Biographology is a word coined by an editor of my work at the New York Sun. In the spring of 2003, I had lunch with Robert Messenger, then editor of the Sun’s arts page, and pitched my idea of a column about biography. I told him that I thought most reviews of biographies were worthless. Most reviewers reviewed the subject of the biography, not the biography. Perhaps a paragraph or two might be devoted to dismissing the biographer’s book as “workman like,” or employing some other unflattering epithet to describe a form of writing practiced by second class authors incapable of writing novels. Of course, the highest compliment a biographer can receive is, “Your work reads like a novel!” Almost no one, I told Robert, wrote with any sort of loyalty to the genre itself—not even biographers whose reviews rarely drew on their own experience. So I wanted to write reviews from a biographer’s perspective, drawing on my experience in order to discuss the biographer’s sources and methodology, and, most importantly, addressing the question of where a particular biography fit into current practice, as well as in the history of the genre. Robert, an avid reader and respecter of biography, told me to get on with it, but with one proviso: Because I was writing for a newspaper, I had to review recently published biographies. I could not, in other words, write a full-fledged column. I had to work in my view of biography week-by-week as I discussed individual books, some of which were of my choosing and some of which he assigned to me.
From the spring of 2003 to the middle of 2007, I wrote for the Sun, gradually developing an audience that seemed to appreciate a kind of review they rarely found elsewhere. I usually had between 900 and 1,400 words to work with, although as the Sun’s revenues declined, I was cut to 800 words. Changing editors meant that gradually my idea of a book review met with uncomprehending responses. In frustration, I quit. But the story has a happy ending: Robert Messenger is now at the helm of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend arts coverage, and I now get to write 1,200-word biographological reviews.
So what am I doing here? Hoping, finally, to write about biography and the practice of reviewing it from a broader perspective than is available in a book review, exploring what I expect from biographies, and commenting on how other reviewers and critics treat the genre. Every two weeks, I will deal with how biographers are treated in the press, while doing some name dropping and perhaps even purveying gossip about the world of biographers—a cosmos I inhabit that includes the NYU biography seminar and BIO (the newly formed Biographers International Organization), as well as reports from friends and run-ins with colleagues in what has come to be called the life-writing business.
So let’s begin with that bane of the biography trade: J. D. Salinger and Kenneth Slawenski’s new biography of same, a book I reviewed in the Wall Street Journal.
To my surprise I wrote in high praise of a work that I expected to dislike. Slawenski is a Salinger fan with a fan-like website, and I presumed he had produced a hagiography—exactly the word that Blake Bailey, a biographer I admire and have reviewed with the enthusiasm, employed in his review of Slawenski’s book.
When I read Bailey’s takedown, my heart sank. Had I been too soft on Slawenski? Bailey pointed out that Slawenski had done virtually no interviewing and made little use of the memoirs written by Salinger’s daughter and by a former lover, both of which portray a seamier side that it is every biographer’s duty to deal with. Reading Bailey I thought, “I could have written that review!” So how come I didn’t? And why is it, I wondered, that reviews of the same biography can often be at such odds with one another?
Part of my unexpected response to Slawenski resulted from my reading of two previous Salinger biographies written by Ian Hamilton and Paul Alexander, both of which I enjoyed but found incomplete—not just because Salinger was uncooperative, but because the biographers wrote about their subject without the care for his work that Slawenski showed from the outset. Slawenski does not gush like a fan, and he does not shy away from acknowledging his subject’s weaker work. To the contrary, he is persistent, even dogged—some reviewers no doubt would say “plodding”—in his description of Salinger’s literary output. But after Hamilton’s crude psychologizing and Alexander’s all too crisp wrap-ups of what Salinger’s writing is all about, Slawenski seems soberly refreshing—at least for a devotee of literature.
