“Knowing” the Subject

by Nigel Hamilton

The history of biography is studded with cases where the biographerNigelHamilton knew the biographee in person – from Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. to Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. Naturally, in terms of objectivity, this makes those biographies suspect in the academy – guilty of inevitable bias, whether negative or positive.

Who would not willingly exchange an ‘objective’ biography of the elusive Shakespeare, though, for one penned by a biographer who had actually known the Bard in person?

The fact is, all good biographers seek to emulate the knower-in-person. We seek to convey personality, as Virginia Woolf deemed the primary objective in modern biography, and to create in the reader’s mind an intimacy with the subject that one might call ‘literary friendship.’ To achieve this, following Dr. Johnson’s prescription, we try to describe the biographee in his or her habitat, as well as well as in public office. We try to quote those who have actually met or known the subject in person. And we use the subject’s own writings or recorded sayings – in diaries, letters, memoranda, drafts, conversations, texts – to simulate a sort of longer conversation, or audience with the subject. We want the reader to close our books feeling he or she had gotten to “know” the biographee, in good times and bad, and is consequently empowered to form a judgment, not only of the biographee’s public life, but personal life, and their intersection, for good or ill.

That biographical imperative, re-emphasized by Dr. Johnson, probably goes back to the encomia or spoken tributes delivered in Greek and Roman times – just as the tradition survives today at memorial services, where people who actually knew the deceased in person stand in front of mourners to offer a personal memoir or vignette, in advance of society’s judgment – or failure to judge.

Personal or simulated knowledge of the deceased, then, is thus a sort of sine qua non of biography. Suetonius, who had worked at the imperial library in Rome and knew many witnesses to the succession of emperors he described in AD 121 in his Twelve Caesars, set an unforgettable example of personalized biographical description. The four Gospels, written around the same time, set an even more influential example, however. Who has not heard preachers even today quoting the gospel writers as if Matthew, Mark, Luke and John had actually met and known Jesus of Nazareth personally (which they hadn’t), so brilliantly did they depict his life? Indeed, their biographies, each distinctive in its own way, are tours de force that have become the ultimate proof that Jesus was actually a real person, given the paucity of contemporary historical evidence.

 It would be interesting, then, to interview biographers today on this aspect of biography: personal knowledge of the biographee, and simulated knowledge. What is the difference – or rather, how has that difference affected certain biographies?

In this connection the most salient example here in the United States is the South-African born biographer, Edmund Morris, whose trilogy on President Theodore Roosevelt[1] may never be surpassed as a literary as well as historical masterpiece. The rapturous welcome given to its first volume led to Morris being appointed Official Biographer of then-President Ronald Reagan, in 1985. He would, he was promised, get to know the President in person – even be allowed to be a fly- on-the wall in National Security meetings at the White House.

The resultant opus, Dutch,[2] was in many ways a disaster. Morris found himself conflicted, and unable to deliver the manuscript – which took fourteen years to compose. I well remember Edmund showing me the beautiful black, craftsman-made Official Biographer’s desk he had commissioned with his advance royalties, and the special, oversized card index drawers it contained. They slid in and out silently, without so much as a whisper, and on the cards themselves, his tiny, italic handwriting testified to his artistic sensibility. Yet they were almost empty, save for a line or two, at most. He found he simply couldn’t figure the President out, and therefore couldn’t throw himself, as expected, into the conventional garb of a biographer as he’d done with Teddy Roosevelt – whose life he had had to put down mid-way through the oeuvre.

I felt for him, having had the reverse experience: writing (to positive reception) a trilogy about a man I had known intimately (Field Marshal Montgomery of Alamein),[3] and then writing (and encountering great abuse for doing so) intimately about someone I hadn’t met or known – John F. Kennedy!

Dutch aroused, if anything, more controversy than my JFK: Reckless Youth.[4] Reagan was, in 1999, still alive, though incommunicado and suffering Alzheimer’s disease. Reagan’s family, acolytes, aficionados and worshippers were furious – as were scholars who’d been denied access to Reagan’s papers while Morris underwent his biographical soul-searching. But Morris had been adamant, aware that he couldn’t simulate a biographer’s intimacy with a President he had in fact actually gotten to know – and couldn’t figure out. In the end he had hit upon a technique well-known to novelists and playwrights: namely the invention of someone who has personal knowledge of the subject: a fictional narrator who has known and observed Reagan since his early days, even before Hollywood.

This method is still standard fare in fiction – as for example the novel I am reading by Robert Harris: Dictator, the third volume of a fictional biography of Cicero, as narrated by Cicero’s slave, the scribe and stenographer Tiro (who actually was Cicero’s slave)[5]. Laila Lalami, used the same tactic in The Moor’s Account, her equally brilliant novel describing the real-life Narváez Expedition to the Florida and the New World in 1527, also using a slave as narrator (who also was a real person, Estevanico).[6]

In Dutch’s case, however, the biography was considered a no-no. In the still conventionally-minded context of 1999 all proverbial hell broke loose: Morris attacked and excoriated from every side. I remember dining with Morris and Sylvia Jukes, his wife, who is also a very distinguished biographer (of Edith Kermit Roosevelt and Clare Booth Luce). Edmund was racked by the injustice of Dutch’s reception; after all, he rightly complained, he had only attempted to do what every biographer worth his or her salt should try to do: by inventing a character, a narrator who had known Reagan since young, to convey a sense of such proximity and personal knowledge of the biographee as to approximate to the “truthful transmission of personality,” in Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase (when damning Sir Sidney Lee’s life of King Edward VII as “unreadable”).[7]

“But darling,” Edmund’s wife remarked in a gently admonishing way, “you were the Official Biographer.

“Knowing the subject” is thus a somewhat conflicted aspect of biography. One that deserves, to my mind, to be more deeply studied if we are serious about theorizing modern biography .

In this regard, students of biography need to be willing to take on the role of serious journalists as well as textual and archival scholars: that is to say, to be willing to go out into the real world and speak with the writers of biography today. We need to be willing – as scholars of cinema, for example, have done with filmmakers and scriptwriters for decades now – to find out from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, the biographical challenge as biographers see and have experienced it in the production of their work, not just in the work itself as text. And we need to do that while major biographers of our time are still alive.

David McCullough – master-biographer of John Adams, Truman and the Wright brothers – is already 82, for example. Morris is 75.

“Don’t be shy!” I would fain urge students of biography. “Biography is an endlessly fascinating undertaking, as well as field of study! Draw up a survey! And go ask practicing biographers how they have dealt with the business of ‘knowing the subject.’”

Moreover, thinking of James Boswell, why not focus on him as a great mentor in conducting research into how biographers operate? “Put up his portrait (in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh) as your Screensaver – not only for his ultimate chef d’oeuvre, which took us so close to ‘knowing’ Dr. Johnson that even today we can almost reach out and touch the great Doctor, but for the way in which biographer-Boswell accomplished that: on the eventual page, but also in the trail leading to the ultimate text, namely the records we now have of the book’s fascinating genesis.”

Nigel Hamilton
Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston

[1] Edmund Morris, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt (1979); Theodore Rex (2001); and Colonel Roosevelt (2010).

[2] Edmund Morris, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1991).

[3] Nigel Hamilton, Monty: Making of a General (1981); Monty: Master of the Battlefield (1984; and Monty: Final Years of the Field Marshal (1987).

[4] Nigel Hamilton, JFK: Reckless Youth (1992).

[5] Robert Harris, Imperium (2006); Conspirata (2009); and Dictator (2015)

[6]Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account, 2014.

[7] Virginia Woolf, “The New Biography,” New York Herald Tribune, October 30, 1927.

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