As I read the good-sense advice of Milton Lomask's "The Biographer's Craft," I kept thinking of the witty "Flaubert's Parrot," a piece of pseudobiographical fiction by Julian Barnes. The two books stand on the opposite ends of the spectrum of biographical writing. Barnes dramatizes a series of fascinating quandaries about biography and leaves his readers guessing at every point. Lomask asks many small questions about how to write a biography and has sound answers for them all. If you follow Lomask's advice, you will write a workmanlike, serviceable life. However, the chances of your writing an original or inspired piece of personal history are slim indeed.
Where Julian Barnes doubts the possibility of knowing anything, Milton Lomask affirms the accessibility of truth. He carefully and confidently describes the methods for finding the facts, ordering the events and reconstructing the psychology. Biography is for him the chance to see life in its premodern wholeness, with a beginning, middle and end.
In brief, clearly labeled chapters, he confronts the challenge of re-creating a life. To his many questions, he provides answers of irreproachable common sense, beginning with "Selecting and Testing a Subject": "The best subject is a person whose likes and dislikes, interests, attitudes, background, and dreams are roughly consonant with your own."
Lomask makes useful distinctions between chronological and topical modes of development, favoring a combination of the two, and between incidents worthy of a scene and those requiring only a summary. He cautions against the use of unwarranted psychological speculation and reductive explanations.
In his crucial chapter, "Writing in Clusters," he writes, "a well-formed book does three things for a reader and does them continuously": It provides appropriate emphasis, cohesion and anticipation. Lomask gives many straightforward, useful examples of each. He also gives advice on smaller matters of technique: how to take notes, how to write a bibliographic entry, what weight of paper to use, how to read Roman numerals.
Many of these lessons seem appropriate to the high school curriculum, which may cause one to wonder for what audience the book is intended. Lomask has the answer: "Every writer, whatever his interest, must serve an apprenticeship, and for the life writer no activity fulfills this purpose better than the preparation of a regional biography." This book is written with such an apprentice in mind.
Lomask, who has written biographies of Aaron Burr and Andrew Jackson, is most comfortable writing about statesmen and soldiers. He hardly touches on the problems confronting the biographer of an artist, scientist or scholar with a body of work needing evaluation and integration with the life. Similarly, he ignores the challenges of the unlived life, the hidden life, the thwarted life; Jean Stein and George Plimpton's multiperspective "Edie," Jean Strouse's psychoanalytic "Alice James" and Daniel Aaron's exhaustive "The Inman Diary," three strange and fascinating works, are beyond his ken in both subject and method.
The writing in the book is so pedestrian that even an apprentice might feel loath to follow its example. Here is a hypothetical transition sentence recommended for its "piquancy." "But if at the office all was serenity for John, at the bungalow he shared with Mona in the suburbs all was turmoil." Fortunately, Lomask makes use of many anecdotes and quotations from other, more eloquent, biographers. The voices of Lytton Strachey, Vera Brittain and Leon Edel are especially pleasant to hear.
To learn the craft of biography, by all means read Lomask. To appreciate the art of biography, read Edel. To acquire humility and a sense of humor about the limitations of the biographical enterprise, read Barnes.