What Does a Modernist Biography Look Like?

Biographer's Craft: A Monthly Newsletter for Writers and Readers of Biography. Vol.15, No.5 (July 2020).
                                  Hilary Spurling


Hilary Spurling augured in 2005 that the “golden age” of biography initiated by Michael Holroyd in the 1960s was pretty much over. She offered various explanations ranging from “some say the game was up as soon as biography began to be taught in universities” to the idea that good subjects are exhausted and the economics are “ludicrous . . . the time spans involved for both writer and reader frankly absurd.” In addition, there is the burden that all biographers face—thousands of letters or documents in an archive, the interviews, the wondering how one can do “justice” to a life along with facing wary families for permissions. Spurling, who has written biographies on two novelists and a painter, comes out on the other side of this experience to assert that “what we need now is a shorter, tighter, more sharply focused form, that concentrates on inner meaning rather than its outer chronological and documentary casing.” After 15 years of hard work that led to her wonderful two-volume biography of Henri Matisse that was awarded the Whitbread Prize, she has ended “in a position to paint the small, clear,
                                 Michael Holroyd
startling portrait in words that was what I wanted all along” (The Sunday Times, April 3, 2005).
      Michael Holroyd, in the “Double Preface” to his Lytton Strachey: The New Biography, written about a decade earlier, shares Spurling’s stance on biography. He toiled among the cobwebs, reading masses of Lytton Strachey’s unpublished materials for five years—thousands of letters, diaries, and manuscripts—for his two-volume biography published in 1967. It earned some hostility for its frankness about Strachey’s homosexuality and his intimates; however, it enabled new interpretations of his life and it liberated other biographers. In 1994, Holroyd published The New Biography, a one-volume biography on Lytton Strachey, and said it was the book he would have liked to have written in the 60s: “a shorter book with much more in it”—the same wish that Spurling expressed after writing her two-volume biography of Matisse.
     And it is this stance that has evolved in the field of biography: the shorter book and the “small, clear startling portrait” that is both researched and imagined. This is a further development of Virginia Woolf’s observations about biography as it entered the modernist period. Turning from traditional Victorian tomes, Woolf praised the new form that appeared in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918), which consisted of four short biographies. It was lighter in weight and revealed psychological truths about his subjects’ lives, including negative aspects of character ignored by earlier hero-worshipping Victorians. Strachey carefully selected and manipulated the “facts” to illuminate and create interest in the personality of Florence Nightingale, for example, avoiding the kind of biography that Woolf—a great reader of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs—abhorred: a long, dull, and plodding volume “stuffed with truth,” with little insight into the personality of the subject. Woolf observed in her essay, “The New Biography,” that in order for the light of personality to “shine through, facts must be manipulated; some must be brightened; others shaded; yet in the process, they must never lose their integrity.” Does this manipulation and shading then call for a biographer with the gifts of a novelist or poet? The biographer should give us, says Woolf in The Art of Biography, “the creative fact; the fertile fact; the fact that suggests and engenders.”  
     Battles remain in the field of contemporary biography between notions of “imagination” and “truth” as well as the balance between creative license and research. The emphasis on either the “creative” or the “fact” part of Virginia Woolf’s dyad is often determined by the background, discipline, talents, and temperament of the biographer. Historian-biographers emphasize the value of the documentation of a life through the discovery of responsible facts, information, and sources. Alice Kessler Harris, for example, in her life of Lillian Hellman, suggested she was not interested in her inner life; economists often use the phrase “rational reconstruction” to describe their emphasis on the conscious choices of a subject’s life history; literary critics often pay more attention to shaping a life as a story; psychologists seek to trace the pathological in a life; creative writers freely admit the imagination and “fictions” into their portraits more than others; and journalists search for a hook or an angle to catch the reader. Biography is an interdisciplinary pursuit that lends itself to different notions of the “truth” or “facts” and “creativity” or “imagination.” The vocabulary used by those in different fields—including Woolf’s “creative fact”—engenders confusion.
