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  • Biography and the SubjectThe Year in the US
  • Carl Rollyson (bio)

Modern biography begins with James Boswell, who took up Samuel Johnson's challenge to render a life in "minute details" (5). Boswell boasted that after reading his life of Johnson you will know Johnson better than any human being who has ever lived. Making good on that boast meant befriending the biographical subject, tagging along with Johnson on his many outings and at home among his familiars. Since Boswell, some of the greatest biographies in the English language derive from the interplay of biographer and subject, even if, as in the cases of James Anthony Froude and Elizabeth Gaskell, the biographer remains (mostly) in the shadows. These biographers tacitly endorse Johnson's proposition that to capture the whole man, you need to be in his physical company. In the past year, several American biographers have tested out the Johnsonian dictum—most recently in James Atlas's The Shadow in the Garden, which is at once a memoir of his life as a biographer and, in a way, a new biographical account of Saul Bellow and Delmore Schwartz, about whom Atlas has already published biographies. Now, however, he writes in a personal vein, measuring not only how he responds to his many meetings with Bellow but also how he interacted with evidence in archives and interviews in his pursuit of Bellow and Schwartz. The result is a riveting account not merely of one biographer's experience but also Atlas's take on his predecessors—on how Boswell, Froude, Lawrance Thompson, Mark Harris, Andrew Field, and other biographers behaved in the presence of their subjects.1 Many biographers have written about their own experience and about the history of biography, but I can't remember another biographer like Atlas who so carefully writes himself into the history of biography and of biographers.2

It is more typical of biographers, even when they have interviewed their subjects, to stay in the background and to tuck any personal comments into the front or back matter of a biography.3 Thus Ted Geltner, author of Blood, Bone, and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews, includes an epilogue about [End Page 688] his frequent talks with the novelist during his last days, when Crews knew he was dying. Similarly, in The Untold Journey: The Life of Diana Trilling, a demure Natalie Robins writes a preface about her own experience with Trilling, describing her subject's apartment while employing locutions such as "one notices."

Yet another take on the biographer's proximity to his sources is offered by the redoubtable Richard Holmes in This Long Pursuit. Holmes insists that the biographer should "physically pursue his subject through the past" (5). The biographer has to be there, Holmes insists, to get inside his subject: "He must feel how they once were" (6). Among biographers, this notion has taken hold and made of Holmes himself a romantic figure––the fellow who has been there and done that. He serves, too, as a rebuke to armchair biographers who do not rough it (sleeping outdoors and braving all weathers) as Holmes has done in his (it must be said again) pursuit of his subjects. In short, the biographer as hero, ladies and gentlemen.4

Holmes's biographical axioms disintegrate if, like Hegel, we push a thesis to its extreme. How limited is knowledge if it depends on your GPS? As Holmes himself knows, in fact it is not possible to position yourself in your subject's place, since that place is forever changing––not only in space but in time. At best, the biographer can dredge for fragments of the past and, like Proust, get a taste of history in a biscuit. For antithesis, I will cite a fictional example: in Absalom, Absalom! Quentin Compson reconstructs a Civil War scene in such vivid detail that he thinks: "No. If I had been there I could not have seen it this plain" (Faulkner 190, italics in original). And when and where does he draw this conclusion? Not on a Civil War battlefield, not even in his native South, but in 1909, inside a cold––indeed, a freezing––Harvard dormitory room...


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