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Gateway to Ideas Gateway to Ideas, a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's program, What Makes a Good Biography, is moderated by Anne Fremantle, noted author and critic. Our subject today is What Makes a Good Biography. To discuss the subject, we have two distinguished guests, Professor Leon Edel, Professor of English at New York University, Pulitzer Prize winner, a National Book Award winner, the his biography of Henry James, of which three volumes have already been published. And his other books are Literary Biography and a study of the modern psychological novel. Our other guest is Professor James Clifford, Professor of English at Columbia University.
Among his books, Hester Lynch Piotse, Mrs. Thrayel, and a biography of Young Sam Johnson. Also a book of critical essays on biography as an art. Now, I'm going to ask both these distinguished professors, What Makes a Good Biography? And first of all, Professor Edel, you should know, having written one of the best, What Makes a Good Biography? A good subject makes a good biography. You've got to get a good man or woman and a good man. He has to be good or really interesting. They've got to have, they must have led an interesting life in some way or other. Of course, I suppose a good biography can sometimes make people interesting, but I don't know how much, to what extent one can make bricks out of stone. I think Dr. Johnson said that you could write a good biography of anyone if you threw yourself into it. Well, I'd say a good subject, good material, lots of letters, anecdotes, episodes, and a lot of biographical detachment and distance.
Oh, now that's it. You've got to make your subject good or if you, it doesn't it matter what you think of him. Oh, the subject can be, I think the biographer should be objective, he mustn't fall in love with the subject and he mustn't hate his subject, he's got to just see the subject as a human being. What do you think? Can a good biography be written about someone you dislike heartily? This is a problem. I remember I had to talk with Harold Nicholson once about this. He insists that one had to have genuine sympathy with your subject in order to produce a good biography that you couldn't write a good one about someone you hated. What do you think? I think that may be true because hatred can often confuse the writer, I think, the writer his spleen, his venom, gets in his way. Exceptive. Excuse my interrupting, but Litton Straitje hated Cardinal Manning, pretty badly in that eminent Victorians, didn't he? He did indeed, but how good of biography is this?
It is a wonderful piece of literary venom. Well, I think it's one of the less successful pieces of biography in eminent Victorians, certainly. However, he was much more interested in Florence Nightingale, and that's more successful, I think. A student of mine in the recent article once said Litton Straitje is always almost right. It's rather good definition. And always readable. And always readable. Yes. Now, you say something about gathering the facts. Can't we say a little more about this? What facts? All the facts about the subject, all the facts about his friends, all the facts about other people? Oh, well, the biography. The biography gathers as many facts as he can get, but the big job then is to decide how many he's going to use. There's always a danger of smothering the reader. I think many people forget the fact that the biography has to select constantly. I agree.
And Professor Clifford, wouldn't you say that part of the art of biography, because after all we're discussing biography really as an art form, is what you leave out, exactly. I think so many people forget to the subjective influences that go into this whole process. Because here, suppose we have 100 letters from your subject to a friend. You obviously can use only a small portion. You go in and pick out one or two quotations from this 100 letters. What made you select those two quotations? Would you say that, for instance, in his new biography of Max Birburn, Lord David Sessler, rather overquoted from the letters to Florence? I'm only halfway through that book, but I think he could have abridged some of them. He didn't need to quote quite as much. Still, I found it fascinating. You didn't find it a trifle long? At moments. But as long as we were getting the picture of that wonderful dandy and the man with the
face and the mask, this wonderful person, Max Birburn, it was an exciting book. What fascinates me is that a few years ago, I was talking to Lord David Sessler about this whole project. He was just beginning the book on Max. He told me that Max had chosen him particularly for the post of being his literary biographer because he was certain that he would do a short, compact, artistic piece, which was all he wanted. But somehow or other, faced with all this wonderful mass of information, Lord David simply couldn't resist, and he put it all in. That brings me back, Mr. Clifford, to the, I'd like to hear your list. I said a good subject, good material, lots of letters, and so on. What would you say are the ingredients of a biography? I had set down three general facts, yes. He has to have facts.