      Nevertheless, this modernist pursuit of the “creative fact” has led to lively debates and a new generation of biographers striving to limn the inner rather than just the outer actions and meaning of the lives they write about. But how does one capture the inner life? Importantly, it is this question that led 20th-century modernist writers to develop new narrative methods and forms to express the interior lives of their subjects and expanded the narrative choices of the biographer. How do we find these new forms, shapes, and characterization of our subjects?
     Each generation of biographers brings the salient questions of the day into the form and language of the genre to represent a life. Modernists have been influenced by modern notions of the self: its variability, plasticity, or fragmentation that emerged from the post-war cultural climate and Freud’s development of the notions of the unconscious and dreams in the 1920’s—and overflowed into new experiments with language. As Bernard, a character in Woolf’s The Waves reflects, “Who am I? It depends so much upon the room.” In addition, the exploration of character in the work of novelists such as Dostoevsky, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, or playwrights like Samuel Beckett, influenced biographers.
     Biographers increasingly focus on “a room” of a life—a crucial period, a revealing correspondence, a portrait, a key scene or meeting. Brenda Wineapple wrote a slice of Emily Dickinson’s life in White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She announces the modernist trend stating that “sometimes, we see better through a single window, after all.” In addition to the shorter, more focused life, readers are increasingly lured away from print to film documentaries, TV, and YouTube representations of lives. They sometimes have a “double-plot line”—the story of the subject and the story of the biographer in search of the subject. Is the biographer then more present in the narrative of a modernist biography?
      Finally, the new philosophy and form for modernist biography would not be complete without attention to language and the possible new representations of a character, fragments, or seemingly missing parts of a life. Writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for example, focus on the unspoken and the unsayable—“the things people don’t say” states of mind and feeling that Beckett says are “complete with missing parts.” It is sometimes this fragmentation, these gaps, the complex aspects of a subject, that becomes part of the making and fabrication of the modern novel. Does the genre of biography have a similar evolution?
      The biographer’s imagination, unwittingly perhaps, increasingly absorbs modernist methods of treating time, narration, language, and form. As biography encompasses other genres and fields (fiction, essay, journalism, social media, history, psychology. . .), the question arises: “What does a modernist biography look like?” Biography in shedding the traditional casings of hagiography, history, and voluminous endnotes emerges with new values: perhaps, as mentioned earlier, the short, sharp portrait. Or, a work in which the biographer enters the mind of the subject in new ways, or fictionalizes. Time may be patterned differently and chronological structure may disappear or underlie the thematic. Multiple perspectives, cut-out scenes and moments, may organize a biography as in Hermione Lee’s wonderful Virginia Woolf. Valuing the fragment, or a part, is a modernist gesture that invites the reader in to imagine and supply what is missing. In my recent biography of Elizabeth Bowen, I chose a kaleidoscopic structure casting a mosaic of Bowen’s friendships, loves, landscapes, places, countries, and loyalties. Bowen herself used the word “collage” to suggest the patterning of her writing, and such terms might equally fit her life as she was opposed to the coherence and smooth line of traditional biography as a “falsification.” In addition, the visual may now assume new prominence in the telling of a life in a film or graphic biography. New kinds of language will enter narration—the traces of many worlds—including the language of social media (Twitter, email), public and legal language, along with the language of the biographer and the subject. We continue to do all the researching and sleuthing we can, but the modernist biography does not show it. We continue to search for the “creative facts” in a life, but increasingly turn toward modernist gestures, engaging readers in new ways.
                               Patricia Laurence


Patricia Laurence (author) is a literary critic, biographer, poet, and longtime member of Women Writing Women’s Lives (WWWL) Biography Seminar in New York City. She has recently published Elizabeth Bowen, A Literary Life (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). Other books by her include Julian Bell: The Violent Pacifist (2005) and Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism, and China (2003). This article is adapted from a talk she gave for WWWL.




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