The Biographer is His Own Authority, Part 1
My title is adapted from R. G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History, in which he asserts that the “historian is his own authority.” In other words, history is more that the sum of its sources, and the true historian (and the true biographer, I would add) brings to the telling of history a deeply imaginative sensibility that relies on and yet transcends the very “authorities” on which his narrative is based.
When I told Charles Shields I was going to write a column about his work, beginning with Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, I asked him if he could recommend reviews or articles he thought I should consult. He replied that nothing fresh had been said about his book in five years—leaving me, as they say, to my own devices. I decided not to look at the reviews. I had a vague recollection of them from the time Mockingbird appeared, but that memory (and I have a very bad memory) has not influenced the writing of this piece. I confess I did take a peek at a few responses to the biography on Goodreads. Mainly, they irritated me—although they also provided me with the launching point for this column.
I find it very annoying when reviewers of an unauthorized biography of a living figure make a big deal about the biographer’s lack of access to his subject. You might as well dismiss, say, a biography of Julius Caesar because the biographer could not talk to him. Or let’s junk Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce because Joyce was not around for an interview when Ellmann began his book. It is pointless to begin (and often end) by battering the biographer because he was never able to shine his subject’s shoes.
The question to ask of any biographer is: What story is he telling? And ask: Is he telling it well? And: What kind of biography is it? For example, by titling our biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, my wife, Lisa Paddock, and I signaled that this first biography of our subject would focus on how she and others built her career and public image. Our bedrock source was Sontag’s publisher's archive at the New York Public Library. Access to that collection made the kind of biography we wanted to write possible. Of course, we asked Sontag for an interview (we were denied), and we interviewed several people close to her—although plenty of others rejected our requests to speak with them. As the first biographers of Sontag, we had enough material. Of course, later biographers will have a treasure trove of material we could not consult. But they will not have interacted with those we interviewed who have since died. Biography is a trade-off.
Now, Charles Shields wanted to know what everyone wants to know about Harper Lee: How come she never published another book? And, of course, he wanted to learn about the woman who created a novel that has become a staple of the school curriculum, selling millions of copies around the world. By the end of Shields’s biography, I had an overwhelming sense of why Harper Lee never produced another book. How could she possibly top her own debut novel? And why would she want to, unless she believed she had in her another story that could do so? She did try to write other books, and Shields tells us about them. But of course, her first novel was a constant presence as she sat down to try to write another. The world would not let Harper Lee alone. Unlike her friend, Truman Capote, she had never dreamed of fame, and she never expected her first novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, or even to sell very well. It had been grueling work writing To Kill a Mockingbird, and judging from Shields’s narrative, Lee was able to complete her novel because she had the avid support of close friends and could work in obscurity. Unlike Capote or Susan Sontag, Harper Lee did not troll Manhattan parties getting to know people so that she could later walk into publishers’ offices and drop the right names. Lee was very much her own person, without the kind of insecurities that beset writers bent on celebrity who worry about whether their stock is rising or falling. Of course, she wanted recognition for her work, but she was no literary politician.
One annoying commentator on Goodreads said there was too much about Truman Capote in Shields’s book. Wrong! Capote is at the absolute heart of this book—and with good reason. Lee and Capote grew up together, and both saw themselves as writers early on. They both cared deeply about becoming successful, but Capote equated success with fame, and Lee did not. That she became famous was disconcerting—to her and Capote—and I think it is fair to say she has never recovered from her surprise over the reception of her first novel. To Kill a Mockingbird has never gone out of print, and it has never stopped being Harper Lee’s calling card. She has made her peace with those facts, Shields suggests, and it is a peace that the attention-grabbing Capote never could attain. His sad end, compared to her dignified life, is a striking feature of Shields's biography—although Shields never editorializes. He lets the story of the Capote-Lee friendship evolve so that we see how she was crucial to his work on In Cold Blood, which involved getting to know that Kansas community where the Clutter family was brutally murdered. Capote simply did not have Lee’s downhome finesse in dealing with the locals. Indeed, left to his own self-regarding ways, he might well have ruined his project.
But Capote is not the object lesson of the biography. Shields does not tear Capote down in order to build up Harper Lee. Her own quirks and tetchy manners are on display, too, and she emerges from this biography as a complex, likable, and flawed human being. Shields did a remarkable job with interviews and primary and secondary sources. Perhaps one day another biographer will come along and draw on what this biographer was denied. But that biographer will also be building on Shields. Perhaps the Capote friendship will not receive as much play in the next Lee biography, but such an eventuality will result because the story will have taken on other proportions that force any subsequent biographer to figure out how to incorporate new material.
So what happened to Charles Shields when he approached Kurt Vonnegut, who decides the biographer is not such a bad sort? Stayed tuned for part 2.
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. His Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews will appear this fall and American Isis: The Life and Death of Sylvia Plath in the spring of 2013. He is currently writing a biography of Amy Lowell. When not writing, he is playing with his two Scotties. Contact Carl.