Redundant biographies should justify themselves

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

Authors and publishers have an obligation -- too seldom met -- to make clear why a well-documented life has been revisited.

June 13, 1999|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun

When Benita Eisler's new biography of Lord Byron became available this spring, I wondered why she wrote it. An inveterate reader and writer of biographies, I try to choose subjects who have not been "done" excessively redundantly. When I see that a subject who has been "done" dozens of times is being done again, I burn with curiosity: Why does the author think I ought to read this new version? How does the publisher plan to position the new and presumably improved version of that oft-told life?

Most of the time, my curiosity is left unsatisfied. Biographer after biographer, publisher after publisher says little or nothing about why the previous versions are inadequate.

That is intellectually reprehensible, and serves non-specialist readers poorly. It should be part of the biographer's credo -- and the publisher's imperative -- that a serious account of a life previously chronicled carries with it the responsibility to explain its unique purpose.

Eisler and Alfred A. Knopf, her publisher, did not disappoint me as they disappointed me. I searched the 800-plus pages of the biography ("Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame") for clues about why the dozen or so previous biographies of the dashing poet known to me ought to be superseded.

First I searched the index and the actual text for a reference to a major biography of Byron published just two years ago. "Byron: The Flawed Angel," by Phyllis Grosskurth, appeared from Houghton Mifflin. I had debated purchasing it upon its publication in 1997, but passed when I found no significant explanation of how it advanced the version of Byron's life told by Leslie A. Marchand in three spellbinding volumes. Surely, I thought, Eisler will be considerate enough to explain how her Byron differs from Grosskurth's Byron. After all, in the minds of Byron students, the Grosskurth biography is still fresh.

Unless I missed something, there is no reference to Grosskurth's research in Eisler's massive book. The Grosskurth biography is not even listed in Eisler's bibliography. Shame on Eisler, and shame on Knopf, in general one of the best publishers in this country or any other country. How can they be so dismissive of the obvious: Readers want to know which version of a life to choose, because most readers' lives are too crammed to read multiple versions.

I am not going to buy either the Grosskurth or the Eisler book. Rather, I am going to read Marchand's version again some day. After all, Eisler says it is the foundation of all modern Byronic studies.

Knopf, not so incidentally, also published the Marchand biography. Knopf and Marchand are exemplary in explaining why its version, now four decades old, saw the light of print. The opening sentence of Marchand's preface says "What need is there for another biography of Byron?" Marchand then covers previous biographies, book by book, until it has become clear why he has weighed in.

There are many sound reasons for a new biography of an oft-chronicled life. Most obvious is when new material has become available to the biographer. That is why A. Scott Berg decided to revisit the life of Charles Lindbergh, in a biography from Putnam that recently won the Pulitzer Prize. He explains his access to the new material in plain language, a plus for readers.

But then Berg, one of my favorite biographers, falls down on the job. He provides no evaluation of half a dozen previous serious biographies, and fails to even supply a bibliography. That means readers who want to find a clue about how he used and viewed those previous biographies must search through 43 pages of densely printed endnotes.

Another sound reason for a new biography of an old subject is a new interpretation of the subject's inner life. Fine. But if readers are in the dark about how that new interpretation perhaps invalidates previous interpretations, much is lost in the telling.

Perhaps the most egregious example in my experience revolves around the four biographies of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover published within a six-year stretch between 1987 and 1993.

The first of those was "Secrecy and Power: The Life of J. Edgar Hoover" by Richard Gid Powers (Free Press). He mentioned only one previous Hoover biography, from 14 years earlier, and failed to explain how his differed from that. I forgave Powers, though, because it had been a long time between books, the one from 14 years earlier had been brought to market soon after Hoover's death, and it was obvious a great deal of new material had become available.

I was less forgiving of version number two, the next year: "The Boss -- J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition" by Athan G. Theoharis and John Stuart Cox (Temple University Press). On page 16, the authors say, "The public persona is well-known, almost a staple of the nation's mythology. It has been promulgated in a number of best-selling volumes ... and debunked in others. But none of those books has come close to capturing the real John Edgar Hoover ... "

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