Then I think a good biographer has to fill in background. He has to do background, but he has to be very careful about it. He must know the whole period thoroughly. Some of the worst biographies are those in which the person perhaps stands out, but he's out of place. He doesn't seem to be. Everything else is shadowy. Everything is shadowy. So the background, then comes this thing we've already been talking about, understanding. He must have some kind of a sympathy or genuine understanding. Well, all right, then we've got all the ingredients. Yes. What makes a good biography? Well, you still need a good cook. Exactly. Yes. And therefore, what makes a good biographer? Let's change the subject a little. He must be an artist, isn't this what you're saying? Well, I think we ought to sort of distinguish between different kinds of biography. Exactly. There are certain biographies which, just by their systematic compilation and their rich arrangement of masses of life are valuable, but we have to recognize that that is more
a compilation or a scholarly assembling of data. It's not yet a biography. It's kind of the raw materials for a biography, which sometimes makes fascinating reading. But what would you take for the classic biography? I mean, after all, Barthold's Life of Johnson, Sade, Lockhart's Life of Scott. These are the great historical ones like Freeman's Life of Washington, Malone's Life of Carlisle. Yes. Now, what do you think this sympathy, this empathy or whatever it is, is it in all of them? Yes. I think the sympathy is there, but the art sometimes is pushed back. Back too far. The feeling that they must put in everything that they have. The warts on the nerves.
And then what seems to me is lacking in some of these great works is they are afraid to take risks. This is a point I would like to make. Can you define that a little more? What kind of risk can a biographer take, Professor Clifford? I should say the kinds of risks are these. He must be willing to choose. He must be willing to say, I have chosen this as representative even though perhaps he can't prove it. He must somehow, rather sometime, guess. He has to guess. There have been some recent scholarly biographies, one of Swift, by Irvin Aaron Price, in which Aaron Price refuses ever to guess. He sticks strictly to the facts, and I think this was a mistake because there are sometimes very interesting speculations which the reader might have. Don't you agree? Yes. And I think the biographer is the one man who having gone through all that material who should speculate. He should say, well, this seems to me to add up to this sort of picture.
He may be right or he may be wrong, but the fact remains that there's a certain intuition at play too, he's assembled so much, a certain insight at play, and he ought to give us the benefit of that. And it shouldn't be afraid. After all, just an assemblage of facts is not a biography. It's just an assemblage of facts. The biography resides, the biographical work resides precisely in interpreting those facts and saying what they mean in trying to convey them to convey a picture. I believe you cited yourself, Professor Adele, Morrowa, having once used the letters of bar and for speculation. Well, he used them. No. Yes, I suppose. Not so much speculation as he took the letters and made it seem as if they were the thoughts of Byron. Now, that, of course, I think is turning biography into fiction. We don't know what the thoughts are. Letters are letters.
You know how many thoughts are thought exists behind the writing of a letter, so that that's fictitious, I think. Yes. He didn't do it later, did he? No. No. I think later on, he dropped some of these fictional habits and wrote biography of the kind that we're talking about. Because writing a letter is, after all, a fictional procedure. I know someone who wrote one letter in a happy mood in the morning and won in a dismal distraught mood in the afternoon to different people. Now, suppose one of those letters survives, and the other one is lost. The biographer comes and says, at this time, so and so is in a distraught, despairing mood. In the morning, he'd been a very happy mood, but the evidence is lost. Well, that's a case of script or manant, isn't it? What is written remains and that's the chance of... Yes. He has the danger, it's the hazard of survival rather than anything else. But what about this matter of making scenes dramatic?
