Monday, November 12, 2012

Lovers, Haters and Biography

Slate has a cute piece up on the question of how many biographers have fallen for their subject.  Answer: some.  Maybe not many.  Who the hell knows?  Unaddressed is the related question: how many grow to hate their subject as they get to know him (or her--see infra).

Getting hard data here might be even harder because the author might have all kinds of reasons not to want to admit that he had made a critical error in choosing his subject.   But famous among law professors (at least of a certain age) is at least one remarkable instance: the case of the late Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  His first biographer abandoned the project unfinished "discouraged by what seemed to him the bleakness of Holmes' character."  His second, the legendary Grant Gilmore, grew so hostile to his subject tht he finished nothing at all.   Later biographers, while not so dramatic, appear not to love their particular subject much better.  Holmes appears in retrospect, so this account goes, to have enjoyed a Petraeus-level PR operation during his lifetime which may have laid the groundwork for disappointment later (documentation for this paragraph is here).

I can think of another case which may be relevant although I am not entirely sure of the facts so I need to tread cautiously.  At any rate, I know a well-regarded feminist scholar who set out to write a biography of a pioneer in the campaign for women's independence.  Early on she discovered to her horror that her subject was also a flaming racist.  I know very little of her thinking beyond this point but I know that completion of the project took another 20 years.  One might well say--hey, finding that your subject has feet of clay is not a problem, it just makes the project all that much more interesting.  Well one might, but perhaps not so easy if you are the one.

The only other case that comes immediately to mind is the biography Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, by the incomparable historian of the postbellum south, C. Vann Woodward.  The way I remember if from the 60s, Woodward began his book by saying he had grown to dislike Watson more as his writing went on.   I just now went and looked at the online Google sample; I don't find quite those words but I do find a fascinating preface on how to deal with the life of a man who is in some (but not all)) ways quite loathsome.  
Afterthought: of course there is a whole shelf of biographies where the author seems willing just to tell the story as best he can, without (apparently) worrying about how much he cares about the subject.  I don't think anybody ever thought that Ian Kershaw (for example) ever saw much good in Hitler.  But he seemed to delight in the opportunity to tell the story fully, carefully, and  and with as much accuracy as he could control

1 comment:

dilbert dogbert said...