Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing Lives

I posted the opening section of this paper about Plutarch earlier today, but I figure I might as well just put up the whole thing. Usual warnings about length apply. Read at your peril.


What is biography, and what does it try to accomplish? Recording the events of a life is hardly sufficient to describe the work of the biographer, who must not only chronicle, but must also explicate and strive to understand. For the reader, however, the project comes across differently; for the reader, there is an effort to come to terms with the lives of others, removed in time and space, but still somehow essentially human. There is, then, some relationship between history and biography, which tries also to bring to the present some semblance of understanding of the past, but there is also a profound difference. In this paper, I will begin by discussing the division of history and biography that began with Plutarch. This division will help to elucidate what I see as the essential questions of the biographical process, which will in turn be addressed by looking through the lens of Richard Holmes's Footsteps. Finally, I'll address Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton in order to evaluate the process that Holmes suggests. Throughout the paper, I hope to raise questions and provide, if not answers, at least a rough sketch of the direction in which a dialogue about biography might proceed.

The Project of Biography – Plutarch

The writing of histories was not uncommon in the ancient world. Among others, Livy, Herodotus, Tacitus, and Thucydides each tried to describe in broad terms the motions of nations and people, alternately capturing the origin and downfall of the Roman Empire, or the incredible wars of the Greek City-States. These stories have no shortage of heroes – no dearth of individual anecdotes to humanize the effort – and yet they remain histories, complete with the hierarchical understanding that humans make up a society, and that societies, after all, are what make up the narrative of the world.

What is the interest of biography, then? What can the individual life tell us that a history cannot? Of course, the individual is easier to comprehend, his or her travails and successes more obviously apply to our own lives. Is that alone enough to warrant biography?

Plutarch was the first known biographer. His humbly, but aptly, titled
Lives were something of an experiment in the writing of history. He is at least partially responsible for the troubling “Great Man” theory of history with which we are all familiar. His project, however, does not seem to be the elevation of individuals into historical prominence, but rather something quite the opposite. At a time when histories were written which excused the sometimes awful shortcomings of societies because of the actions of the men who led them, Plutarch instead turned his eye upon those men, uncovering their weaknesses as well as their strengths, humanizing them for an audience that theretofore had simply worshiped.

The difficulty of his undertaking Plutarch recognized, and nowhere does he better express his philosophy of biography than in the opening of his
Life of Alexander. “It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed,” he writes (in John Dryden's translation):

"The multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomise the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue and vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression of jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated by others." (Plutarch, 139)

Plutarch's project is not a simple one, however tempting it is to regard this statement as straightforward. Often the subjects of his
Lives are not only dead, but have been for hundreds of years. At a time when record keeping was even more tenuous than it is now, it is impossible to imagine that the very “matters of less moment” and “expression[s] of jest” that Plutarch is after were well preserved. Evidence was not paramount; the story was. The beauty and meaning of the well-painted portrait won the day.

Despite the troublesome issue of accuracy in Plutarch's accounts of Caesar, Antony, Cato, Alexander, Solon, and the countless other ancient luminaries towards whom he turned his gaze, few ancient works feel so timely today as the
Lives. The foreignness of Greek and Roman culture and the gap of some two millennia are not enough to rob Plutarch's efforts of their relevance. Perhaps that is because we do not and cannot know the accuracy of his accounts, and therefore are free to understand his stories as complex and archetypal parables, somewhat like the myths that provided the content of Greek tragedies. That Alexander, for example, was real, and that the events described in Plutarch's account were more or less accurate merely sets the stage for a human drama all the more poignant for its unassuming, undramatic presentation. Alexander, in Plutarch, is human, regardless of whether Plutarch portrays the kind of human he was in reality.

I'm not convinced that Plutarch's fictionalized “humanization” provides a satisfying account of the purpose of biography. That biography is somehow different from history is certain, but that difference in genre raises more questions than it answers. The status of truth in even the writing of history is complicated, even though there is little question that, for that genre, truth is desirable. What of biography? Is truth desirable? What does truth look like? How can a lived life be translated from its sometimes spiritual, sometimes mundane essences into words? How can those words – like those Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the
Lives – reach across generations and nations to reform into a meaningful, or at least entertaining, story?

Throughout this quarter, the project of biography has been an ever-present question in both our class discussions and in my own thinking. What is that project, after all? There are a great many things which biography can and does do, but it seems to me that Plutarch asks a fundamental question by separating himself from history: what are “the marks and indications of the souls of men?” This is the spirit of biography, to discover not what happened to a person or even why, but rather who that person was to whom such things happened. And why do we care so much? That, I cannot answer, except to say that empathy – even and especially for those long dead – connects us to our past more strongly than facts and dates ever can. History by itself may be interesting enough, but it finds its true relevance in biography.

A Coherent Framework – Holmes

Richard Holmes's
Footsteps is not a biography or even an autobiography, but rather a story about what biography might mean. It is Plutarch's meta-biographical comment writ-large and expanded over the course of a series of stories about his own efforts to write biographies. I suspect Plutarch never would have thought there was an audience for writing about writing biographies, but there it is.