This is a can the artist dramatize his scenes? The biographer can, I think. He can't do what the novelist can. I mean, think of what Tolstoy does with Napoleon and Warren Pisa. I'm not sure that a biographer can do that to Napoleon at all times, you see. The novelist, the historical novelist, has that freedom. But there are still, there is still, one can still arrange the material dramatically without damaging the material or damaging its weight as evidence. Don't you think Dave Cooper's rather clever at that in some of his biographical studies? I'm not familiar with those. I've heard them well spoken. A couple of historical ones, and I have the feeling that he, because he was a diplomat and was used to conversations, that he was good at that kind of dramatizing of the conversation. I think the supreme example is Boswell, who, when he first began recording Johnson's talk,
put a good deal of it in straight third person, Mr. Johnson said that so and so. Later on, he found that it was better to put it in this dramatic form, weiser, or no sir, this opening, and then when he did the life, he went back and took the material which he had taken down in the early friendship and changed it over into this dramatic form, which we think of as Boswellian. But had he the actual notes for the conversation? He had the actual notes, you see, in third person. And then he turned it into what we call dramatic, with the speaker, and what he says, and with the sir going in. But then of course, Boswell had listened to Johnson for 20 years. He was impregnated with the Johnsonianism. He had been with, he knew the man. He was in the fortunate position of being the biographer of someone whom he had known
and seen him in three dimensions at larger, perhaps two, and after his death larger than life. You couldn't do that for Henry James. I wouldn't dare, you see, when you only have other people's image of him, photographs. But when you get a vivid account from a third person of a conversation with James, would you feel justified in putting this in? If I had enough evidence of it, I mean Max Birbon was used one anecdote, which I have heard many times from other persons about the time that James went walking with George Moore, and someone asked him after, so how did you find Mr. Moore? And he said, oh, all right, he said, what rather, unimportantly, dull. Now, that's characteristic. That was the sort of thing that James would have said, and various people have now reported it.
And I have enough accounts to feel that it's true, he must have said it, or it wouldn't have been reported by these people. So the biographer must then be a judge. Yes, of course. He has to be a judge of evidence. He's a way of evidence every minute we have. But like in Alice in Wonderland, he has to be judged, and George too, doesn't he? Yes. Now, what about a biography like Ernest Jones's biography of Freud? Some of the assumptions in that valid, are they justified, do you think? Mr. Adele, you studied psychology. Well, that biography worries me because I feel that although it contains very rich material, it also, at moments, applies certain Freudian theories. They were a second nature to Ernest Jones, but it's very hard for him to, for the reader to believe, for instance, that little Sigmund aged three had the thoughts that he did about his mother and his father, which Ernest Jones puts down, when he's trying to picture
the early, eadipal situation, you know. I think a biographer should be very careful, they mustn't get too clinical. They must try to translate the clinical terms into human terms and human situations. But he ought to be very careful to give all the facts that bear upon a possible psychiatric interpretation. Don't you agree? Well, I think the word relevance is very important. The biographer must constantly try to see what is relevant, ask himself. Is this relevant? Is this letter relevant? Perhaps only one sentence in it is relevant. And if he can throw the rest of the letter away, that's to be desired, I think. And sometimes you get a very brief biography. I was thinking at the moment of Chesterton's life of Blake, which I think is a model of a very small short. It's quite a short. It was one of those short-lived theories. But it seems to me that he's got the essence of Blake, extraordinarily. Well, that's the second word essence. I think relevance and essence are two terribly important words to biographers.
Have I got the essence of something? You can look at 20 documents. Why throw all those documents at a reader? Why not get the essence of it? But this involves a tremendous subjective decision on the biographer's party. He is the one who is deciding whether this is relevant. Yes. And he has to, by that time, have gotten some distances, as I said, so that he's not overwhelmed by these documents. He doesn't feel that each one of them is the most important thing in the world. The great, there's a great danger in some biographies are like that, you know, of pulling in documents to such an extent that instead of reading a biography, you're looking at an exhibition of autographs under plate glass. You remember that as in a library? The experiment was made once, I think Edward Nells, in his DH Lawrence, a composite biography in which he put all the evidence he could get in with no selection whatsoever, just published all the evidence and calls it a composite biography. But this seems to me, abrogating the biographers' job.
