Understanding biography as the heir to the novel As fiction decays into increasingly trivial self-indulgence, serious stories of consequential humans rise in importance.

May 03, 1998|By Terry Teachout | Terry Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A century ago, the novel was universally acknowledged as the greatest and most all-encompassing of literary genres, and writers seeking to understand the world around them naturally turned to it as the form best suited to their wide-ranging curiosity. But times have changed, and the expansive, richly detailed social chronicles of such novelists as Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy have lately given way to shrunken tales of private woe that are introverted to the point of self-obsession. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," life is still big - it's the novel that got small.

Fortunately, the postmodern decline of the novel has been accompanied by the emergence of the large-scale biography as an independent work of narrative art.

This isn't to say that artful biographies weren't being written prior to the 20th century; James Boswell's "Life of Johnson," for ,, example, is the envy of anyone who has ever sought to tell the story of another person's life. But something remarkable has happened to biography in this century, and especially since World War II: it has acquired the narrative sweep that once belonged solely to the great 19th-century novelists.

Long dominated by stodgy scholars with dehydrated prose styles, serious biography today attracts accomplished professional writers with a taste for drama and a flair for characterization. As a result, intelligent people who read for pleasure are increasingly favoring it over contemporary fiction.

Why would anybody want to slog through a thinly disguised memoir of the lecherous urges of an assistant professor of creative writing when he could be reading about Harry Truman, Leonard Bernstein or Clare Boothe Luce instead?

I speak from prejudice - I'm currently at work on my first biography - but even after making due allowance for wishful thinking, it still seems to me that the ambitious author interested in exploring the endless complexities of human nature is now more likely to look not to fiction, but biography.

To prove my point, I recommend the following four books, all of which are readily available at your neighborhood bookstore, via amazon.com. or through other ordering services. I've read each one several times, and have been profoundly influenced by the varied ways in which their authors grapple with the challenge of sculpting a shapely narrative out of the myriad events of a crowded life.

Needless to say, this isn't anything like a complete list of my

favorite modern biographies. Several of the most striking examples of biography-as-art, including Leon Edel's "Henry James: A Life" and John Lahr's "Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr," are currently out of print. But all of the books discussed below are on my A-list, and if you haven't yet acquired the happy habit of reading serious biographies as if they were good novels, they'll show you what you're missing.

* The work of a lifetime. Many of the greatest biographies are the culmination of decades of study and reflection. W. Jackson Bate, a noted scholar of 18th-century literature, spent 30 years teaching a course at Harvard on "The Age of Johnson"; during that time, he wrote "The Achievement of Samuel Johnson" (1955) and edited four volumes of the Yale Edition of Johnson's collected works (as well as producing seven other books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Keats). Yet all this, he later said, was mere preparation for the writing of "Samuel Johnson" (Counterpoint, 672 pages, $25), published in 1977.

Though Bate's masterpiece was written in the long shadow of the most celebrated of all biographies, Boswell's "Life of Johnson," it was immediately hailed as the definitive scholarly study of Johnson's life and work. Yet the most striking aspect of "Samuel Johnson" is not its impeccable scholarship, but the vigor with which Bate retells the well-known tale of how Johnson overcame the triple handicap of poverty, illness and a deep-seated insecurity that bordered at times on outright madness.

Better than any other biographer - including Boswell himself - Bate understood how Johnson's lifelong struggle for self-mastery made him a man of heroic moral stature: "One of the first effects he has on us is that we find ourselves catching, by contagion, something of his courage....Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us."

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