In the process of becoming a biographer, Holmes explores not only what biography is, but provides an opinion as to how the project of biography ought to be accomplished (or at least how he chooses to accomplish it). From his journeys, following the footsteps of his subjects, he creates a coherent framework, both for his own writing process, and out of the swirling chaos of the lives of his subjects.

There are two passages from Holmes that I wish to discuss, one from his
1964: Travels chapter, the other from his 1972: Exiles. The quotations are both complementary and contradictory, and thereby offer a kind of verbal frame for a discussion of what the project of biography is, whether that project is, indeed, possible, and why we readers invest so much of ourselves into lives long past.

The first passage runs contrary, but also (perhaps unwittingly) pays tribute, to Plutarch:

"The single subject of biography is in this sense a chimera, almost as much as the Noble Savage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, living in splendid isolation. The truth is almost the reverse: that Stevenson existed very largely in, and through, his contact with other people: his books are written for his public; his letters for his friends; even his private journal is a way of giving social expression – externalising – his otherwise inarticulated thoughts. It is in this sense that all real biographical evidence is “third party” evidence; evidence that is witnessed. Just as the biographer cannot make up dialogue, if he is to avoid fiction; so he cannot really say that his subject “thought or “felt” a particular thing." (Holmes, 68)

This recognition that even the best remembered individuals existed in a social world is paramount to even Plutarch's
Lives. What differs here is Holmes's conviction to “avoid fiction” by avoiding both dialogue and loaded words like “thought” and “felt.” The “third party evidence” upon which biography rests may allow for inference, but it hardly allows the writer to reconstruct and reanimate a subject in full. The modern biographer does not write lives.

Holmes does chase lives, however, and though he can never capture his subject, he can at least begin to recreate the world in which Robert Louis Stevenson or Percy Shelley lived. He is perhaps constrained to trace, in large part, “the most glorious exploits” that Plutarch avoided, but his efforts to follow Stevenson betray a deeper desire to capture, instead, the less monumental – or at least less visible – aspects of Stevenson's life. He seeks a romance, the
feeling of a journey through France, and the gentle companionship of a mule for evidence about which he cannot write in good faith except in his own story. Why, then, pursue Stevenson? Why pursue Shelley? Why tear through France and Italy, seeking forgotten homes, crossing destroyed bridges, staring out at changed streets, and overlooking a different (so similar, but so essentially different) sea? In such moments one feels that time retreats, that Holmes somehow does accomplish his goal, finding a more intimate 'evidence.' What does this evidence amount to, the evidence of looking out from where Shelley's front door would have been, trying to imagine what he would have seen and thought and felt? In Plutarch's analogy of the biographer as a painter, I wonder whether Holmes details his subject's faces with his pursuits, or if instead he merely uses them to better shade the backgrounds. Is he a writer of fiction, a writer of history, or both?

The second of our passages from
Footsteps speaks to the purpose of biography:

"The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and the outer man. The public and the private life do, in the end, make sense of each other; and the one is meaningless without the other. Its view of life is Greek: character expresses itself in action: and can be understood, if not necessarily justified." (Holmes, 175)

Contrary to the first passage, in which Holmes speaks to the essential impossibility of writing about the individual subject in a biography, instead preferring a socially and culturally situated portrait, this passage recognizes that the “appeal” of biography is somewhat different than the process. While the
biographer may be constrained by the inferences and speculations afforded by third-hand evidence, the reader seeks something more coherent. The biographer's task is, in part, to turn a chaotic selection of cultural and personal artifacts into a narrative, to create order out of a collection of ideas, opinions, stories, and manuscripts ravaged by time and space, which may or may not suggest an order in themselves. Holmes's wanderings are not merely random attempts to paint a clearer picture, it seems, but rather a search for narrative. He claims to forge a fictionalized relationship with his subjects (Holmes, 66), suspending disbelief enough to buy into the reader's hopes and expectations for coherence.

“Character expresses itself in action.” What better hope for order is there than such a notion? Plutarch could not have gotten started without this prejudice. Indeed, he believed it so much that action gave way to the occasional embellished or fictionalized dialogue. If the character is correct, what does it matter if the speeches and conversations are recorded with fidelity? The actions are the same, the man or woman still present in even the most fictionalized account. The trouble, however, is that the “great appeal of biography” and the task of the biographer do not always work in concert. Holmes may be a romantic, but all the while he is beholden to some semblance of reason, to some sense that order cannot merely be constructed out of thin air to meet the needs of his own romantic whims. What is more chaotic, after all, than abandoning all hope of a true coherent narrative and adopting instead an unquestionably false one?

In Holmes, as in Plutarch, there is no clear line between what is the right and what is the wrong approach to biography. We may imagine extremes, wherein the writer presents only evidence, or only fabrication, but neither of those makes for compelling writing. “The great appeal of biography seems to lie,” but it doesn't necessarily lie, it merely “seems to.” Sometimes biography tells the truth, even when it offers “a coherent and integral view of human affairs.”

