A biographer declares -- the end of biography Symptoms: The elusiveness of truth is the main cause -- but costs, complexities and trends contribute to its illness

The Argument

September 15, 1996|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Antediluvian tomes, they keep on coming: yet another biography of Bertrand Russell, in two volumes, two more Lord Byrons scuffling in the wings, this Edna St. Vincent Millay, or that, Eleanor Roosevelt ad infinitum. Even if, as is increasingly unlikely, significant treasures of new documentation were to appear justifying the repetitions, the biography slaughterhouse might do well to pause.

In fact, the appetites of editors for the biographical enterprise have cooled even as the high price of production has driven up prices and made sales infinitesimal; Barnes and Noble quietly removed its separate section devoted to biography in response to poor sales.

Biography is taking to its bed with what may be a mortal malady. The reasons are profound. They bear little relation to Joyce Carol Oates' facile notion that biography had become "pathography," focusing on the bloody third act of the subject's life. Many academics proudly flourish undigested material on the subject's life. Bad as they are, these books are not killing biography. Bad writing exists everywhere, as does felicitous prose.

Biography fails as a scientific approach to a life when we realize that there are questions the biographer will never answer, no matter that he spends the last penny of his advance in pursuit.

"Everyone knows what. Why don't you try to find out why?" Dashiell Hammett, my most recent subject, challenged a young writer. Yet I was unable to discover the crucial "why" of Hammett's life; what in his childhood led him on the self-destructive path of alcoholism and emotional nihilism? Was there a primal scene from which he could not recover? And why did Lillian Hellman, my co-subject, lie, from childhood to the end of her life, fabulating not only in print, which can pass respectably as fiction, but to her closest friends?

Worse, surviving witnesses fabulate; whether you interview 200 or 500, the testimony of the friends and family is tainted by self-interest more than biographers are willing to admit. That moment of victory, the joy of the biographer who learns that X is willing to talk, is invariably Pyrrhic. Pretending out of its majestic 800 pages to recreate the life, biography itself fabulates. All too often the major truths have eluded the most conscientious of gumshoe biographers.

In literary biography, the biographer discovers the subject in the work - at his own peril. Art transmogrifies. Works which are admittedly fiction yield the nuances of the psyche, but hardly the history of the life. Biographers can be seduced by the sound of the subject's voice. Lillian Hellman's memoirs reflect accurately the tenor of her relationship with Hammett - we hear Hammett's sardonic voice whole - even as many of the events therein described were invented. The biographer would do well to spend time pondering why an event in a work of fiction, which includes memoir, could not have taken place.

Epistemological defeat is met by moral turpitude. The biographer winds up a friendless soul.

Feign the best intentions

Biography groups flourish as consoling refuges for the battered. The biographer invariably becomes another kind of liar; to each witness, friend, interviewee, the biographer must seem to be that proverbial blank slate, ready to accept whatever she is told. If the witness is a friend, the biographer must seem ignorant of the worst excesses of the subject's life. The biographer must pretend to believe even when she knows what she is being told is the opposite of what really happened. Above all the biographer must imply, if not assert, that the approach will, of course, be favorable. The biographer is literature's version of television's detective Columbo.

To writers, biography is to invade privacy, not only of the dead and helpless subject, but of surviving family and friends. When they are presented with the finished product, embarrassment forms one pole of reaction, outrage the other. The biographer longs to know everything, in the hope of rendering the essence of the life. The witnesses hope that the worst will be censored out of "good taste." The subject's assertions to the world are now contradicted by realities buttressed by pages of end notes, and rendering uncomfortable all those who would rather that their friend not be exposed as a fantasist - or liar.

Yet how could I not have written that Kay Boyle broke up her marriage to Laurence Vail, traumatizing her four children, not for the heroic Austrian resistance fighter she later married, as she insisted, but for a blond, tanned, muscular ski instructor, a man not above making his peace with Hitler, if one who set the hearts of all the matrons of Megeve fluttering?

How could I not have dramatized how Hellman violated the moral trust Hammett put in her when he made her the executrix of his estate by pocketing the fruits of his writings into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, ignoring his wish that his daughter Josephine receive a full half of those proceeds?

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