Biography and Gossip

By Nigel Hamilton

An interesting essay by the award-winning novelist Cynthia Ozick was put on the front cover of last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review – a cover always reserved for book reviews.

In it Ms. Ozick gloried in what she called “gossip” as a quintessential ingredient in great storytelling. “Ever since Genesis no story has been free of gossip.” she wrote. “To choose to live without gossip” – as preachers since the Bible have urged mankind to do – “is to scorn storytelling,” for “the gossiper strives to fathom the difference between appearance and reality and to expose the gap between the false and the genuine” – to peer “through the keyhole of unsuspecting humanity.”

How true!

How interesting, too, her examples of where we would be without gossip and rumination on repute, at least in literary terms – “no Chaucer, no Boccaccio, no Boswell, no Jane Austen, no Maupassant, no Proust, no Henry James!”[1]

Well, I for one was glad somebody’s said it – moreover has hitched a famous biographer – perhaps the most famous biographer – to the cause!

Not that Boswell’s own reputation survived his passing. Poor man! He wrote the greatest biography in English literature – but after he died he was trashed by Lord Macaulay, the Victorian historian, as a drunken sot, and his reputation quickly plummeted. Not only his reputation, but the very example he had set for the process and construction of modern biography.

Visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris recently, on my way to the Biography Workshop and inaugural meeting of the Société de Biographie in Aix en Provence, I happened to see the new exhibition portraying the underside of the Victorian world, “Splendeurs et Misères: Images de la Prostitution en France, 1850-1910.”

What a magnificent keyhole into the patriarchal, sexual universe of the Victorians! It was like looking at a vast, hidden harem: revealed through the brave eyes of Béraud, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Tissot, Chabaud, Van Dongen, Dérain, Bernard, Picasso, Van Gogh, Munch, Mossa and Forain – who all dared record the matrix of Victorian hypocrisy and prudery. The novels of Maupassant and Zola were represented, along with King Edward VII’s actual “Chaise de volupté.” Sadly biography was not represented – because, after Boswell, the snobs and prudes closed down biography as an exploration of human splendors and miseries – exploration that was only permitted in fiction, not reality.

That sad story is well known to historians of biography – though there were, to be sure, positive aspects of Victorian life-chronicles, especially in the quasi-scientific, historical approach to fact gathering, as well as the enlarged biographical net the Victorians threw when compiling biographical dictionaries of men (not women, however). What is particularly relevant to us today, as we undertake a more research-oriented approach to the study of modern biography, is Ozick’s inclusion of Boswell in her list of great storytellers. For during the last hundred years, as more and more of Boswell’s papers have come to light, the manner in which he was trashed by Lord Macaulay and the Victorians has been revealed to be a monstrous travesty by a supposedly great historian of the age – a historian who failed utterly to be a true historian when it came to Boswell’s life.

As we consider the need to begin researching the records, papers and lives of modern biographers for the first time on a major scale, it is worth reminding ourselves of the example of James Boswell. His Life of Dr. Johnson took him seven years to assemble and write in the late eighteenth century, during which other biographies of the great Bear or Doctor were published. Boswell was unfazed by the competition, however. Of Dr. Johnson, he explained, “I profess to write, not his panegyrick, which must be all praise, but his Life; which, great and good as he was, must not be supposed to be entirely perfect. To be as he was, is indeed subject of panegyrick enough to any man in this state of being; but in every picture there should be shade as well as light.” He had known Johnson personally for twenty-one years and was determined to tell the truth – truth that would make Johnson come alive, as a great portrait painter does.

Despite the objections of contemporary critics and hero-worshippers he succeeded; but once the Victorians sank their white, moralistic teeth into him, poor Boswell fared miserably. His biography was lauded by Lord Macaulay, the historian, as a “a great, a very great work.” But Boswell himself “was one of the smallest men that ever lived,” Macaulay sneered, a man “of the meanest and feeblest intellect.” He was “the laughing-stock of the whole of that brilliant society which has owed to him the greater part of its fame. He was always laying himself at the feet of some eminent man, and begging to be spit upon and trampled upon.” Without “the officiousness, the inquisitiveness, the effrontery, the toad-eating, the insensibility to all reproof he never could have produced so excellent a book,” Macaulay claimed. “He was a slave, proud of his servitude,” an “unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision.” Boswell had, Macaulay judged, “a weak and diseased mind. What silly things he said, what bitter retorts he provoked, how at one place he was troubled with evil presentiments which came to nothing, how at another place, on waking from a drunken doze, he read the prayer-book and took a hair of the dog that had bitten him, how he went to see men hanged and came away maudlin, how he added five hundred pounds to the fortune of one of his babies because she was not scared at Johnson’s ugly face, how he was frightened out of his wits at sea, and how the sailors quieted him as they would have quieted a child, how tipsy he was at Lady Cork’s one evening and how much his merriment annoyed the ladies, how impertinent he was to the Duchess of Argyle and with what stately contempt she put down his impertinence, how Colonel Macleod sneered to his face at his impudent obtrusiveness, how his father and the very wife of his bosom laughed and fretted at his fooleries; all these things he proclaimed to all the world, as if they had been subjects for pride and ostentatious rejoicing. All the caprices of his temper, all the illusions of his vanity, all his hypochondriac whimsies all his castles in the air, he displayed with a cool self-complacency, a perfect unconsciousness that he was making a fool of himself, to which it is impossible to find a parallel in the whole history of mankind. He has used many people ill; but assuredly he has used nobody so ill as himself.” In short, it was sheer “infamy” that such a feeble writer and personality should have written such an incomparable biography.[2]

