Putting the “I” in Biography
John Kaag on Biography-Memoir Hybrids and the Myth of Objectivity
At the beginning of Walden, published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau makes what he assumes is a bold admission: “In most books, the I is omitted, in this it will be retained … ” Today, in our age of over-sharing, this remark makes little sense. Ours is the age of memoir—both serious and trivial. There are, however, intellectual disciplines in which the “I” is still prohibited. Biography, history, philosophy—these are supposed to be objective fields. Writers who dare to use personal pronouns in these fields risk being personally censured. But over the years, I have come to think that while the risk may be great, so too—sometimes—is the reward.
Why include the “I”? After all, I am directing this writing, whatever it happens to be, to “you,” the reader. If I think what I am writing is true of human beings generally, I can do without reference to my own personal experience; if what I’m writing about is peculiar to me, it is at least a bit presumptuous and perhaps downright boorish (and maybe worse, downright boring) to talk all about me. “Nobody wants to hear about you, John,” my grandfather, a salesman, used to say, “but anyone will pay you to listen to him talk about himself.” This might be true, but occasionally authors can, and should, speak explicitly for themselves. This lesson has spawned a sub-discipline of anthropology, autoethnography, in which an author employs introspection in order to understand and present a cultural or social phenomenon. But this approach has been slower to catch on in history, philosophy, and literary studies. There are, however, several notable exceptions.
In 1992, Nicholson Baker wrote U and I, a short confession of his love-hate relationship with John Updike. Baker offers interesting vignettes of Updike, but, more importantly, a sense of how a truly famous author touched a (somewhat jealous) contemporary. Indeed, Baker and Updike share many things—most notably a meticulous attention to detail and fluid prose—and we get to know Updike’s writing better, more intimately, as Baker gives us something of himself. In short, Baker’s sometimes-embarrassing personal approach gives us the Updike as he understands him, which is to say, as a semi-neurotic fan understands him. Fast-forward nearly 20 years, to the publishing of Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, Geoff Dyer’s memoir about not writing a book about D.H. Lawrence. Dyer’s procrastination and ambivalence about the project—expressed as an incisive memoir about the nature of art and writing—reveals the hidden Lawrence, the one reflected in partial (unfinished) manuscripts and insane (but meaningful) misadventures. And Janet Malcolm’s brilliant meta-biography of Silvia Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman, simultaneously interrogates two lives while struggling openly with the best way to do so. Malcolm is “right there” with Plath and Hughes to the very end. All of these authors produce genre-transgressing works: biographies about writers, by writers, writing about themselves. Or memoirs by writers, writing biographies about other authors.
These types of books have always fascinated me. Indeed they were no small inspiration for the half-memoir, half American intellectual history that I wrote last fall (American Philosophy: A Love Story published with Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Dyer, particularly, led me back to Thoreau and to the question that continues to bother historians and critics: to what extent should we show ourselves in the course of writing history or biography? So I began to ask a number of seasoned historians precisely this question.
I started with Thoreau biographer, Robert Richardson, who observed that, “Every book is personal, but not every person is interesting.” In writing Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, he realized that, “I’m not interesting enough to stand myself up beside Henry, and that’s alright. I’m there behind the sentences, admiring him in the best language I can muster. That’s enough for me.” There is an admirable modesty in this self-assessment, but are there times when an author is permitted to emerge from behind the sentences?
“Every book is personal, but not every person is interesting.”
This is what I asked Laura Dassow Walls, Professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of Thoreau: A Life, to be published this July. “My own approach,” Walls explained, “is not to become ‘personal’—like Thoreau and Emerson. I resist confession—but I do want my reader to know what they read is by an author, writing—with commitments, beliefs, passions, and, no doubt, blind spots.” This commitment led Walls to write her account of Thoreau, one that is likely to become the gold standard of Thoreau biographies “almost like a novel, carefully staged and plotted, with characters, settings, dialogue (through quotations), and so on, but keeping the narrator very much off-stage.” As this novelist-historian, Walls “speak[s] through the way [she] assembles Thoreau’s world and put it into motion.”
But isn’t history supposed to be “objective?” I asked. Isn’t history and biography supposed to be a direct and accurate representation of life in every detail? Well, not exactly. “I was heavily influenced,” Walls explains, “by the concept of ‘situated knowledge,’ and fascinated by the question of objectivity, including debates over how it has shifted over the centuries. The notion that literature is ‘subject-ive’ and science is ‘object-ive’ is a very Romantic one, a product of a shift, starting with Coleridge.” This division, however, now subdivides the disciplines of history, biography, and philosophy. In each discipline factions have formed, unified in particular beliefs about the status of the personal in their respective intellectual discourses. C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”—between subjective literature and objective science—stands to partition history itself, dividing those that eschew the personal in their writing and those who don’t.
