers, though, as my first national publication, and the response made me think his story might interest others too. I wrote only two other pieces on him before he died in 2000, but in 2001, having become a professor of nonfiction writing, I thought I should probably write a nonfiction book. (I’d pinned my publication hopes on a novel before that.) Pure Act was the result.
Never having written a biography, I gave myself three years. But Lax was not a man who moved swiftly and it seemed a book about him was destined to develop slowly too. My first research trip to his hometown of Olean, NY, where one of his archives is located, was interrupted by 9/11. The next time I went there, the TV was filled with news of Abu Ghraib. My first visit to his other archives, at Columbia University in New York City, was tragedy-free, but when I returned the following year, having secured a friend’s apartment for a full month, I ruptured my Achilles playing basketball my first day there. I had to return home and wait the long months for it to heal.
During the years I worked on Pure Act, the U.S. entered and ended two wars and I suffered not only an Achilles rupture but a torn meniscus, a shattered kneecap and more cuts and aches requiring stitches or physical therapy than I want to admit. I took comfort only in hearing other biographers say their projects had taken as long or longer.
I want to warn anyone thinking of starting a biography to do something–anything–else. Something you can finish in a year…or five. But then I think of the exciting discoveries I made in letters and journals no one but Lax had read. And the ways being steeped in his ideas and decisions influenced my own thinking, even the course of my life. And the people I met who told me intimate and heartfelt things they’d never said to anyone.
Writing about a person’s life means lifting and holding things fragile, ephemeral and precious. You probably shouldn’t hurry with actions like that. You shouldn’t be anxious to have them end either. Even if your reward is a book, solid and heavy in your hands.