by Nigel Hamilton
Biography has changed color, and added new coats to its wardrobe, since it began thousands of years ago: adapting to new technologies as well as audiences. Books of course, have remained the preferred medium – and it was fascinating to read in the New York Times Business section recently that, following the tidal wave of e-books, “interactive, multi-media apps” are increasing. One of them, founded last year, is Metabook, a publishing company and app that adds music, documentary video about the author, and other features to the main text. “The whole concept is very new, in terms of how it’s re-imagining the way to experience a book,” the founder was quoted saying. According to the article Metabook is proposing the app be applied to a whole range of genres. So far, though, it’s being applied to fiction – though history and science books have been using graphics, audio and video, maps and photographs for years to “enhance” their appeal, and impact. Will this development eventually extend to works of biography?
It is hard to imagine it won’t. Biography, though, has generally been slow to adopt new approaches to the genre, compared, say, with fiction. Think of Lytton Strachey’s famous introduction to Eminent Victorians, in which he deplored long, dutiful nineteenth-century biographies – “those two fat volumes, with which it is or custom to commemorate the dead. Who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slip-shod style, their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design?” Strachey was determined to break that mold – and did. To a degree.
Film had seemed to beat Strachey to the same punch, by twenty years. At least it had threatened to. In America the Lumière cinematographe had been ousted by the American Mutascope Company or Biograph. It was their early film of President McKinley in the 1896 election campaign that was the sensation of the year. “[P]andemonium broke loose for five minutes” in the theater, according to the local New York newspaper. “Men stood up in their seats and yelled with might and main, and flags were waved by dainty hands that would fain cast a vote on November 3” (given that women had no vote). At last, after centuries of printed words and oral accounts, the public could see the possible president of their country, as it were, “in person.” Like the invention of printing, mass distribution of moving pictures had begun, in fact, to change the way a whole society operated; in this case, how it viewed its political candidates, literally – or visually. Film had seemed, at this historical moment, to offer the biographer a new lens to tell the truth about an important individual in the public mind. The earliest theaters were even called biographs.
Of course it was not to be – at least not until the advent of television documentary half a century later. As Charles Musser, the great historian of early American cinema pointed out in The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (University of California Press 1990), the dictates of entertainment inevitably won out. Once the novelty of “likeness” to actual, or real, life wore off, the public wanted distraction, amusement, imagination, satire, comedy, drama, rather than merely real recording of the lives of real individuals.
Early cinema was, after all, a predominantly working class spectacle. Biographers – whether filmmakers or authors like Lytton Strachey – were unable provide the same level of popular suspense, drama and entertainment as fictional film or novels.
The work of serious biographers, however, did not go away. After all, we’re still here – and who knows, Metabook may still call!
Nigel Hamilton, December 9, 2015
 Alexandra Alter, “A Novelist’s Page-Turner Will Take Swipes Instead,” New York Times, December 4, 1015