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~ Writing a Biography ~ STALKING THE ELEPHANTAbout Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

BAREFOOT IN THE ARCHIVE

In my report on a lecture given by biographer Richard Holmes, I didn't mention that at one point he recalled arriving in a downpour for a discussion at the famous but notoriously mud-soaked Hay-on-Wye literary festival in Wales and being greeted by a moderator who said to him, in a lilting Welsh accent, “Ah, Mr. Holmes. Fine weather for biographers! Plenty of feet of clay!”

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     It wasn't exactly clear whether the target of this whimsical reminder of the debunking tendencies of biography were the people Holmes and his fellow biographers wrote about or biographers themselves—probably both. Anyway, the implications of this amusing story were in the back of my mind as I arrived at the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California last week  Read More 
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SO WHAT'S THE STORY?

"Unwritten Story" (© Reproduced by permission of Hiroko Yoshimoto.)
That joke in the sidebar about the sculptor and the elephant may be an old saw (no pun intended), but it's a perfect analogy for carving a story from what may at first seem a daunting and, often, seemingly disconnected body of research.

    Being able to define and project a story about the subject is among the biographer's first and most urgent tasks. For one thing, even in the early stages, having at least a hypothesis about the particular story you want to tell is the best way to get a grip on all that research. If only for that reason, understanding what "story" means for biography is critical.  Read More 
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RICHARD HOLMES EXPLORES THE VALUE OF "A HANDSHAKE ACROSS TIME" (TBC REPORT)

Holmes used this image to illustrate biography's "handshake." (By permission of Richard Holmes)
In fifty years of writing biography, the innovative and prolific Richard Holmes has become known to his fellow practitioners as "a biographer's biographer" for his reflections on the art and craft of biography (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer). At the 2014 annual Leon Levy Center Lecture in New York, he shared some of his insights with a rapt audience.

       Holmes was about eighteen when he decided to hike through the Cèvennes in an effort to retrace the route Robert Louis Stevenson had taken with his donkey Modestine in 1878. Showing the audience a picture of two pages in a lined spiral notebook, he explained  Read More 
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IS THERE A "BIOGRAPHER'S IMAGINATION"?

A few years back, biographers were dismayed when critics lambasted biography for "pathography" and “sensationalism.” Everyone seemed to be getting tarred with the same brush. That view has evidently gone out of fashion, since for now, at least, we are more likely to read that we live in "a golden age of biography."

On the other hand, professional historians in the United States have long regarded biography, a literary hybrid with one foot in history and the other in the tradition of imaginative narrative literature, in somewhat the same way that Mr. Rochester's well-bred friends in Jane Eyre viewed Adele, his flamboyant ward—unreliable, showy, and of suspect lineage: something to be shunned, or at least avoided, by polite society.  Read More 
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