Reading Biography

Most book reviewers know very little about the history or the art of biography. Indeed, if there is any art in biography, it is the rare reviewer that acknowledges it or knows how to discuss it. Usually the reviewer regards biography as an occasion to wax eloquent about what he or she thinks of the subject. Little space, if any, is devoted to the biography's structure or style, to the biographer's peculiar problems, or to how the biography relates to others about the same subject.

Carl Rollyson, a professional biographer and weekly columnist (On Biography) for The New York Sun, explores the ramifications of authorized and unauthorized biographies, investigates the relationship between biography and history, biography and fiction, biography and autobiography, as well commenting on certain perennial biographical subjects such as Napoleon, on sub genres such as children's biography, and on the most recent developments in life writing.

Rollyson's aim is to reach not merely scholars but that vast general audience addicted to reading biography, enhancing their pleasure by providing insight (or you might say, the inside word) on how biographies are put together.

In The New Criterion, James Panero writes: Carl Rollyson reads biographies. He writes biographies. He writes about reading biographies. He writes about writing biographies. Writers are the subject of many of the biographies he reads and writes. Whew! Add up this reading and writing and you arrive at a sum of literary arithmetic called “On Biography,” Rollyson’s regular column for The New York Sun. Part book review, part essay, always timely and interesting, “On Biography” covers biography’s subjects and the subject of biography in a two-for-one deal. Reading Biography is Rollyson’s first collection of these essays, which he began writing in Spring 2003.

Emerson wrote that “There is properly no history; only biography.” Disraeli: “Read no history; nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” Carlyle: “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Rollyson knew he was onto something when he took up the subject of biography. But why biography now? “Historians distrust biography,” Rollyson writes in a review of two books on Stalin. “Modern historiography has rejected Thomas Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ theory of history in favor of complex explorations of historical process, of the forces and factors that shape the world regardless of its individual players.” True enough, but social history doesn’t exactly lend itself to page-turner reading, and increasingly it is biographers who have taken up the slack of writing accessible history. Rollyson settles on a quote from Louis Fischer to best describe his interest: “Biography is history seen through the prism of a person.”

As a biographer himself, Rollyson has more than a few ideas about its mechanics. He writes of Michael Barber’s Anthony Powell: A Life, for example:

I like the feel of Mr. Barber’s book, and the sense that he is aware of how to manage his own narrative. Thus he writes: “This is probably the place to summarise Powell’s athletic record at Eton.” Rarely does he succumb to the bane of biography, the “must have been” and the “reasonable to suppose,” which are no more than oblique confessions of ignorance.

With more than a concern for tricks of the trade, Rollyson clues us into becoming—if not better writers—better readers of biography. Reading Biography has a production value that can best be described as “cut-and-paste.” The upside is that it contains reviews that are still quite timely—covering many of the same books reviewed recently in these pages.