And after reading the meager results of Hamilton’s and Alexander’s interviews, I concluded that a biographer had a choice: Try for a major breakthrough with interviews, or keep one’s nose to the grindstone while tracking down every document and archive that might yield more than the wary witnesses to Salinger’s reclusive life would divulge while he was still alive. In other words, treat the living figure as though he were dead. It may also be true, of course—as one of my biographer friends suggested to me—that Slawenski was just too timid to do the hard work of getting people to talk. If she is right, all I can say is that Slawenski played to his strengths. Not every biography has to follow the Rollyson/Bailey regime of extensive interviewing and mining of memoirs. Slawenski did indeed find new material about the Salinger family, for example, in documents that yielded certain facts that Salinger himself probably did not know.
Bailey was also disappointed in Slawenski’s treatment of Salinger’s war experience, pointing out that the biographer relied mainly on accounts of the events involving Salinger’s unit, but had no firsthand information regarding what Salinger actually thought of his experience. Salinger landed on the beaches of Normandy, and he helped liberate the concentration camps. He smelled the burning flesh. We know he had some sort of breakdown. The details are sketchy. Bailey objects to Slawenski’s inferences, which attribute feelings to Salinger that perhaps he did not experience. Bailey may be right. But what is a biographer supposed to do? I found the wartime period of Slawenski’s book riveting and moving, so emotionally involving that I thought it explained a good deal of Salinger’s disgust with civilization and its phoniness. Slawenski absolutely nailed it, I thought. And because of that performance, I think my natural inclination to fault his unwillingness to pursue Salinger and those who encountered him abated. It seemed to me his accomplishment towers over Hamilton’s and Alexander’s.
But there is another aspect to my reaction—what might almost be called a point of personal privilege I invoked while reading Slawenski on the wartime Salinger. I was putting myself in the biographer’s place. Over twenty years ago, working on a biography of Martha Gellhorn, I got stuck trying to describe what happened to her after her marriage to Ernest Hemingway broke up. Why she decided to marry T. S. Matthews, then retired from managing Time and living in England while writing his memoirs. I had no letters. Matthews refused to speak with me. So did Gellhorn. I was able to interview a few people at Time who knew the couple, but my documentary evidence concerning what happened in the marriage and why it ended in divorce amounted to next to nothing—certainly less than Slawenski had for Salinger’s war years. But Matthews’s autobiographies created a very powerful sense of the kind of man he was, and I knew a great deal about Gellhorn and her attitudes toward marriage—plus I was making all those sorts of inferences that provoke biographers to tell you about how things “must have seemed” to their subjects.
I was still hoping to find more evidence before writing the chapter on Gellhorn and Matthews, but I was on a short deadline and had to do something. So I wrote the chapter as though I had the evidence. I thought of it as a nonfiction short story. Then I got lucky. A tip from Hemingway biographer Kenneth Lynn led me to the Bernard Berenson Papers. There I found a marvelous exchange of letters between Berenson and Gellhorn that explained a good deal of her motivation for marrying Matthews, even as she predicted the marriage probably would not last. What she wrote jibed with much of what I had already written. Then I even got luckier when I called someone who had earlier refused to be interviewed. She agreed to talk after I told her about what I had found in the letters. I implied that she might as well fess up—and she did.
Now I suppose Slawenski should have sought such a breakthrough. This would be the Blake Bailey line. But true to his modus operandi, Slawenski instead built up a cumulative picture of Salinger in war that I still regard—after giving it a Blake Bailey second thought—quite an achievement. And because I believe that biographies do not stand alone—that one biography is built on the spines of other biographies—I think someday what Slawenski has written might very well seem even truer than it seems to me today. And even if I’m wrong, I’m also right, because I believe that one biography is always the answer to another biography. In this case Slawenski took a tack quite different from those pursued by Hamilton and Alexander, and I believe that Slawenski should be honored for doing so, even if—I concede to Bailey—Bailey and I would have done it differently.
In the coming weeks, when I discuss Marilyn Monroe and Sylvia Plath, I will be coming back to this point: Biography is a cumulative and incremental enterprise. No biography is definitive, and this means that reviewers and critics ought to regard the latest biography as part of the genre’s work-in-progress, never to be finished, but always striving for that more perfect union of biographer and subject that the founders of the genre envisioned.
Books mentioned in this column:
Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.