You all know how I love a good biography – I firmly agree with the school of historians that operates under the assumption (sensible on its face, but nevertheless attacked by all sorts of divergent theories over last century, and with renewed fervor over the last few decades) that people make history happen, and I think it’s the most natural thing in the world to be interested in reading the life-stories of those people. Time was when such a thing needed no defense, but history departments these days are fueled by potsherd-studies of midden heaps, by sociological graphing of undocumented anonymous parishioners, by topographical indexing and trend-spotting. Biographies tend to be trivialized as so much catnip for the history ‘buff’ amateur crowd (a reaction that’s only strengthened when a gruel-thin popular biography ends ups selling a gazillion copies … recent works on John Adams and Andrew Jackson come to mind, but there’s always some example on the bestseller list).
So I’ll periodically draw your attention to some of the great biographies that lurk on the back shelves of your local library! We’ll start with these nine:
The first item on our list is a classic tome-sized soup-to-nuts chronicle of the life and times of a great man, in this case Isaac Newton. Newton, the author of the immortal Principia Mathematica and one of the greatest scientific minds in human history, is given an extremely thorough going-over (another reason I tend to like biographies: they can be quite long), always judicious, always readable, and always keeping an eye on the subject’s humanity, perhaps as compensation for the freakish abilities of his brain (Christianson outright calls Newton a mutant, and I outright agree). This is probably why his prickly anger is also evoked at any opportune moment, as when a hapless colleague is trying to get a Royal Society reading for the great masterpiece:
Newton, who in the past had been waited upon so often by so many, now tasted of his own acrid medicine. Book I of his masterpiece was held in abeyance for lack of an officer to preside at the Council. Pepys, a surpassing diarist but a miserably lackluster President, was attending James II, while the Vice Presidents were in the country taking advantage of the fine spring weather. Three weeks passed during which Halley must have grown increasingly restive. Up to then his association with Newton had proved fruitful beyond imagination, and now was hardly the moment to tempt fate by provoking the savant’s sulfurous temper. At the same time Halley realized that he could just as easily jeopardize the project by making indiscreet demands of his superiors. Well-respected though he was, he harbored no illusions regarding his status.
Truly great geniuses, the ones whose art seems to verge into the supernatural, can have a way of seeming remote – it’s a trait their hagiographers love, but it drives their biographers to distraction. Those few biographers who work somewhere in between hagiography and biography can have vested interests in keeping both traditions alive, as was certainly the case with our next title:
The Hills of London were an ancient family of music purveyors – scores, instruments, repairs, you name it (Samuel Pepys was a loyal customer in his day, and countless others have been over the centuries), and when they published their biography of the great Cremona master violin-maker, they were interested in both documentary accuracy and establishing their own proprietary relationship with their subject, which often gave rise to a hilariously scolding tone:
It has at various times been asserted that Stradivari erred in the adjustment of his thicknesses, and made his instruments too thin. Fortunately, such statements invariably proceed from persons whose knowledge of Stradivari’s work is very limited.
Of course, greater editorial burdens are placed on biographers whose subjects left little nor no written record behind (and, in the case of Stradivarius and so many others, absolutely no record of the inner life); writers on somebody like renowned U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes don’t have that problem – virtually everyone who knew Holmes, for virtually all of his life, knew he was destined for fame and a place in the history books, so there’s a mountain of first-hand sources to use, and the question becomes not ‘what can the biographer find’ but ‘how well does he use what we all know is there’ – a distinction that ends up honoring Sheldon Novick, whose biography of Holmes,
is very nearly as smart and witty as its subject:
When [Justice John Marshall] Harlan disagreed with Holmes, he sometimes lost his temper, but Holmes never lost his. Holmes called him “My lion-hearted friend.” When Harlan was haranguing him, Holmes coolly interrupted, “That won’t wash.” In the silence that followed, as Harlan grew apoplectic, the chief justice interposed himself gently, making a gesture as if at a washboard, and said, “Still I keep scrubbing and scrubbing.”
Holmes was a great interpreter of the law for many decades, and he managed to imbue that relatively humble occupation with a panache usually reserved for those far rarer solitary figures who make the law. Rulers traditionally attract more biographical attention than any other species of human being, whether the ruler be the lonely and misunderstood Mary Tudor who takes such an involuntary star turn in
The Reign of Mary Tudor by James Anthony Froude, part of his History of England written from 1856-1870
Who here is gently reproved for her less-than-stellar choice of husband:
Philip, who was never remarkable for personal courage, may be pardoned for having come reluctantly to a country where he had to bring men-at-arms for servants, and his own cook for fear of being poisoned. The sea, too, was hateful to him, for he suffered miserably from sickness. Nevertheless, he was coming, and with him such a retinue of gallant gentlemen as the world has rarely seen together.
