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Why are we so fascinated by the lives of others?
Why are we so fascinated by the lives of others?

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 25, 2007

BIOGRAPHY

A Brief History

By Nigel Hamilton

Harvard Univ. 345 pp. $21.95

Biography, Nigel Hamilton insists toward the end of this brief history of the genre, today is at "the forefront of Western culture." By the turn of the millennium, "it was represented in almost every field of human inquiry, of communications, and of academic study. . . . In fact, as the third millennium got under way it was clear to all but the most myopic that biography had become the most popular, and in many ways the most controversial and contested, area of nonfiction broadcasting and publishing in the Western world -- epitomized by today's burgeoning weblogs, on-line diaries in which individuals' thoughts and experiences are published in electronic form."

Hamilton defines "biography" in an extremely liberal way, embracing not merely the conventional account of a life in book form but also the many considerably less formal forms that life stories now take in movies, on television, on the Internet. Perhaps this is as it should be. Having committed more or less old-fashioned biography myself several times over the past three decades, I am well aware of the limitations of the form, and having enjoyed and been instructed by a number of unconventional "biographies" -- the films "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Patton," the television program "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer," to name three -- I am equally aware that other media offer interesting possibilities for examining people's lives in ways that elude the written word.

Certainly our notions of what biography should do, and the ways in which biographers have sought to accommodate them, have changed often over the years. Hamilton's useful if hasty survey leaves no doubt that biography as we understand the term today bears only superficial resemblance to what people expected of it in the time of Saint Augustine or Samuel Johnson or Parson Weems or even Lytton Strachey. It was not until 1683 that "the dramatist John Dryden . . . first referred to 'biography' as a collective noun," and "the new profession of 'biographer' " was not recognized as such until the Victorian Age.

Precisely why we are eager to read, hear or watch other people's stories -- or to record, in memoir or autobiography, our own -- is open to various interpretations, but Hamilton (who loves his italics) points out that "virtually all early societies and civilizations have sought to record themselves through the memorialization of distinct individuals, often in poems and songs which were handed down from generation to generation." The Epic of Gilgamesh, King of Ur, which Hamilton calls "the first literary 'biography' ever written, dating back to the second millennium B.C.," discovered in tablet form by archaeologists in what is now Iraq, is such a memorialization, and it raises "the eternal questions that hang over biographical portraiture to this very day": Where is the line between fact and interpretation? Is biography history or psychological speculation? Is the purpose of biography to celebrate the lives of the famous and notable and thus to provide exemplars for the rest of us, or to reduce them to their mere humanity and thus to comfort us in the knowledge that they too are imperfect?

Answers to these questions have tended to suit the needs or desires of the moment. Suetonius, the great biographer of the Roman emperors to whom Hamilton pays surprisingly (and unforgivably) little attention, was quick to honor his subjects for their achievements, but no less quick to show their feet of clay. Indeed, in the latter sense, his mini-biographies were astonishingly modern, as reflected in Robert Graves's use of them in his novel I, Claudius and in the BBC's subsequent TV series of the same title. Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, seems to have sensed a need among Christians for an example of self-abasing candor, but contemporary lives of other exemplary figures written by "priests, monks, friars, and nuns" were what "we know today under their collective name: hagiography."

The hagiographic tradition continued off and on for a long time. It was interrupted during the Renaissance, when biography "showed a return to the classical struggle between, on the one hand, the commemoration of the dead as a continuing spur to more moral behavior by the living, and, on the other, the need to be able to identify with the trials and tribulations of another mortal individual's life journey, as an aid to modern self-understanding, even self-acceptance." But in the Victorian era, hagiography returned with a vengeance, inspiring Strachey to summarize the Victorian style memorably:

"Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead -- who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the cortège of the undertaker, and wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism."

The same, of course, can be said of too many of the books that now emerge from the academic biography mills here and in England, including those that take a warts-and-all approach to their subjects (indeed, Hamilton's JFK: Reckless Youth is a cautionary example), reminding us that there is still much life in the old belief that a life story can be told simply by the endless accumulation and recording of facts, no matter how useless and irrelevant. Strachey himself, in Eminent Victorians, used irony to great effect and made it respectful for biographers to be candid, even irreverent, about their subjects. Hamilton sniffs at him for being "attached as he was to his own armchair comfort as a writer rather than a researcher," which has an element of truth but overlooks the more important point, which is that Strachey freed future biographers -- at least those willing to take the challenge -- to dig more deeply into their subjects' lives and psyches than mere facts permit, and to make speculation and discrimination legitimate tools of the biographer's trade.

Hamilton pinpoints the landmark Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), in which the newspaper's publication of an advertisement criticizing an Alabama public official "as a violent opponent of civil rights" was unanimously upheld, as a turning point for biographers, who "became free to examine, record, and interpret the lives of prominent living individuals with impunity, so long as there was no reckless or malicious disregard for the truth." Hamilton writes:

"For biography in the Western world, this was a decision that would affect every biographical and autobiographical work produced thereafter, freeing authors and broadcasters, portraitists and biographical journalists, within reason, to come into the twentieth century, and to fulfill Samuel Johnson's vision of biography as an account that included both virtue and vice. The former frontier posts of 'biography' as the printed record of whole lives were now kicked down, as artists, writers, filmmakers, broadcasters, researchers, and others sought in every medium to discover and interpret more about the lives of individuals, for a variety of motives that ranged from the political to the personal."

That's an odd note on which to close an otherwise unexceptionable paragraph. Certainly, some people come to the task of biographer with ulterior motives, but in my old-fashioned naiveté, I like to think that biographers come to the job in search of the truth. Obviously, that truth is elusive, since it is literally impossible for one human being to gain full access to the inner life of another, but the effort is worth making. It is also most successfully and usefully made within the covers of a book. Other forms of "biography" certainly have their attractions and uses -- Hamilton makes a valid point in arguing that the photographs of Abraham Lincoln reveal aspects of him that conventional biographies do not -- but they have their limits, not least of which is their tendency to treat biography as entertainment instead of serious inquiry.

This is an aspect of contemporary biography that Hamilton almost entirely overlooks. He mentions the Biography Channel and other outlets for filmed and/or broadcast biography, but he doesn't dig at all into the issues raised by docudramas and similar forms that purport to convey historical truth -- viz., Oliver Stone's "JFK" -- but play fast and loose with that truth in order to entertain and, in Stone's case, to preach a political message. It pleases Hamilton that biographers are now (more or less) free to dig into their subjects' sex lives, and to the extent that sexual behavior reveals character he is entirely right, but he doesn't seem to understand that biography is sliding down the proverbial slippery slope into gossip.

Perhaps, on the other hand, that's really what it's always been. Do we read biography to understand and profit from the lives of others, or do we read it because we want the inside skinny? Probably it's a bit of both, but today -- in films, TV shows, the Web and certainly in books -- what biographers are dishing out is, well, the dish. Whether this is yet another instance of the species' inexorable progress toward perfection is unknown, but I for one am inclined to doubt it. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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