‘Reflections on Biography’ by Paula R. Backscheider


2001,  235 p. & notes

It’s not hard to find biographers writing about the act of researching a biography.  One of my favourite biographers, Richard Holmes has done it here and here, and there’s a whole literature on the theory and practice of biography. This book, however, looks at the writing of biography, rather than the researching of it. It concentrates on the creation of the biographical text as completed artefact, rather than the ‘journey’ that the biographer undertakes in an attempt to understand and convey the subject’s inner life.

In her preface, Paula Backscheider notes with frustration that reviewers of biographies often retell the subject’s life gleaned from the very biography that they are reviewing without engaging in questions of selection, organization or presentation. These questions are the focus of this book.

The author has taken a rather spread-sheetish approach to the topic.  She takes as her sample biographies that have won major prizes (the Pulitzer, National Book, Bancroft, Whitbread or Critics’ Circle), then added to this group biographies that seemed to offer useful comparisons.  She also added some personal favourites, or biographies that opened new lines of inquiry. (xviii)

Because books that have won commercial and critical acclaim form the nucleus of her sample, academic books are largely excluded. In fact, she is rather dismissive of academic biographies with their author’s emphasis on documentary fact, their fear of ‘making things up’ and what she describes as a degree of distrust for average readers. This is rather curious, given that she herself is Pepperell-Philpott Eminent Scholar at Auburn University in Alabama. Compared with the whole-life biographies that she deals with in her survey, many ‘academic’ biographies deal with only a short period of the subject’s life, and often take a ‘life and times’ approach.

The book is divided into two parts: The Basics and Expansions. Her opening chapter, ‘The Voice of the Biographer’ reflects on the “magisterial voice”’ that is praised in prize-winning biographies.   She notes that it is in the opening chapters where

[t]he establishment of the contract [between biographer and reader] begins and readers expect set pieces of information, [that] the voice that transmits the ‘magisterial’ or ‘in expert hands’ is conveniently available for comparison. Not only is this the place where an authoritative presence must be established and quickly reinforced but here controlling themes are introduced- and the reader is swept away- or not. (p.22)

She reviews the opening 100 pages in a number of biographies to note the techniques that are used. An improbable number begin with a reference to the weather; the most common opening lines are personal remarks or anecdotes; next frequent is a reference to the biographer’s identification with the subject. Less than half of these point out the great challenge their biographical subjects pose to the act of biography, while others make pre-emptive strikes on received opinions or mount arguments over the value of the subject’s life to the reader. The opening chapters often give as exciting a description as possible of the family and several begin with a strong description of the place with which the family is associated.

In Chapter 2 ‘Living with the Subject’ she explores why biographers choose the subjects they do and addresses the nightmare, middle-of-the-night questions that biographers ask themselves. Questions about their own expertise to even embark on the task, the availability and accessibility of material, the  originality that is open to them and possible competition from other biographers working on the same topic. She points out that the great questions of biography are the essential questions about human experience in the world.

What did [……add your own name] want? Did he get it? How did he express and live out those desires? What stood in his way? How did he cope with obstacles, opponents, and adversity? They are the stuff of humankind’s puzzling out its relationship to the world, how individual desire and ambition are confounded or aided by social, historical forces and other human beings, and the implications of various conceptions of religious, ethical or moral imperatives (p. 59)

Chapter 3 ‘Evidence: Bare Patches and Profusions’ addresses the issue of evidence, which takes up 80% of a biographer’s time. She notes that what counts as evidence has changed over time (e.g. in legal history, until the 16th century jury member’s personal knowledge of the accused’s character and hearsay were given more weight than witnesses and documents). We have inherited and been steeped in the belief that ‘direct’ proofs (despite the flaws of corruption, suppression and incompleteness) are better than ‘indirect’ ones. But, separate from the question of the evidence itself, is the way that it is arranged:

It is in the patterns that the evidence forms that the most important truths are usually found. The difference between a list or a chronology is this flesh and blood, this emotional power, that actually arranges facts and clothes them in meaning. Whether the biographer selects a factual pattern based on chronology, an interpretative pattern based on a sense of inner life of the subject, a spiralling pattern that produces multiple, intermingled story lines, or another pattern, the evidence must be presented in ways that make this arrangement seem to have arisen almost irresistibly from it. P. 88


Chapter 4 “Perspectives, Personality and Life Shapes” addresses the issue of theory of personality. She initially suspected that biographers held an underlying theory of personality, but on examining her examples she has changed her mind. She returns to the act of narrative organization, and the way that it shapes the judgements that are made about the subject:

The biographer is explorer, inquirer, hypothesizer, compiler, researcher, selector and writer; none of these is a neutral act. The best biographers know that they are inventing and psychologising through their selection and arrangement of materials; they are establishing cause-effect and other relationships, and they are determining what was most formative and important for someone else, someone they do not know. They must choose what to include, leave out, emphasize and subordinate, and when they do, they have constructed a narrative that, whether they are aware of it or not, partakes of cultural stories with expectations for resolutions and interpretations built in. That narrative becomes the life and the basis for the judgements that will be rendered about the subject’s character, life course, and personality. P. 119

The second part of the book ‘Expansions’ is more a series of mini-essays on the state of the field. There is no particular unity in the way that they appear in the book. In Chapter 5 she looks at the challenges in writing feminist biography, and the way that feminism has affected the way that biographies of male subjects have been written as well. In Chapter 6 she identifies a number of recent and not-so-recent biographies that ‘push the envelope’- for example, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod or Jack Miles’ God: A Biography.

In Chapter 7 she compares two groups of biographers who dominate the field of biography today: The British Professionals and African-American Academics. I must admit that I don’t think that I’ve read any African-American Academics, so most of this section went over my head. But I have read The British Professionals (think Peter Ackroyd, Michael Holroyd, Victoria Glendinning, Richard Ellman and my favourite, Richard Holmes).

The British Professionals, she suggests, ‘push the envelope’ by mingling fact and authorial licence. They undertake formidable research, immersing themselves in the works of their subjects (because they do tend to write about writers) and they painstakingly accrete facts and quotations to create a blend of their own writing style and that of their subject – an approach that detractors might call ‘ventriloquism’ or ‘mimicry’. Their voices are warm, but authoritative. They are often self-conscious, engaged with ‘biography’ itself as an intellectual practice as well as the subject’s life.

This remarkable double voice (that which presents the subject’s life, which combines the interior and exterior, motive and context, and that of the critic-biographer) gives the biography double authority- the first for interpreting the subject and the second for the biographer as magisterial presence…. The detachment is always judicial in both connotations of that word, judging and exercising wisdom, and assumes considerable, overarching perspective (p. 188)

As an aside, I note in a review in this weekend’s paper  that Ackroyd, surely the most prolific of the lot, has eschewed references entirely in his most recent book on Chaplin. It has an exhaustive bibliography, but no footnotes. That’s a very confident sense of mastery.

The African-American Academics, she claims, have less of this certainty. In contrast to the British Biographers’ masterfully understated and confident invoking of Britishness, the African-American biographers see history as a major complication in Black biography (p. 210). They know that they are writing about an individual as a member of a people, a concept that links identity and history. They are academics, steeped in cultural studies and all its jargon, but they fear summaries and tightly unified portraits. (p. 219).

This book received only lukewarm reviews amongst the academic journals. The reviewers have taken Backscheider at her word and focussed on the rather untidy structure of the second part of the book in particular, and bridled at the ‘teacherliness’ of the first part. For myself, neither of these things worried me. At this stage of my own work, the writing of biography (nasty, academic biography that it is! in her view) is uppermost, and I took the second part of the book to be a collection of separate essays on aspects of the craft.  Very interesting I found them, too.





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