It's quite a useful book, I think, if you're going to read something of DH Lawrence's afterwards. I think, don't you? It's curiously interesting, actually, that, yes. Well, that sort of thing has the same interest, I suppose, that the actual publication of letters has, volumes of letters, you see. These would be then volumes of documents. And certainly, the trend in America is to publish documents wholesale. But unfortunately, I feel that there aren't enough people who are ready to take these documents. We see we're getting the Jefferson papers, the Hamilton papers, the Adams family papers, we're getting all of these. Very few, we'll look at these papers and say, what do they add up to? And this is what the biographer must do. Do you think that Litton Straitchie inhibited people rather from, I mean, in a kind of way, frightened people away? I know that now only has there been a really important life of Queen Victoria. I think it's almost the first, certainly one of the first, since he wrote,
because of his perhaps over selectivity. And I mean, a really superb biographer, it can inhibit others from rushing in. I wonder whether it would be so much Straitchie inhibiting as the mass of materials that exist about Victoria. I think any biographer would be intimidated. Straitchie wasn't just. That was the, what is remarkable about Straitchie, rightly or wrongly? He did cut through to what he thought was the essence. He lowered his little buckets. You remember, in eminent Victorian, he describes how the biographer lowers little buckets down into the sea of evidence. Because there's so much evidence. There's just so much. He pulls up his samples. He pulls up his samples. Yes. And from the samples, he creates. Yes. Yes, the new life of Queen Victoria by Lady Longford, it's just been published in England and we published here this fall, I think, is taken very much from one angle. It's just a feminine.
It's a happy wife and mother writing about a happy wife and mother. Well, I think all these biographies, of course, one biography does not exclude the other. And there'll be many more biographies on Queen Victoria. It's a rich period. She herself may not personally have been a rich person, nevertheless, she was in dramatic situations as a queen, as later an Empress. Do you think a savage indignation, for instance, like Cecil Woodham Smith's in her kind of the Irish famine, do you think that that kind of thing is legitimate writing really with a party pre? I mean, she was out to show what bees English were, which they were, but do you think that's legitimate in a biography? Well, legitimate to the extent that it expresses her own passion or her own feelings, which she wants to convey. But one would then say there's an absence of detachment, a certain, certainly considerably subjective attitude towards her material. After getting around to say what we're all hitting at, that there can be no such thing as a biography to end all biographies of any person.
That's right. Since everyone represents, as someone put it to me, an intersection of the biographer with the biography. And it is that intersection or the relationship of the biographer with the subject, which is so interesting. Yes, reading, you know, reading Max Birbombs, I found myself writing another biography of Max Birbombs, quite different from the one that he had written. Because of the, I was fascinated by this, the asking myself constantly, well, now here's this wonderful man with this wonderful facade, but what was the, where was the nasty side of him that made him caricature people, that made him make fun of people? And I kept looking for where was this nasty side of Max hidden? One doesn't think of him as having a nasty side. And of course, it comes out in the way in which he, what he did in his library, when he embellished his books and drew savage cartoons of the authors, and his teasing, he was very teased, a great deal, you know, and so on.
But were you aware that Lord David Setslow had selected this material, perhaps, was it this side of Max that perhaps had suddenly struck him and he was giving you the evidence? He was giving us a very rounded picture, and I was taught to see beyond it, I wanted to see what was the, what was this tremendous aggressivity which Max had and which he had turned into such a wonderfully civilized product? That's what makes Max remarkable. I'd like to ask either of both of you, Professor Dela, Professor Clifford, is there any, so to speak, causal relationship between the biographer and his subject? Is there some reason why Lord David Setslow has chosen Max, or is he straight, he chose Manning? Well Lord David Setslow once said that he could not write a biography, biography of anyone with, without some close personal connection. Melville was, was his family, his family. Melburn.