Or Prussian military leader Frederick the Great, who in the magnificent volume
Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma by Robert Asprey, 1986
The grim procession continued to a raised platform built on the bastion that overlooked the somber river. Frederick watched it halt by a little heap of sand. [Lieutenant von] Katte stood motionless, his pocked face in familiar profile as an officer formally intoned the death sentence. Katte shook hands with the officers, removed his wig, opened his shirt at the neck, knelt to receive the sword’s edge. “Lord Jesus,” he prayed – but when an attendant tried to blindfold him, he brushed aside the binding. Eyes open, he again prayed, “Lord Jesus …”
Death interrupted prayer; blood jetted as his head fell to the sand.
Frederick already had fainted.
And let’s not forget the Ultimate Ruler! In
God: A Biography by Jack Miles, 1995
Miles gleefully does the impossible: in page after page of sly, smart prose, he delivers nothing less than a psychological portrait of God Himself, accomplished through a great deal of research, yes, but mainly through the world’s closest, most sympathetic reading of the ur-text:
The long narrative that fills the first eleven books of the Bible, stretching from the creation of the world through the fall of Jerusalem, has sometimes been called a saga but it is not. The word saga, though now often used of any long story of historical origins, refers paradigmatically to several works in classical Icelandic. Though, like the Bible, these tell a story of a nation’s origins, and though they contain various miraculous or supernatural episodes, no single being is their protagonist as God is the protagonist of the Bible. Nor is the biblical narrative like a classical epic. The epics, vast as they seem, are understood to cover only a crucial period in a much longer temporal framework. All the gods, as well as all the human characters, have pasts, old grudges, vows to discharge, scores to settle, and destinies to fulfill as the action begins. The biblical narrative, whose distinctness every reader or hearer immediately and intuitively senses, works as it does because God, its all-defining protagonist, is a character without a past. A protagonist without a past yields a narrative without a memory, a narrative that is radically forward-looking and open-ended because, given its protagonist, it has no other alternative.
There are no words to convey the full catalogue of joys that await the reader in Miles’ book – it’s a thrilling intellectual exercise, at times uprooting, at other times hilarious, and always paradigm-shattering. It will forever change the way you think of its Subject, and if that’s not a single-line distillation of the goal of all great biographies, I can’t think of a better one. Miles’ book is really the crucible of that art, since the aim of all modern biographies is to humanize their main character, and it’s the highest accolade of Miles’ achievement that he succeeds completely even though his Subject isn’t human. The aim applies to all, however, because that’s what drives us to read biographies.
Take, for instance,
In which our subject is the man who would go on to write quite a bit about God himself. Wilson was a novelist by trade and inclination, and his slim, fantastic book is an excellent example of that particular cross-pollination working perfectly (other examples include works by Anthony Burgess, Anthony Trollope, Mary Renault, J. B. Priestly, and Nancy Mitford – all of which we’ll get to as this series inches its way toward eternity!). Unlike staid academic profilers, he’s willing to let his imagination follow him into corners of his subject’s life where records don’t go, and the results, though speculative, are very entertaining and might almost be true:
When the revellers had departed, one can imagine this William Johnson shutting his inn for the night, and walking down to the river, a short stroll before returning home to bed. Most of the houses in Bread Street would be plunged into darkness, for men rose in those days at dawn. But, night after night, as he ambled down that fetid, narrow little street, the innkeeper who had served ale (in his day) to Shakespeare and Donne and Ben Jonson, would have seen a light burning in an upstairs window above the sign of the Spread Eagle. Every evening , defiant among the surrounding blackness of London, the candles flickered at that window until midnight struck. It was not some learned divine, preparing a lecture for the morning; nor an advocate working late on a case; nor an alchemist dabbling in forbidden knowledge, though any passer-by might have guessed it to be one of those things.
It was a little boy …
Of course, the effect is even more pronounced when the novelist-cum-biographer decides not only to cross the aisle but to bring his novelist’s bag of tricks with him. Needless to say, it’s only the very confident novelist who will dare attempt such a thing under the bilious glare of academia, and it’s lucky for readers everywhere that Allan Eckert, author of some two dozen thick and extremely popular frontier novels set in the American West, was just such an author. In his
He decided not only to write an epic (it’s delightfully long) life of the celebrated Shawnee warrior, orator, and lawmaker, he decided also to change the rules of the game while doing so. By introducing pages and pages of dialogue cautiously and plausibly reconstituted from official records, he creates a scholarly approach he calls narrative biography, and he has very specific goals in mind:
It is the aim of the author, in presenting Tecumseh’s life, to show how and why he became what he was. It is unworthy of him merely to bounce from major point to major point of his life and ignore or gloss over the minutiae of everyday life that molded him, guided him, and so decidedly influenced him. It is, therefore, my purpose in this book to meld in continuous chronological flow the details of childhood and family life – the warmth and humor, the pleasures and games, the love and sadnesses of everyday living – with the pervasive aspects of tribal culture and the irresistible press of outside events.
