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  • Biography: A Very Short Introduction
  • James C. Klagge (bio)
Hermione Lee. Biography: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. xiv + 170 pp. ISBN 978-0199533547, $11.95.

While not a very short book, this is a short and very good book about biography. (It could be made twenty pages shorter by deleting the fairly pointless illustrations.) The author proceeds often historically, using examples mostly from British literary biographies to illustrate or provide exceptions to various generalizations about biographies. The book is not exactly an introduction, since the author’s examples will far exceed the familiarity of any reader, much less any novice reader. But the author provides an engaging overview of the kinds and purposes of biographies over the centuries. And this leads to a solid and wide-ranging sense of what we are up to when we write and read about the lives of others.

The author does not give in to the unfortunately popular academic notion that biography really is fiction after all. Of course, for a biography to be comprehensible it requires a selection of the facts: “No biographer is going to write down every single thing the subject did, said, and thought . . . or the book would take longer than the life itself ” (122). And for a biography to be interesting it requires an arrangement of the selected facts—a storyline. This selection and arrangement makes biography an “artificial construct” (122), since there is no objective sense in which one selection and arrangement is correct, or as Lee puts it, “There is no such thing as an entirely neutral biographical narrative” (134). But this still is a far cry from fiction, also an artificial construct, since what are selected and arranged are facts—or our closest approximations to them—and not inventions.

Sometimes the meaning of such facts is open to interpretation. Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dying words, spoken in English and reported by his caregiver, who had told him his friends would be there to see him tomorrow, were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” There is no doubt about the fact that he said this; there is considerable doubt about its import. Biographers can offer very different interpretations of this statement depending on the material chosen to surround it. One biographer (Ray Monk) presents it as a caustic remark, another memoirist (Norman Malcolm) as a “strangely moving utterance.”1 Lacking any other evidence from the caregiver, these interpretations depend for their plausibility on the storyline of which they are a part. Each storyline will see Wittgenstein differently. In one of them his life ends in despair, in [End Page 847] the other almost in triumph. But in each case the storylines will build on and arrange incidents taken as or shown to be factual.

Certain storylines may be impossible to construct because of the unavailability of relevant evidence (7). (This would not be a problem if biographies really were fiction.) At Wittgenstein’s death, control of his Nachlass passed to three designated executors who, with the tacit approval of such family members as still lived, exercised complete control over the availability of manuscripts and letters for research or publication. One of the executors, Elizabeth Anscombe, wrote, “If by pressing a button it could have been secured that people would not concern themselves with his personal life, I should [i.e., would] have pressed the button.”2 In fact, she saw to it that private passages were blocked out or even destroyed when microfilms of scholarly material were made for researchers in 1968 (Paul 12–13). When other researchers found ways to raise issues about such private matters as Wittgenstein’s sexuality or his struggles during wartime service, presumably through access to material never secured by the executors or by interviews with lesser-known acquaintances or by sheer disobedience, they were often excoriated in the press.3 Another executor, Rush Rhees, wrote: “there are certain stories which it would be foul to relate or tell about somebody even if they were true. . . . What is foul is to treat the phrase ‘private life’ as though it were a misnomer.” Apparently family members tried to sue for libel over the publication, but found...


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