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  • Why Believe Me? Narrative Authority in Biography
  • Judith P. Zinsser (bio)

This life-writing enterprise has presented an unexpected paradox. A friend said it best. In her characteristic blunt way, after reading the closing sentences of the epilogue to my biography of Emilie Du Châtelet, she e-mailed: “I think you should cut them out; you undermine the authority of the whole book.” She was right. I closed by making a connection between the reasons for Du Châtelet’s unorthodox successes and women today: “Du Châtelet took her strength and resolve from her belief in reason, her certainty that passions can be made ‘to serve our happiness,’ and her willingness to be ‘susceptible’ to illusion.” Fine. But then I ended with a potentially damning statement as an historian: “It seems a formula written for me. Reason, passion, and illusion are the very stuff of biography.” As my friend saw it (and my editor, I should add), the more self-reflection, the more built-in feminist critique, the more decisions readers are asked to understand and choices they are expected to endorse, the less authority remains for the biographer. The history ceases to be that seamless narrative of a person’s life—birth, accomplishments, death, neatly and authoritatively told. But this was just the kind of biography I had been pleased to denounce as manipulative and dishonest.

I realized in retrospect, however, that to “show my hand,” as a colleague described it, and still create a convincing picture of Du Châtelet, I had become even more manipulative than the simple accumulator of facts whose hidden choices led his engrossed and unsuspecting audience in lock step from one past minute to the next. As a feminist historian, I am committed to making the construction of my tales part of the story. This very honesty, paradoxically, led me to devices as a writer that now seem dishonest, “tricks of the trade,” as open to my feminist critique as the old supposedly “objective” history I routinely condemned.

My epilogue shows the game I played. To keep the reader from rejecting my whole version of Du Châtelet’s life with my “truth-telling” last sentence, I wrote seven pages that established me as outside and above all previous biographers. I took the ultimate historian’s position, the god-like narrator. I then invited the reader to join me at my pinnacle of authority, to reason with me, to be a party to the enterprise. But it was a “set-up,” like asking students if they want the test on Tuesday or Wednesday. I give them no choice about the test itself. So I gave my readers no alternative here. I had structured the context, decided the outcome. I only made it appear as if they were participating in the creation of this history. I intended them [End Page 164] to believe that they, too, knew the facts better than my predecessors and had become as engaged as I in presenting this new, more informed, more openly crafted, and thus, because of my honesty and their acquiescence, more authoritative biography.

The literary critic Susan S. Lanser has described it as preempting the reader’s response.1 She has analyzed the hazardous contradictions of the narrative strategies used by women novelists, which, I believe, are the same for feminist biographers, who are just as determined “to write themselves into Literature without leaving Literature the same.”2 Whether she wishes to or not, the feminist biographer, like the woman novelist, is always arguing with the hegemonic assumptions, practices, and ideologies of white, educated male authors.3 Lanser saw the paradox clearly: we are “standing on the very ground [we] are attempting to deconstruct.” To retain any intellectual credibility, we must “strike a balance between accommodating and subverting dominant rhetorical practices,” for we are implicitly claiming authority, even reinforcing it, while disavowing it.4 Thus, we must effect a pact with our readers to identify not only with our subject, but also with us and our enterprise. This pact is a delicate creation, a kind of trust that if broken by the slightest misstep “can,” as Lanser noted, “undermine the authority of the text...


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pp. 164-166
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