A writer of Eckert’s long experience wouldn’t make such an apologia if he weren’t entirely certain his efforts had been successful, and they are. His big book is never less than enthralling, as in recounting the bloody aftermath of the 1813 siege of Fort Meigs by General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh, during which Proctor allows the Indians under his command to torture and kill his white prisoners, much to Tecumseh’s outrage:
The surrounding Indians became silent and after a moment Tecumseh thrust his club back into his belt and continued addressing them scathingly. “Did we not direct in council that prisoners at our mercy were not to be tortured or slain? Did we not acknowledge that such cruelty was the act of frightened men? Where is your bravery now? What has become of my warriors? You are to fight in battle to desperation, but you are never to redden your hands in the blood of prisoners!”
He paused and his glance fell on General Proctor who was staring at him. Tecumseh pointed a finger at him accusingly.
“Why have you allowed your prisoners to be killed in cold blood?” he demanded.
“Sir,” replied Proctor, “your Indians cannot be commanded.”
“Not by cowards,” Tecumseh told him coldly. “Take these prisoners to a place where they will be safe.”
Still, innovations like Eckert’s narrative biography, though effective in expert hands, render their books vulnerable to critical disdain and even categorical wandering (go to any used bookstore the whole length of Cape Cod, and you will invariably find A Sorrow In Our Hearts shelved in fiction)(indeed, got to any Barnes & Noble in the United States, and you’ll find A Dark and Bloody River, Eckert’s profile of life in the Ohio River Valley during the frontier years, in Fiction as well), which is why the vast majority of biographers hew to a more traditional line in presenting their subjects. We’ll close with that tradition, then, but not pejoratively – far from it. The straightforward soup-to-nuts chronicle like Christianson wrote of Newton can achieve undeniable glories of its own, and the interesting irony is that those glories are accessible even to works about less than glorious subjects. Veteran biographer Philip Ziegler achieved just such results in his
One of the greatest royal biographies ever written, despite the fact that its subject was a pompous, pea-brained roly-poly relic who was good for nothing except sucking down brandy and embarrassing everybody he knew. The alchemy by which Ziegler transmutes this lump of Hanoverian lead into gold worthy of his readers’ attention is the simplest of all writerly tricks, and the most difficult: great writing. Ziegler’s 1969 book on the Black Death is still the most readable and authoritative look at the subject, and that rhetorical skill is on full display here, justifying the ways of clod to man, even though he himself wonderfully enumerates the obstacles to doing this, especially when it comes to the younger brother son of poor old George III:
The younger son of a King had a miserable time of it in any monarchy. At first his position might not have been wholly insignificant. It was of the first importance that the succession should be assured, and a supply of twelfth men available in case of need lent stability to any dynasty. But as the years rolled on, as the heir to the throne married and himself produced children, so the younger son dwindled into the background. By the time that he had reached the age at which the normal human being could expect to be most useful he would probably have degenerated into an object of perfect inutility. His upbringing, and his sense of his own importance, conduced inexorably to lavish living – yet it was unlikely that the state would be willing perpetually to maintain him in the style to which he had grown accustomed. He might, if he were lucky, have an army to direct or go out to govern some far-flung colony, yet such functions called for a modicum of training and talent. Sometimes the talent was there, less often the training; all too frequently both were lacking. However absolute the monarchy, it could not long survive if it entrusted its important offices to the incompetent, the ignorant or the idle …
Readers unfamiliar with Ziegler’s great book might think those three words – incompetent, ignorant, and idle – describe its subject perfectly, but Ziegler himself has found hidden shallows in the man, and not only is he convinced of the ultimate utility of his charge, by the end of his book he’ll have you convinced as well, and the experience is quietly electrifying:
To say of somebody that others would have done worse may not seem lyrical as praise, yet for a king it is sometimes the truest flattery. None of his brothers would have done so well as William in the Britain of the 1830s; with the possible exception of the Duke of Cambridge it seems indeed unlikely that any of them would have survived seven years without provoking violent reactions from some portion of their subjects. King William had a line of extreme difficulty to follow; he followed it not by subtlety or skill but by the surer methods of honesty, generosity, and good will. He inherited a monarchy in tatters, he bequeathed to his heir the securest throne in Europe. For that Queen Victoria at least should have been grateful. It would seem churlish to deny that, from his country, too, he has deserved well.
That’s another quintessential quality of a really good biography: it makes you notice – and think about – somebody you’d entirely overlooked before. It takes somebody you thought you knew and shows you how wrong you were – and delights you in the showing. Many, many biographies sing with that kind of delight, and in groups of nine we’ll eventually get around to all of them!
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