Another Perspective

A Golden Age of Biography

In an era lacking great narrative history, biography fills the void.

By 3.16.07

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"Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory," said Disraeli.

The English-speaking world at least has taken this advice to heart. It is awash with many great writers and avid readers of fine biographies. Since the Second World War, there has been a remarkable effusion of excellent, thoroughly researched, and well-written portraits of numerous inspiring and repellant personalities that embody the crooked timber of our shared humanity.

This realization struck me as I wandered through the local book emporium, calculating the significant sum I was contemplating spending on just two recent, promising biographies now on the shelves. Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy and William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism by Robert D. Richardson had my name all over them. But the bill, even with the ten percent discount, was a bit pricey; and the Lenten season was upon us. I hadn't given up book buying this year, but the penitential spirit weighed into the decision nonetheless.

My wife was waiting for me in the car, and I feared I could not justify this expenditure given the stacks of books, still unread, accumulating back at the house. She might raise the most dreaded question that can ever be asked of an unregenerate bibliophile, the question to which there is simply no good answer: Can't you get that book at the local library?

Book buying is an addiction, either positive or negative, depending on your perspective. Remember when the paperback version of the 9/11 Commission report hit the bookstands before the hard copy? It was a real dilemma. Do you buy the hard copy even though the soft copy came out first? There could be a real question as to the authentic first edition. After conferring with a friend, similarly afflicted, we agreed that the only solution was to buy both!

So many books. So little time -- and money. But the subject is biography, and I digress.

AS DISRAELI CORRECTLY NOTED, studying an individual life in detail requires an appreciation of the concrete realities of human existence, lived in a given time and place, with unique circumstances never to be duplicated (pace Nietzsche's "eternal return"). While rarely directly transferable to the current scene, there are lessons to be learned from the lives of our predecessors, often surprising, cautionary, or suggestive.

Robert K. Massie's magisterial Peter the Great (1980) epitomizes the rich learning and understanding that can be derived from a first-class biography that is illuminating, but not dispositive, of the issues of the day. Given our current relations with Russia, its popular (for the Russians anyway) authoritarian leader, and its strategic location vis-a-vis the Muslim world, Massie's book is a masterful portrait of an autocrat trying to modernize, through brute force and force of will, a society uncongenial to Western mores. It also provides the long view of Russia's conflicts with the depredations of the Ottoman Empire.

As a bonus Peter the Great also contains a biography within a biography in the life of Peter's mortal enemy, the remarkable Charles XII of Sweden, who spent almost his entire young life at war, ultimately destroying his army and his empire in the process.

Massie's excellent biography might seem an entirely arbitrary choice, but that illustrates my point. Any dedicated reader can select from a seemingly endless selection of outstanding biographies available in English: Foster on Yeats, Gilbert and Manchester on Churchill, Morris on Theodore Roosevelt, M. Jackson Bate on Samuel Johnson, Stannard on Waugh, Weigel on John Paul II. You can also match up biographies of past adversaries such as Robert Blake on Disraeli and Roy Jenkins on Gladstone, two excellent works published twenty-eight years apart. You can do the same with Luther and Ignatius of Loyola both of whom have numerous admiring or disparaging biographies reflecting the perspectives of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.

You can read biographies of landscape architects, artists, composers (Edmund Morris's recent short volume on Beethoven is delightful), the first Jesuit into China, and any number of knaves, adventurers, con artists, and criminals including scores of studies on Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

To celebrate the greatest of feast days, you can even learn the story of the authentic St. Patrick, the Romanized Briton, who after being kidnapped and enslaved, experienced a spiritual awakening, escaped his captors, walked across Ireland, sailed back home, and then returned to Christianize the Irish, God save us, without the benefit of snakes, shamrocks, and green beer.

You can also absorb the works of wonderful serial biographers such as Antonia Fraser who has published biographies of Mary Queen of Scots, Cromwell, and Marie Antoinette, or Claire Tomalin who has written on Hardy, Pepys, Austen, Mansfield, Shelly, and Wollstonecraft. The list goes on and on as shall I.

CONSIDER THE CURRENT RUN of excellent works on the Founding Fathers. Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Adams, and, of course, Washington have merited the attention of multiple biographers for decades. There is no let up on the fine biographies issuing forth on these worthy subjects. And Abraham Lincoln has generated his own legion of chroniclers as has Robert E. Lee and even the tormented Jefferson Davis.

Again, while the reader might disagree with a given biographer's interpretation of his subject's life, the research and writing is usually first-rate. And you can always try another until you find one that suits your fancy.

I have discovered a bit of tarnish on this golden age of biography, in the nasty piece of work inflicted on the great American novelist, Willa Cather, by the denizens of literary theory, Freudianism, multiculturalism, feminism, and sexual politics.

Most readers might perceive Cather as a Catholic-sympathizing Episcopalian, realistic-even pessimistic-about human behavior but devoted to traditional norms. However, many academics project their postmodern prejudices on this estimable writer.

To her eternal credit, Joan Acocella of the New Yorker, wrote an excellent essay, later a short book, rescuing Cather from the ravages of literary critics, left and right, who try to appropriate this great artist for their narrow ideological agendas:

The parade of American literature goes by, float after float: realism, naturalism, psychological novel, social novel, political novel. Cather belongs with none of them, which means either that she is left out or, if she is desperately needed, that she is forced at gunpoint to put on a paper hat and join a group in which she has no place. Hence her uneasy standing with the feminists. She is not one of them, and they know it. That's why they don't like her.

Cather deserves a first-rate, contemporary biography more in line with Disraeli's definition. However, James Woodress's Willa Cather: A Literary Life (1987) is a serviceable work on the subject.

Besides liberating the reader from the strictures of theory, biography provides a delightful means of studying history, accessible to the intelligent general or lay reader who may not have the time or inclination to master the more daunting tomes of professional, academic historians immersed in the minutiae and jargon of their profession.

Our age has lost the art of great narrative history. Biography has filled the void. The finest biographies provide a historical, social, and cultural tapestry, a backdrop or context, for the individual life which is its subject. Again, reading Massie on Peter the Great transports the reader back to a time in which the beauty and barbarity of an almost medieval society contrasted sharply with Western Europe at that time.

For the inveterate reader, with the interest but not the time to study history, there is no greater enjoyment than to immerse himself in the life of an emblematic personage of any age.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.