On Composition in Biography

By Nigel Hamilton

Who knows what goes into the composition – the structuring, the narrative style, the authorial agenda – of a major biography?

Do you? Does anyone, other than the author?

Given that we’ve been composing biographies for more than 2000 years, is that not a reason to be a surprised, even ashamed at our ignorance? We know about string theory, we know how Hemingway composed his novels; but about how Edmund Morris composed his multivolume biography of Theodore Roosevelt – or even his experimental biography of Ronald Reagan – we know next to nothing. Ditto Robert Caro’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, or John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams? And yet these works profoundly influence the way we see those individuals, in retrospect, and will do so for perhaps a generation!

This unfortunate situation has a number of causes, ranging from longstanding academic indifference to the inherent “problem” of biography as it is “received” in our society: namely that readers are understandably more interested in the “product” of biography – the individual portrayed – than in the creative process by which the portrait was arrived at. Subject trumps composition, tout court.

Now there is nothing wrong with this, per se. As readers we want to know about the life being recorded, and the author’s evaluation of that life. Moreover we want to be convinced the biographer has done his or her homework; we also want judgments that proceed from the research, rather than mere assertion or prejudice. But about the composition of the work? No.

No. Whether in book reviews, essays, or interviews with the author, or even occasional academic discussion: no. Biographical composition is a foreign land. One that is still not mapped, is largely undiscovered, and generally ignored in our culture. We spend more time speculating about a dish from a menu then we ever do reflecting on the way a major work of biography, affecting a major figure in past or present culture, was composed, behind the finally-printed text.

This is a pity, for the way in which a biographer puts together the jigsaw of a human life, often over many years of gestation and alteration, is potentially very interesting – at least, if you are interested in creative composition, as I am.

I don’t just mean the genesis, as in how the author came to write a serious biography (though that, too, can be interesting). I mean how the biographer constructed the work, as an architect goes through the iterative processes of a major work of architecture. The story.

For in the end, as has often been observed, biography is telling the story of an individual –– a real individual. The biographer uses many of the same tropes, techniques, narrative designs and other strategies as fictional storytelling. Why, then, do we analyze and discuss such tropes almost ad nauseam with regard to fiction (and memoir in “creative non-fiction” classes), but almost never in relation to biography – despite biographies having a far more serious impact on our culture: the way we see, judge, and relate to real lives.

How is it possible that the composition of major works of biography – of masterworks – simply go unexamined in our society, either as the history of a text, or in terms of new research pursued: namely in interviews conducted with the author, and/or in thoughtful dissection of a major biographer’s papers? Where are those papers? Why did it take almost 150 years to start tracing them and the actual composition of Boswell’s Dr. Johnson?

Hopefully the Société de Biographie will spur interest and research into this dark corner of real life depiction – especially with regard to the evolution of a major biographical text.

Let me give an example – albeit from fiction composition.

At the recent Morgan Library exhibition of the manuscripts and correspondence of Ernest Hemingway[1] it was possible recently to see mounted on the walls the various stages of composition and re-composition of some of Hemingway’s seminal texts: an exhibition that provided fresh and often moving – occasionally hilarious – insight into the textual changes Hemingway made, from first draft to final draft. His letters to and from his expatriate colleagues in Paris made fascinating viewing, featuring Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s nine-page letter critiquing the draft of A Farewell to Arms is there – a letter that effectively ended their friendship, when Hemingway scribbled, at the bottom of the letter, “Kiss my ass/E.H.”

Here, surely, is a New Territory, still unsurveyed and open to scholarly biographical investigation. How much did the biographer change his or her account during the composition of a major work: its style, its structure, its interpretation, its agenda?

It will be fascinating to see, once we set to work.

Au travail, mes confrères!

 Nigel Hamilton

[1] “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars,” Morgan Library, New York, September 25, 2015 – January 15, 2016

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *