Monday, July 20, 2009

Recently I read an article about biography by Terry Eagleton in an old Harper’s Magazine (November 2007) - “Buried in the Life: Thomas Hardy and the Limits of Biographies,” a review of two Thomas Hardy biographies, one by Claire Tomalin and one by Ralph Pite.

Eagleton says that everyone must be born and almost everyone has to be educated, oppressed by parents, plagued by siblings, and launched into the world...” and so on. And at the end of all this we expire, he says. Using this template, he points out that biographies are based on biology.

When I read this, at first I thought he was totally knocking the genre. As I read on, I realized that what he is asking for is biographies that do more than just tell what a person had for breakfast, because for example, what Jane Austen had for breakfast “throws exceedingly little light on the fiction.” He makes a case for doing more than just giving a “blow-by-blow record of “what happened just after noon on July 21, 1889, and then what took place two hours later...” because this kind of writing means “the art gets buried in the life.”

Eagleton made the case that a good biography portrays the times in which a person lived. I agree, and this is what I love about reading biographies. Years ago I read Kathleen Barry’s Susan B. Anthony: Te Biography of a Singular Feminist about this courageous woman who was a leader in the United States in the nineteenth century women’s movement. This book gave me a picture of nineteen-century American culture. It is a good example of a portrait of a person that expands to encompass the world in which she lived.

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