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


    Every biographer is familiar with the tension between the search for historical accuracy and the need to bring the subject alive in a narrative. In a conversation presented jointly by the New York University Center for the Study of Transformational Lives and the NYU Biography Seminar, biographer James Atlas asked three Pulitzer Prize–winning colleagues, Ron Chernow, John Matteson, and Stacy Schiff, for their views on the question, “Is Biography True?” The answer, basically, was a resounding, “Sort of.”

    Atlas started the conversation off with a practical question: how does the biographer, as opposed to the novelist, construct a narrative that is factually accurate but also “feels true, not just in the facts but in the whole experience of reading"? Ron Chernow, who has written on Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and John D. Rockefeller, replied that when a biographer writes, “two things are always going on" simultaneously: first, the laying down, "brick upon brick," of a factual chronology from the available information and evidence, along with the construction of "a scaffolding" of themes and the biographer's own observations. This interpretive structure is what makes the chronology come alive. On the other hand, Chernow said, it also makes biography “a very subjective enterprise.”

    John Matteson, author of The Lives of Margaret Fuller as well as a biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott, Eden's Outcasts, concurred. Because the documents the biographer constructs the story from "are already a massive three-dimensional edit of the experience as it was lived,” he said, in a biography what really happened at the time is probably “ninety-nine percent inaccessible.” Moreover, because the information is taken from what was written down or reported after the fact, the biographer has to rely on sources that are “inherently unstable and unreliable.”

    Stacy Schiff, whose subjects include Vera Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin, and Cleopatra, noted that while the biographer tries to bring the psychological insight of the novelist to bear on the narrative, because of factual constraints, constructing that narrative is like "writing with your hands tied behind your back. You might like to say what someone looks like, but if you don’t know, you're pretty much stymied in describing their entrance into a room.”

    For these reasons, said Matteson, all a biographer can do is strive to come to “as close an approximation of the truth as possible" while realizing that even if “you read as many sources as you possibly can, you retrace the steps of previous biographers, you visit as many places as you can,” there is always a possibility that a conclusion based on “what you beheld with your own two eyes” will turn out to be “founded on sand.”

     The three panelists recommended maintaining a healthy skepticism, not only about information gleaned from official sources but about details uncovered in diaries, letters, and published memoirs. Schiff, for example, recalled that whereas Ben Franklin’s Autobiography famously says that his future wife caught sight of him for the first time just as he arrived in Philadelphia and was walking around with some freshly bought rolls, the archives show that this was impossible because he actually arrived at night.

    Atlas asked whether, given the flawed, incomplete, or inconsistent nature of so much of the information a biographer must rely on, the panelists thought it possible to write with authority and still take the incompleteness of the sources into account.

    Schiff pointed out that the biographer has the advantage of perspective and thus can draw conclusions from consistent or recurring preoccupations, repetitions, or patterns of behavior over long periods that the subject himself may not have been aware of (“such as when Nabokov writes the same love letter to a different woman thirteen years later").

    Matteson acknowledged that while the limitations a biographer has to work under can make penetrating the subject's emotional life difficult, the alert biographer can avail himself of clues from a variety of sources. For instance, Matteson noticed that Louisa May Alcott considered a minor novel, Moods, not Little Women, “the one closest to her heart.” After comparing the heroine of Moods, who was prone to bursts of manic energy alternating with long bouts of depression, with Alcott’s own pattern of periods of “feverish” creativity followed by long periods of collapse, he decided that he could "reasonably" conclude that the novelist herself “was at least on the bipolar spectrum, whether it was full blown or not.”

    The panelists also agreed that in biography, the inconsistencies, contradictions, or even lies that turn up in the sources can actually contribute to the persuasiveness and overall integrity of the narrative. In life, Chernow pointed out, the better we know people, the more contradictions and inconsistencies we find in them. “We get to know the subject of a biography," he said, "in the same way...through “an abundance of contradictory information." He added that he always tells beginning biographers to “go out of your way to present contradictory information. Far from confusing the reader, that will actually clarify things... because that's the way that real life is.” "We're not just presenting a static snapshot of one person at one particular moment," said Matteson. "We need to give you a film, and using contradictory perspectives is one way of doing that."

    In the end, the consensus seemed to be that, as James Atlas observed, "definitiveness is an illusion" and trying to reach "finality" an ultimately futile exercise for an individual biographer. Yet the "instability" inherent in the sources is also what gives biography its vitality and dynamism as a form. “One of the things I love about biography most,” Matteson said, “is that you can’t have the last word. It’s a big mistake... to think that you’re going to put all the conversations to rest. It’s a much better ambition to start a conversation, and to ask questions. That's how the genre and the enterprise stay alive.”

    Other reflections inspired by the evening's conversation: • JOHN MATTESON ON CHOOSING A SUBJECT, AND WHY WE WRITESHOULD WRITING BE FUN?WRITING AROUND THE HOLES. You can view “Is Biography True?” in full on the website for the Center for the Study of Transformational Lives .

    Reproduced by permission of The Biographer's Craft.
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