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

• Lyndall Gordon on the Purpose of Biography

Lyndall Gordon

    Lyndall Gordon is known for literary biographies that focus on her subjects' inner lives and creative impulses. (Disclosure: Gordon's most recent book, LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, is about the poet who was responsible for enabling my subject, Sara Bard Field, to finally discover her own poetic voice.)

    Gordon has called for approaches to life-writing that take biography beyond those long tomes that too often substitute bulk for insight. In a recent online interview with Alec Ash, she gave five examples of books in this category that she admires. You can read the full interview here.

    In the passage below, Gordon describes what she thinks biography is for and what it should do for the reader. What do you consider "the essential purpose of biography"? What do you hope to "harvest" from a biography? Share your thoughts in a comment, below.

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    GORDON: I’m interested in the frontiers of biography and where the genre can go. It’s a very old genre. There are traditional ways of doing biography, and every age had its own format. The Victorians had their two-volume life and letters, usually quite hagiographical. “Full-scale biography” was the admiring term, and it led to larger and larger biographies which tried to incorporate every factual detail – to be the last word on a life....

    There is no such a thing as a complete life....If you look at your own life and try to tell the whole truth about it, you can’t. There’s no way. I’m in sympathy with those who question it. For instance Janet Malcolm, in Reading Chekhov, [proposes] that there is no way that we can know Chekhov...but that there is a kernel of his inward life that she can get at....

  So what is the essential purpose of biography? Is it to document a life or to explore that inner kernel?

    That’s the question. If it’s a biography of a public figure active on the stage of history, then you will want to document. And documentation is part of it. If a poet writes a sonnet, it’s part of the intensity of that form that there are very strict rules. And there are strict rules of biography – you have to authenticate facts, you have to include that detailed back-matter to tell the reader where a fact comes from. On the other hand, documentation alone is inadequate for the kind of biography that interests me. You need some shell of the public life, but the deep matter of the biography is the “private life” that Henry James talks of – he meant the writer’s life, the inward life.

    And although it’s what one aims for, it’s impossible. The honest biographer would admit there’s no way you can fully reach that. It dies with the person. One of the most succinct statements of that is in a letter of Emily Dickinson’s. She said that “abyss has no biographer”. And that’s the problem. But not to attempt the abyss seems to me to miss the point.

  And why should we read biographies at all? What is the reader’s harvest from them?

    For me there is a fascination with character. You could say that novels are more enjoyable reading, but I’m interested in the authentic. And with literary figures there is always an interest in the work, in what is permanent in a life. For me that was always a starting point. I was captivated by a work, and wanted to understand how it came into being....Obscure lives are potentially as interesting as famous lives, except that with obscure lives the chances of material are slimmer – there have to be diaries or letters.

    Above all there is curiosity, and a detective aspect to biography that is inescapable. Otherwise you’re just plodding along. You are fascinated to know how this life came to be. What is the plot of this life? There will be a plot imposed by circumstance but also, if it’s an imaginative person, they will have some conception of a life in mind. There’s something that Yeats says in A General Introduction to My Work: “The poet is not the muddle that most of us are when we sit down to breakfast. He's reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.”


Planning to be in New York on OCT. 17? Come to my lecture at CUNY Grad Center on SARA AND ERSKINE and how the biographer uses her detective work to track clues to the life of the heart. Free and open to the public. More info at EVENTS.


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