Excuse me. Lord Melburn. Yes. Sorry. Gray, he had a very close affinity with these people. He's right too, I said too, yes, so that I'm sure he had an affinity with Max. Oh yes. Felt to be. Yes. But I think it's true, if one wanted to search, if you could search deeply enough, I think every biographer latches on to some figure who has a personal meaning to himself and that's the great danger. Freud gave that wonderful warning to biographers, you know, in his Leonardo, where he, he tells biographers, try to see your subject, don't beware of turning your subject into someone like your father or your mother or someone who has been an important figure in your life. And then, from then on, you will see your subject, you'll have a subject who can do no wrong. Try to get, he urged detachment, you see, and as I, I wanted a more of a, perhaps a scientific approach. I hate to use that word. Although he himself, in his work, of course, well, I think he was, he looked at the facts very, his Leonardo, there are very few facts and he speculates on them, turns them one way
and turns them another way, and this is very good. But he makes Leonardo more interesting than almost anybody ever has, don't you think? I mean, Leonardo is one of the most interesting people in the world, but I think Freud's little study for tiny thing as it is is absolutely fast. Yes, yes. In the same way that Freud's essay on Michelangelo's Moses is a wonderful piece of observation. And of self-revelation. And yes, yes. At the same time. I mean, if Freud wasn't, didn't think himself Moses, I don't know what truce there is in his. I agree with you entirely, yes. But it is, I think it's becoming quite apparent that you can't have true objective biography. Now, James Boswell thought he was gathering all the evidence and thought he was presenting Johnson for all time. But we now know that Boswell selected evidence. There were things he left out, things he censored. He doesn't give the side of Johnson that Mrs. Thrayal or Fanny Bernie and the women do.
There's a whole other side of Johnson that Boswell missed. So that you can't just depend on Boswell's life of Johnson to be the whole Johnson. But isn't, I'm sorry. I was going to ask. No, I was only going to ask whether perhaps Mr. Elliot's phrase teaches to care and not to care, isn't perhaps the answer that there can be only a certain degree of detachment that you've got to be involved. Well, I think we have to recognize. We must not demand of the biographer's superhuman powers. We all see the people around us in a certain way. And if you'll get six people into a room, each one will have seen that person in a different way. We can only, so that we are really like the portrait painter. The portrait painter puts down a portrait and it's his vision of the individual. So the biographer too is like the portrait painter. And Boswell's vision of Johnson is fine.
And there'll be others who will come along and use these other glimpses of him. And I suppose the total, the accumulation of biographies will give us the rounded figure. Except that the human being is always so complex that finally he escapes even the best biographer. Well, this is one of the facts before which we must bow our heads. Thank you very much indeed, Professor Adele and Professor Clifford. We've been discussing what makes a good biographer. And my guests here were Professor James Clifford, Professor of English at Columbia University, and Professor Leon Adele, Professor of English at New York University. Thank you both very much indeed for illuminating the question, what makes a good biography? You've been listening to Gateway to Ideas, a new series of conversations in which ideas are discussed in relation to reading. Today's program, What Makes a Good Biography, has presented James Clifford, Professor of English at Columbia University, and Leon Adele, Professor of English at New York University, at Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for Henry James.
The moderator was Anne Fremantle, noted author and critic. Mrs. Fremantle's most recent book is a compilation of the writings of the Protestant Mystics, which she selected and edited. To extend the dimensions of today's program for you, a list of the books mentioned in the discussion, as well as others relevant to the subject, has been prepared. You can obtain a copy from your local library, or by writing to Gateway to Ideas, post office box 641, Times Square Station, New York, and please enclose a stamp self-addressed envelope. Write a box 641, Times Square Station, New York. Gateway to Ideas is produced for National Educational Radio under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. The programs are prepared by the National Book Committee and the American Library Association in cooperation with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, Technical Production
by Riverside Radio, WRVR, in New York City. This is the National Educational Radio Network.
Thank you.
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Gateway to ideas
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11
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Biography?
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Chicago: “Gateway to ideas; 11; Biography?,” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 23, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-pk07256n.
MLA: “Gateway to ideas; 11; Biography?.” University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 23, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-pk07256n>.
APA: Gateway to ideas; 11; Biography?. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-pk07256n