I ended my last column noting that even the best biographies receive divergent reviews—a rave from Chris Rawson writing about Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is followed by Joe Nocera delivering a decidedly less enthusiastic response (which I will deal with shortly).
Often the polar extremes of reviews have more to do with the subject of the biography than with the biographer. My biography of Lillian Hellman, for example, was lauded and attacked, often depending on the politics of the reviewer. A leftie historian in The Washington Post trounced my take on Hellman, saying my book was not fit for much more than to hold down a blanket on a windy day at the beach. His review concerned only the politics of my biography, as though Lillian Hellman the playwright and screenwriter did not exist. Another reviewer was upset because I described Hellman’s physical appearance, quoting one of my interviewee’s comparison of Helman’s visage with George Washington’s. That reviewer thought because I reported such impressions, I had a standard of beauty related to my Marilyn Monroe biography. Some reviewers have a priori assumptions about biography that skew their reception of books—books that must be flawed because they do not meet the reviewer’s preconceptions. And this observation brings me to Joe Nocera and his New York Times review of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs.
Essentially, Nocera’s view of Isaacson’s book is that it is a rush job, put out there to capitalize on the enormous attention given to his subject’s imminent demise. Isaacson’s proximity to his subject and his lack of perspective, Nocera says, make the Jobs biography a fatally flawed book. This charge could be true (I have to confess I haven’t read the Jobs biography yet). But I’m more concerned with Nocera’s principle that biography has to be written in tranquility after the subject is dead. No doubt there will be other biographies that in the fullness of time will provide insights that did not occur to Walter Isaacson. No doubt other biographies will be written that draw on evidence unavailable to Isaacson. But all subsequent biographies of Jobs will be deeply indebted to Isaacson because he interviewed Jobs and because Isaacson was part of the moment in which Steve Jobs lived and died. What later biographies gain with perspective, they will also lose with loss of proximity. There is never a time when all the evidence is in, a time that is “right” for a given biography. Or to put it another way, the time is always right because the evidence is not only accumulating, it is also vanishing—a point that the notoriously private, even secretive Steve Jobs understood when he invited Isaacson to write his biography.
Long ago Herbert Butterfield observed that later biographers of George III benefited mightily from the first generation of biographers, who established evidence and patterns of interpretation that could be built upon. Recently, a Sylvia Plath scholar noted that first biography of Plath by Edward Butscher established certain conventions for dealing with Plath’s life that have been observed in subsequent biographies, no matter how much they differ from Butscher.
It has always been a great sadness to me, and a tremendous loss to the genre of biography, that too many biographers pretend that they owe nothing to their predecessors, that “secondary sources” (i.e., other biographers) are not themselves a part of the crucial evidence of biography.
Nocera could be right that Isaacson has written a rush job, but even if Nocera is right, so is Isaacson. History on the run is still history.
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.