The Making of Modern Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementAlong with the distinguished New Orleans biographer Patricia Brady (Martha Washington, Rachel Jackson, etc), I helped some time ago to found a New Orleans Non-Fiction Writers Group. In a city so famed for its musical as well as culinary heritage it seemed strange that there was, until then, no way to bring together biographers, memoirists, historians and essayists in a regular creative, constructive, mutually supportive community of fellow practitioners.

               I use the word creative advisedly. For what becomes apparent, when you sit in on one of our meetings, is the sense of being present at the creation: the creation, one by one, of completely new works of non-fiction literature.

               Each member of the group shares where he or she is “at” in his or her current enterprise: exposing the project to the critical response of peers, while sharing current difficulties, challenges, or breakthroughs. It is a deeply rewarding exercise, held for just two hours every month. Without it I would feel the poorer, since it reminds me in the most comforting way that, although mine may be a somewhat solitary vocation as a biographer, I am part of a larger, collective, creative literary endeavor.

I instance our quiet, somewhat private writers group (though it is open to all) because it confirms my belief that the Biography Society can, if all goes well, contribute to a better public understanding of the “creative” aspect not only of non-fiction writing, but of biography in particular. And by that, I mean the conceptual, generative, artistic and intellectual investment that goes into the making of a good biography, even a great one.

               It disappoints me, frankly, that we focus almost exclusive academic and educational attention upon fictional art: upon the creative process in fiction; upon artistry in fiction; upon its significance for us, as readers of fiction. And yet devote so little attention to modern biography, even though modern biographies are, in their way, often far more creative in their composition, more artistic in their narrative storytelling, and probably vastly more significant to us as readers, both personally and in terms of our society’s appreciation of the past, than most contemporary fiction!

               Participating in my writers groups in Boston and New Orleans I am privileged to watch the generative process, as it pertains to the creation of a non-fiction work. Over the months and years of development of a fellow member’s work I follow its initial, hesitant compositional molding, and the iterative, creative process that follows as the author struggles with the challenges and demands of the craft. Yet who in the world outside our groups is ever aware of that creative path leading to the finished work – the challenges faced, the battles fought over voice, narrative, source, insight, revelation, presentation?

Reviewers have a lot to answer for, as well as our teachers of literature.

Seldom if ever do reviewers identify, let alone comment on, the style or structure of our major biographies: the choices we have made in conveying personality, character, performance, failure, agency…. It is as if such works arrived ready-made, prêt à porter, in the literary market without genesis, without hesitation, without struggle. Moreover biographies are mostly seen and evaluated by such reviewers as information – preferably new. Or re-interpretation. Not, however, as a literary contribution to our culture. Which is sad.

How might we overcome this almost willful misunderstanding of biography in its literary, compositional mode in modern society – akin, say, to modern serious music?

               First off, literature departments in our universities could be urged, even shamed into paying the same attention to biographical texts as some have begun to do with certain kinds of non-fiction beyond “pure” fiction.

Since so many students have been minded in recent years to write their own autobiographical blogs and “selfies” in prose, literature professors have accepted the need to teach “memoir,” as well as other forms of “creative non-fiction,” including essays and “narrative non-fiction” dramatic stories. By teaching these “extra” curricular literary endeavors via textual analysis, dissection, backgrounding, perspective, artistic appreciation, cultural and historical placement, and the encouraging of students to try their own hand, such teaching has transformed and “modernized” many English language and literature departments in the U.S. If this is so, however, why not encourage teachers to extend their purview still further to include profiles, obituaries and great biographies – areas that, until now, teachers have been less than competent or even interested to do?

Teaching biography as part of non-fiction writing courses is certainly one important key: taking great biographies and exposing them to the same critical apparatus as fiction. But we could also, I would argue, also engage with the creators of modern biography.

Why not, I feel, go behind the texts that biographers ultimately put out and make available for our dissection? Why not explore the machinery, the creative process by which a biographer actually creates a great literary portrait, as much as a sculptor does a bust? Why not examine the materials a biographer has selected and used; watch the decisions he or she has made in composing the work – noting the changes, the iterations, that are made on the long journey to the finished portrait? Why not attempt to follow, in retrospect, the creation of a great work of biography? In that way we could, as a society, better learn what exactly goes into the making of a good or even great biography, rather than merely reviewing its ultimate presentation to the public. In that way we could help enlarge our society’s somewhat limited current appreciation of modern biography as literature, not simply knowledge.

For almost five decades I have practiced my profession as biographer, and have witnessed first hand how the genre has evolved in tandem with larger cultural, social, and artistic developments in our society. Both in my own work and in participating in non-fiction writing groups in London, Boston and now New Orleans, I am proudly aware that behind the text there is almost invariably a deep, intimate story of intellectual, artistic and moral engagement, as the biographer endeavors to combine scholarly investigation, imaginative structural composition, and fresh narrative technique to produce a credible, yet also artistically-fashioned work of modern literature as well as individual history.

That process – which for good or ill every modern biographer must undertake – is the  challenge facing the biographer today. Writ large it also forms an important theoretical justification of the developing genre of modern biography: one that the Biography Society is preparing to examine in depth, interdisciplinary breadth and international compass in the coming months and years.

I must admit, even though I report each month on progress in my current FDR trilogy, I also feel greatly excited to be a part of this new academic focus on the biographical firmament in which I have invested so much of my life!

               Vivat vita!

Nigel Hamilton

First President, Biographers International Organization (BIO)

Honorary President, La Société de Biographie

Senior Fellow
McCormack Graduate School
UMass Boston
Author, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 and Commander in Chief: FDR’s Battle With Churchill, 1943 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

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