For Walls, however, this distinction between methods is distracting if not destructive. “Most literary students,” she remarked, “come to my classes wanting to grapple with questions of “subjectivity,” or how the ‘I’ is constructed. But I find the question of ‘objectivity’ far more paradoxical and rich; I want to know how the object has been constructed.” Wall’s interest in the construction of objectivity over time, points to what is now a well-worn debate in post-modern theory over who is doing the constructing. Traditionally, it’s been men—the idea that “objective” history is always “his”-story—which might explain why Dyer, Baker, and other male writers have had the nerve to write themselves into the lives and writings of their subjects. It also might indicate why Malcolm’s writing is so rare and important.
Despite the dangers of doing so, Megan Marshall takes this memoir-cum-biography approach in her original study of Elizabeth Bishop, entitled A Miracle for Breakfast, published earlier this winter with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Marshall won the Pulitzer Prize for her traditional biography of Margaret Fuller, but she didn’t always want to write non-fiction. In the 1970s, as an undergraduate at Harvard, she wanted to be a poet. Elizabeth Bishop was her teacher. So Marshall broke protocol, made like Thoreau, and used the “I,” developing a biography with two narrative lines—a central stream that details Bishop’s life, another written in the first-person that occasionally flows into the central current.
Before proceeding, in the interest of full, autobiographical disclosure, let me say that my account of Marshall’s approach may be compromised by the fact that she favorably reviewed my American Philosophy: A Love Story, that we agree on many things, that I regard her as a friend. In other words, this may not be an “objective” treatment. But maybe the best that one can do is be forthright about it.
“In the discipline of history, women continue to be marginalized, both as subjects of history and as authors who are worth citing.”
Marshall recognized the chance that she was taking in writing this sort of book. In the discipline of history, women continue to be marginalized, both as subjects of history and as authors who are worth citing, and this may extend to women authors’ willingness and ability to interject themselves, as Dyer and Baker did, into the biographical stories they wish to tell. In other words, not only is there always the possibility of being perceived as self-indulgent, but this particular hazard is greater, perhaps far greater, for women authors who traditionally have been dissuaded from including their narratives in the arch of history. Marshall, however, took the risk and produced a book about how poetry can emerge from life, or rather from two adjacent lives.
“I can’t imagine doing anything quite like this again,” Marshall admitted in a recent conversation, after the reviews from the New York Times and Harvard Magazine criticized her book for including personal anecdotes about her time with the Poet Laureate. “The situation was unique—I don’t have any other subjects like this up my sleeve! That same uniqueness, though, made me feel this was a book I had to write, was destined to write. It came as a gift, as all biographies do—the gift of the subject’s diaries, letters, published work. But in this case, there was a matching gift in my own life experience, lesser but important to me, and that I believed would amplify Bishop’s essentially tragic life story (except for the miraculous poems that came out of it).” Marshall made it very clear that her own story was secondary to Bishop’s, that one of the real dangers of writing this way was to allow one’s sense of self to dominate the subject at hand. Indeed, at one moment in a recent interview conducted by email, she brushed off her own stories as “moments of comic relief” in an otherwise somber tale of artistry and self-destruction. But this sells short the effect of Marshall’s autobiographical remarks.
In one scene from Marshall’s book, Elizabeth Bishop reads “The Moose” to a gathering of the Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1972. For Bishop, this is a twilight homecoming, and she reads a poem (one that took her 25 years to finish) about the past that conjures up the grandparents who gave her the home that she loved and lost, which may be part of what brings her “this sweet sensation of joy” mentioned in the poem. In another scene, Marshall is at a similar Phi Beta Kappa meeting, but five years later, at her own graduation. She is in the dawn, rather than the twilight, of her life. She has just been ejected from her home, and listens to a Robert Penn Warren poem, which resonates with the “you-can-never-go-back-again” feeling she harbors. Toggling back to Bishop’s life, it is interesting and important that this sense of estrangement was the underlying emotional current of the poet’s life up until the reading of “The Moose,” a psychological disposition that a reader comes to feel through the experiences of both women.
The juxtaposition of the two Phi Beta Kappa meetings serves another vital function. The desire for homecoming drives many authors—poets, novelists, biographers—and the dual narrative allows Marshall to present simultaneously this existential need and the possibility of its fulfillment. The sense of personal possibility, the possibility afforded by poetry and history, is not restricted to Bishop’s story of genius, but opens out by virtue of Marshall’s autobiographical reflections. Poetry’s importance in everyday life, not only in the life of a poet-savant: this is what Marshall’s personal approach to Bishop seeks to revive. Marshall’s identification with a great author is not presumptuous (for many reasons) and is genuinely instructive. Readers of the biography are meant to understand the power of verse from the inside, regardless of whether they win the Nobel Prize.
Most popular biographies—the ones about Churchill, or Roosevelt, or Queen Elizabeth—are written from an objective distance. When this perspective succeeds, we call it “critical” distance, but in many cases it is merely distance—an impersonal remove from potentially touching topic. This wasn’t always the case. The Life of Samuel Johnson was a “parlor window” biography, a personal portrait, written by an intimate, James Boswell. But as biographies proliferated, and the demand for comprehensiveness became increasingly taxing, authors were tempted to assume, or feign to assume, a God’s eye view in the hope that they might still lay claim to a definitive or exhaustive account.
This is one way that good biographies go bad—by following what Marshall calls the “no postcard-unturned school” of biography. If the intent of a biography is principally quantitative—to transcribe every archive, to capture all the particularities of a hero or heroine’s life—something important is still potentially lost. Readers get more detailed genealogies, more important dates, more famous anecdotes, but, for the most part, from an aerial view. These sorts of books may inform, but rarely move, their readers. They lack the subjective, and unifying, “inside” of life. Objective perspectives are best assumed when one is examining an object—like a corpse. Not a life.
“A good biography is an accurate, instructive, but also vividly realized animation of a past life,” Marshall explained. This “animation of a past life” is the strange and very difficult task of artistic resurrection. The reader has the rare opportunity to live through someone else, and the subject of a biography—a figure from the distant past—lives on in the author and the reader. None of this can be conveyed by merely a series of, even interesting, facts. The 20th century American philosopher, William Ernest Hocking, explained that “a good biography must be something better than faithful to fact: it is a work of art and imagination.” Sometimes the artist’s hand is obvious, sometimes it is subtle, but in either case it remains forever present. “The presence of the biographer in the narrative is important,” Marshall reflected, “I like to sense the biographer sifting the evidence, evaluating, helping us understand, though usually in the background.” But some biographies are different; sometimes the author’s life is necessarily foregrounded. It becomes, literally, in the words of R.G. Collingwood, “a re-enactment of past thought in the historian’s own mind.”
“Objective perspectives are best assumed when one is examining an object—like a corpse. Not a life.”
Marshall has spent most of her academic life writing about women writers: how they come of age; how their skills developed; how their ambitions were stifled; how they ultimately succeeded, or didn’t, and rarely in the ways they had intended. Marshall, like Bishop, is one of these writers, a fact that becomes very clear in the two-fold narrative of A Miracle for Breakfast. “Women writing all began as girls reading. I was such a girl.” Marshall told me, explaining the structure of the book. “All the books I loved growing up, and hence the narratives that were laid down in my head and heart, were about bookish girls with ambitions and powerful imaginations developed through reading. Often that imaginative girl’s ambition was to become a writer. This is the story I love to tell and find in the lives of real women, although it exists only as a very deep diapason in my books.” Diapason: a concord or basic harmony that runs through all the notes. This is what truly great biographies and memoirs provide: an internal thread that courses from beginning to end, like a life.
Bishop once told Marshall that there is no such thing as “creative writing.” There’s just writing, and all writing is creative. Similarly, all writing is personal. Authors spend their lives doing it, and work themselves out over the page. This is as true for history and biography as any other form of writing. Yes, even instruction manuals and advertisements are personal, but under the guise of impersonality. Aristotle once claimed that history was less serious than poetry since it expressed only the dead particularities of the past while poetry expressed possibility and universality. But some histories, particularly the personal histories of artists and writers, suggest that Aristotle wasn’t exactly right about this.
“The writing of this book felt as much like writing a poem as crafting a 300-page book could possibly be,” Marshall admitted at last. “I had a greater stake in this one than my other books, and the structure—the sestina motif—and the turning of my own life experience into a narrative, was thrilling every minute. I wrote the book in the order in which you read it, skipping in and out of Bishop’s life and mine, and just hoping the doubled narratives would work.” Sometimes history and poetry, the factual and the profoundly personal, can meet and be expressed, in order to create something genuinely new. When it does it sounds like striking two prongs that vibrate at a single pitch. Some people call this a tuning fork. Others call it a diapason.