As a professional biographer I wince every time I read Lord Macaulay’s vicious put-down. However it gives me hope, too: for when reviewers of my own warts-and-all works are reviewed by the likes of Michiko Kakutani, lead critic of the New York Times daily edition, I can console myself that they are the fools. For Ms. Kakutani, the first volume of my biography of President Clinton was nothing but “base gossip,” despite (or because of) the hundreds of fresh interviews I had done. It “represents a sleazy new low in the chronicling of presidential lives,” she damned me in the manner of Lord Macaulay. “It regurgitates the most scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors about Mr. Clinton and his wife; dwells, with voyeuristic fascination, on his sex life and uses soap opera prose and sociological hot air to recount (in this, the first of two projected volumes) Mr. Clinton’s life through the conclusion of his tumultuous 1992 run for the White House.”[3]

Ms. Kakutani had said much the same of my biography of the young President Kennedy, JFK: Reckless Youth: namely that it “often reads like a trashy novel, one of those epic family sagas peopled with villains and heroes, and animated by stark, primordial emotions. The writing is frequently sensationalistic (“Kennedy then entered Swanson’s suite at the Hotel Poinciana and raped her,” he writes of Joseph P. Kennedy’s first night with Gloria Swanson); the insights into the familial psychology of the Kennedys are crudely and superficially Freudian.” Ms Kakutani – who is a brilliant reviewer of fiction, but lamentably ignorant of the working mechanisms of biography – was, however, compelled to set aside her feelings about the author – “an egregious Brit” as she later called me. “What overcomes these highly noticeable flaws,” she allowed, in the manner of the Victorian peer, “is the sheer accumulation of detail Mr. Hamilton has amassed: his minute, often day-by-day chronicle of young Kennedy’s life is based on 2,000 interviews and access to previously unpublished documents, and it slowly but steadily steamrollers over the reader’s doubts.”[4]

The shadow of Lord Macaulay thus still hangs over us, as biographers. Are we risible voyeurs, or “artists on oath” (as Desmond McCarthy once put it)? Or are we – as I have argued elsewhere[5] – serious microhistorian-biographers without whom historians, thanks to their moral hangups, indolence and fear of interviews (“base gossip”) are seldom equipped to judge the real import of individuality and individual agency when recording the past?

Boswell is, in this respect, a wonderful example of how, in academia if not in the New York Times, the true nature of what goes into a major biography is at last being validated – and valorized.

As James Caudle, one of the great editors of the Yale Editions of James Boswell, has written, Macaulay did not get away with his ignorant sneers. The “Life of Johnson now can lay claim to being the best-documented book of the eighteenth century,” he has noted – and the seven-year gestation of Boswell’s book equally so. Boswell’s actual research trail was an extraordinary story in itself – vindicating Boswell’s “Advertisement” to the first 1791 edition, in which Bozzie had explained the pains he had taken to get his facts right, involving “a degree of trouble far beyond that of any other species of composition.” It is, as Caudle described, “now the centerpiece of a record of its own evolution from talk into manuscript and into text, via printers and booksellers.” Moreover, as more and more of Boswell’s papers, diaries and letters emerged and were catalogued, annotated, debated and evaluated “from late Victorian times to the 1990s,” it became clear that Boswell was not only an indefatigable researcher, but a far better and more consciously artistic biographer than Johnson himself had been. Boswell’s “Life  was not simply an idiot savant’s verbatim transcription of whatever Johnson had to say, as Macaulay had averred, but rather a work of documentary drama, or Thucydidean reconstruction,” Caudle summarized the growing academic interest in Boswell as a biographer.

Moreover there has been a postmodern epilogue to this reassessment of Boswell as a pioneering modern biographer. Not all agreed as to Boswell’s exact merits, but Macaulay’s sneering malignity was clearly a thing of the past – for latterly there has come Boswell’s reconstruction as a postmodern icon. “Since the 1980s, Boswell has been psychologized, globalized, gendered, queered, and re-Scottified,” Caudle noted with amusement. “and has recently appeared in the guise of a practitioner of an archaic evolutionary branch of rap. That is far from the entire list of his transmutations in the secondary literature, but it will suffice to show how far the mental universe of 1950 is from the current scholarly world.”[6]

Biographers today may not wear the same shoes as Boswell – or talk, drink and “wench” quite as much. However, our diaries, papers and correspondence should perhaps be kept, collected and in due course studied: which is one of the research objectives of our new Société de Biographie. For if biography is the primary source and basis for how our society views real individuals, then future scholars should know – as we now know in relation to Boswell – more about the true process by which biographers arrive at our portraits, in all their forms. And that, as Ms Ozick rightly posits, should include gossip. “No gossip, no interiority. No interiority, the anthill.”[7]

Nigel Hamilton

[1] Cynthia Ozick, “The Novel’s Evil Tongue,” New York Times Book Review, December 20, 2015.

[2] Thomas Macaulay, review of The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Including a Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, by James Boswell, Esq. A New Edition, with numerous Additions and Notes. By John Wilson Croker, LL.D., F.R.S. Five volumes, 8vo. London: 1831, reprinted in The Works of Lord Macaulay, 12 vols. (London: Longmans Green and Co., 1898), VIII, 56-111.

[3] Michiko Kakutani, “portrait of a President, Warts and … More Warts,” New York Times, September 23, 2003.

[4] Michiko Kakutani, “A Daunting Father, A Brother’s Shadow,” New York Times, November 27, 1992.

[5] Nigel Hamilton, “Biography as Corrective,” in the forthcoming The Biographical Turn (Routledge, 2016).

[6] “Editing James Boswell, 1924-2010: Pasts, Presents, Futures,” 2010, https://yale.academia.edu/JamesCaudle.

[7] Ozick, loc.cit.

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