Teachout on biography: dramatize, dramatize!

Week before last I wondered how my friend Terry Teachout, H.L. Mencken biographer, would respond to Colin Burrow’s assertion that there are “two respects in which literary biography is intrinsically pernicious, however well it’s done.”

(“The first,” says Burrow, “is that literary biographies need a thesis in order to catch the headlines. This can turn what ought to be a delicate art into a piece of problem-solving or a search for a key to a life….The other problem is that even the best examples can’t entirely avoid the naive reduction of literature to evidence or symptom — epiphenomena which are brought about by, and potentially reducible to, biographical origins.”)

Today Terry responds thoughtfully and at length. Here’s an excerpt, but you’ll have to go to About Last Night for the rest.

Yeah, well, O.K., I get the idea, and I even agree with it, sort of. Far too many new biographies — including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year — are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.”

I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah. Who among us hasn’t thrown up his hands in despair at the prospect of reading another such book, especially when it’s nine hundred pages long? Repeat after me: show, don’t tell. Let the reader draw his own conclusions. Or, as Our Lord and Master Henry James instructed us, Dramatize, dramatize!

On the other hand, I don’t think my biographies are like that, and even if you beg to differ, I’m sure you can think of any number of biographies that fail to fill Colin Burrow’s bill of attainder.


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