The Historian is His Own Authority, Part 2


Carl Rollyson

Let me begin by repeating the explanation for the title of this two-part column:

In R. G. Collingwood's The Idea of History, 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.

In Part 1, I did not comment on that antique word, “authorities.” Biographers and historians do not use the word now. We employ the term sources. In some sense, sources are authorities, of course. Otherwise, why bother to interview or read them? And vestiges of the word authorities also remain in that loathsome term, “authorized biographer.” Somehow, even now—at least in some circles—authorization is regarded as a Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Or to put it another way, the unauthorized biographer is driving without a license. The authorized biographer has been vetted; the unauthorized biographer has taken the law into his, or her, own hands. When I asked Lillian’s Hellman editor, William Abrahams, for an interview, he treated me like an interloper, replying that he was “the one and only authorized biographer.” This was a very strange attitude for him to adopt, since years earlier he had collaborated on an unauthorized biography of George Orwell. But then Scott Donaldson, author of an unauthorized biography of John Cheever, became a policeman for the Hemingway estate and wrote me a cautionary letter about not quoting too much from Hem in my unauthorized biography of Martha Gellhorn. In other words, Papa’s estate had its eyes on me. When the editor of my Hellman biography suggested to Mariel Hemingway that I was the perfect writer to help her with her autobiography, Mariel replied, “Oh no, Martha says he is a bad man.” And when another editor suggested to Katherine Anne Porter’s literary executor that I was the one to write a new biography of Porter, the executor asked what I had written. The editor mentioned the Hellman biography, only to have the executor exclaim, “I HATE LILLIAN HELLMAN! I WON’T ALLOW HIM TO WRITE ABOUT KATHERINE ANNE.” Her reaction would not have stopped someone like me, who belongs to the lower criminal classes, but I had to desist because the editor would not go ahead without the estate’s approval.

By now, if you are still with me after that paragraph of digression, I am prepared to say the biographer is his own authority not only in the Collingwood sense, but also according to the Rollyson doctrine: DO NOT TROUBLE YOURSELF WITH HOW MANY SOURCES YOU HAVE, BUT ASK YOURSELF: DO I HAVE ENOUGH TO TELL THE STORY OF THE LIFE I HAVE CHOSEN TO WRITE?

For his biography of Harper Lee, Charles Shields succeeded because, as I noted in Part I, he found a way of satisfying the essential questions he wanted to answer about his subject. Now in the case of Kurt Vonnegut, Shields wrote to his subject and received a rejection—but one that did not seem definitive. When Shields persisted, Vonnegut relented, sat for several interviews, then fell down the steps of his Manhattan brownstone—and after a brief hospitalization, died. I don’t know how Shields felt about his subject’s demise. The biographer probably had more questions to ask, but I can say that Shields benefitted, in the long run, from Vonnegut’s exit. It is the rare biographical subject who is satisfied with what someone else has made of his life. Even rarer are subjects like the writer Patrick White, who lived just long enough to read the biography written about him, to be shaken by what he read, and yet accept the justice of the biographer’s narrative. As Shields shows, Vonnegut, an autobiographical writer, could be prickly, as he was when another writer (David Slavitt, in this instance) wrote about the less than flattering aspects of his friend. Slavitt and Vonnegut were friends no more. The same fate might have befallen Shields if not for that fall.

The result of Vonnegut’s timely untimely demise is a splendid biography of the charming, cantankerous, and contradictory writer, who wrote with dark humor about war and who lived through the fire bombing of Dresden—and who also bought stock in Dow Chemical, the makers of napalm. Shields reveals his subject’s complications without judging him because the biographer sees the work and the man as of a piece. Vonnegut was a fierce social critic, but he was also a part of the world he satirized. He did not consider himself above it any more than did Mark Twain, who fraternized with capitalist cronies and invested in get-rich-quick schemes, even as he excoriated American jingoism and imperialism. And like Twain, Vonnegut also knew how to play his audience and enjoy the perks of being a public figure.

I especially like Shields’s handling of Vonnegut’s period of teaching in the Iowa writers’ program. Unlike most of his colleagues, Vonnegut told students there was no shame in writing commercial fiction. He had done it for more than a decade before his novels began to catch on. It was not enough to be good; you had to get published. At first his earnest students treated him as a vulgarian, but gradually Vonnegut become one of their most popular teachers, because his students realized he came to them out of the actual world in which writers had to make a living.

As a practicing biographer, I look at a book’s notes section and acknowledgments to gauge how widely the biographer has cast his net. Shields was quite successful in obtaining interviews and acquiring material in private collections. Some catches escaped Shields: Vonnegut’s second wife, Jill Krementz, for example. The biographer’s portrait of her is none too flattering, but I don’t think it would have been altered much if Shields had secured her cooperation. Krementz comes across as hard as nails—but, you know, I think she had to be hard to survive a marriage to someone like Kurt Vonnegut. Krementz insisted on being her own person, and that stance was something new to Vonnegut, who was not exactly attuned, shall we say, to the woman’s point of view.

Vonnegut expected his first wife, Jane, to sacrifice everything for him. And Jane did just that, believing in her husband’s genius. Unfortunately, Jane seems not to have read Mary Wollstonecraft, who could have explained the consequences of actually believing that Ralph Kramden is the king of his castle. Unlike Alice, who knew how to put Ralph in his place, Jane sucked it up, in today’s parlance. As a result, the Wollstonecraft principle was deployed: if you make yourself subservient to your husband, he will naturally believe that you are, in fact, his slave. And then . . . wait for it . . .you become a bore. You have no life of your own, and your husband tires of you.

My fascination with Vonnegut’s domestic life should not, however, overshadow Shields’s effort to write the biography of a writer. Discussions of Vonnegut’s books are part of the narrative. Shields does a good job of telling the story of how it took Vonnegut twenty years to be able to write about Dresden and produce his greatest novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. And the strengths and weaknesses of Vonnegut’s work, which are often inseparable, are fully revealed in this biography. Vonnegut took on big subjects, like the meaning of time and the universe, and sometimes reduced them to a joke. Was he, after all, showing how absurd existence is, or was he merely a smart aleck dodging the important questions? Critics have been of two minds about him, and I confess to my own uncertainty about Vonnegut’s ultimate value. Shields, to his credit, does no special pleading. It is, after all, still early days, and what lasts as literature is given over to the judgment of posterity.

Books mentioned in this column:
And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles Shields (Henry Holt, 2011)
Beautiful Exile: The Story of Martha Gellhorn by Carl Rollyson (, 2007)
The Idea of History: With Lectures 1926-1928 by R. G. Collingwood (Oxford University Press, 1994)
John Cheever: A Biography by Scott Donaldson (, 2011)
Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields (Owl Books, 2007)
Patrick White: A Life by David Marr (Knopf, 1992)
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (Delta, 1999)


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.



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