- The Silhouette and the Secret Self:Theorizing Biography in Our Times
For a long time I never much enjoyed reading biographies. I'd start them with the highest of hopes and the best of intentions, but then I would bog down in the beginning chapters and put the books aside. My biographies would then drift from end table to end table until they washed up like bulky jetsam in my study. There they would languish, until after awhile I'd shelve them with mingled guilt and regret. Then I realized that I didn't have to plow through a biography straight from beginning to end. Now, because I like to locate myself in the life story right away, I usually start biographies in the middle and read the story out of chronological order. That way I begin with the part of the subject's life that presumably caused the biographer to be interested in the first place.
Why don't biographers just start in the middle themselves? It turns out that this question points to methodological issues common to virtually all American studies scholars, including the problem of text and context, how they're related, and the problem of which is which. In the case of biography, the answer starts with the lingering influence of Leon Edel and the way that his model has been followed—often unthinkingly—by biographers paddling in his massive [End Page 1249] wake. Edel was not simply the author of the definitive, multivolume account of the life of Henry James. He was also the foremost theorist of biography of the last half-century. Beginning with the classic Literary Biography (1957) and extending through a series of books and articles on the subject stretching over decades, Edel outlined the biographer's craft and set forth its goal: to locate "the figure under the carpet." This conceit, whose phrasing winks at James, refers to the view of a person's outline (the visible self) in the form of bumps and lumps in the carpet. For Edel, the biographer's job is to infer what lies out of sight below, the "secret myth" that's causing that particular and individual pattern of bumps and lumps that's presented to the world. Simply put, the biographer searches for internal motivation.1
That search amounts to an excavation of the private self. Not surprisingly—given the way that he defines the task—and in keeping with the intellectual currents of his time, Edel's "most significant" digging tools are psychoanalytic.2 The biographer in Edel's mold (and there have been many who have climbed from it) accepts certain important assumptions, especially that inner motivation offers the best narrative through-line to span a life. That doesn't mean that all biographers style themselves as posthumous therapists in search of the elusive unconscious, nor that biographers didn't look for personal motivation before Freud came along, but rather that the biographer's work in the age of Freud has been governed by the general assumption, conveyed by psychoanalysis, that the truth lies beyond the rational, proceeding from the subject's distant past.
This assumption generates a particular sort of biographical apparatus. The Freudian worldview assumes that the adult subject has been decisively shaped by childhood events. Freudian case studies—which Richard Ellmann calls "biographies without heroes"—center on the search for those early-life events that did the shaping.3 Certain conventions long ago became ritualized, obligatory parts of the biographical narrative in our time, and they've become frozen in place. These days we expect...