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Biographical subjects under the microscope...or not.

I keep thinking about the gulf between what the academy deems appropriate in a biography and what I care about as a biographer.


Academics follow a certain protocol. Just as scientists peering through a microscope literally look down on the material on the slide, academics always retain a superior position to the subject under dissection, determining the value of a subject's work by slotting it into specific categories. That's why academics value only biographies organized thematically, so that this structure—imposed in response to currently fashionable theories—can be seen as more important than the messy factuality of the life. Academics also believe it is their job to state an opinion about every facet of the work and to vigorously question any autobiographical remark of the subject that does not fit with their own sense of likely and unlikely events.


I approach my subjects in a completely different way. I seek to know what it was like to be them—to think their thoughts (as related in letters and journal entries) and to understand how their upbringing and subsequent life events shaped their view of the world and influenced their work. As far as I am concerned, the best way to organize a biography is to emphasize the narrative of the life, which generally means moving in a chronological direction. Of course that does not mean including dull or inconsequential details; a biographer needs to exercise a shaping hand in determining what facts are important.


But I am not writing to prove something about my subjects, or to demonstrate how cleverly I can refute their claims or dismiss some of their efforts. In other words: it's not about me. I do not stand above my subjects; I try to stand alongside them. I am aware that a subject's memory can be colored by emotion and stress, and still be true to the person's experience. I express my own opinions only when I feel strongly about them. (Because I am writing the first, or first comprehensive, life of this person, I have no need to quarrel with previous biographers; I relegate any disagreements with other published sources to the endnotes, where I know only specialists will see them.)


It's a question of humility, really. I am writing about this life because it is compelling and because it belongs to someone whose work I admire. My goal is to introduce others to this person and her work. I try to accomplish this goal as gracefully as I can, but in the end, what matters is readers' ability to connect with my subject—to appreciate her, to understand her world, and to close the book with a sense of how complicated a creative life can be.


© Cathy Curtis 2024




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