Is human life coherent and orderly? Is the universe? Those may be unsophisticated questions, too essential for scholarly work in an age of science, but biography was born out of such questions. To create order out of chaos is not so difficult for the playwright, who need only apply imagination when things get sticky. Likewise the philosopher, who, in taking order for granted, is free to manage his assumptions such that chaos is continually denied entry to the conversation. The biographer's job is trickier, creating order out of something far less antithetical and abstract, and thus far harder to combat, than pure chaos. The biographer, we might say, has gazed not only into the Platonic form of chaos, but into its living manifestation. The biographer has seen what happens when a human is reduced to a name and attendant actions: Alexander the Great, Anne Sexton, Robert Louis Stevenson. In staring into the abyss of those names and actions (the 'history' of the subject), in collecting what journals and letters and second-hand (and third-hand and fourth-hand and n-hand) accounts exist, the biographer becomes a chronicler of impossible questions about both the life of an individual and life in general, questions which, impossible though they be, demand a coherent answer if any writing is to be done.

This is no tragic task. Holmes, for his twinge of romantic melancholy, comes across as a fundamentally joyful fellow, gallivanting about with
Le Brun. Perhaps his mad and slightly tardy pursuits across European countrysides and cityscapes help him to retain a healthy perspective. Perhaps his fictionalized relationships – which undoubtedly find their way into his portraits in one way or another – are a way to humanize for himself the mass of evidence upon which he depends, before he tries to humanize and situate that evidence for his readers. If we want to know who the person was – and not just the name or the oeuvre – to whom the events of a life happened, it might first be necessary to fictionalize, to humanize, to spin a fine silken string of order in a universe of chaos. Then, having spun the silk, we hold on, gaze back into the chaos, and hope that a tapestry might emerge.

The Life of Anne Sexton – Middlebrook

What does that tapestry look like, should it emerge? After all, not all biographers are blessed (or cursed) with the same amount of information, or with the same proximity to (or distance from) the subject. I suspect that Diane Middlebrook's
Anne Sexton will not answer my questions, so much as raise more. Nevertheless, I wonder if a life as comparatively recent as Sexton's might give us a different perspective on the nature of biography. Surely Middlebrook, with her incredible wealth of evidence and a culture not far-removed from the one Sexton herself lived in, had more at her disposal than a fictionalized relationship. Surely it was not so hard for her to construct a “coherent and integral view of human affairs.”

Middlebrook's is a more systematic project than Holmes's. Armed with endless correspondence and several years worth of therapy tapes, the work of writing the story of Anne Sexton must have seemed more an effort of organization than an effort of creation. Plutarch's ideal of locating and situating telltale jests that inform the reader more than momentous occasions is realized throughout Middlebrook's biography. For example, Middlebrook highlights this quotation (which we have not quite first hand, but close) from Anne herself to Dr. Orne about her therapy: “I had been with you only a week when I got all the books on psychiatry. I read them to try to find out what kind of patient to be” (Middlebrook, 53). While there are a great many moments as intimate as this in the biography – and a great many intimate things about which we actually know very little, despite the overwhelming amount of material at Middlebrook's disposal – perhaps none speaks more directly to the complications of writing about a character like Anne Sexton. “I read them to try to find out what kind of patient to be” suggests an actress, not willing or able to be herself. If biography is to uncover the person to whom the events of a life happen, how can it succeed in uncovering a person so complicated as Sexton?

That Sexton had in mind her own legacy while she lived certainly complicates the task of writing and reading her biography, but it strikes me that any sufficiently famous figure – a figure about whom a biography is likely to be written – is unlikely to be oblivious to questions of self-presentation. Sexton may be a singularly extreme case of self-consciousness turned into self-disintegration, or at least self-dramatization, but is it not the case that the biographer is constrained to deal primarily with the dramatic self instead of the essential self? The appearance will always take precedence over the soul in an art where overt fiction is verboten. And for good reason, because else we venture into Plutarchian waters, where perhaps stories are well-told, but the lessons of personal history are also corrupted by blatant untruths.

Of course the issue is not so simple, but the point here is not to rehash the tenuous line between invention and reporting that goes on in biography (and history, and even journalism). Rather, the point is that abundance of evidence – even evidence which points to the kinds of subtle but profound moments that Plutarch held in such esteem – is no guarantee of a biography which can penetrate to the heart and soul of a man or woman. Middlebrook dissects Sexton's poems with skill, and organizes an enthralling narrative, and even gives the reader a sense of what Sexton was like, if not who she was. Indeed, hers is an exceptionally skillful biography, attaining as much as Holmes or Plutarch might hope to attain, even though she did not follow – a la Holmes – in Sexton's disturbed footsteps. Even so, Sexton remains a mystery, perhaps because that is what she sought to be. 'Enigmatic' is a difficult quality to create a coherent narrative around, 'insane' a difficult one to make orderly. The picture that arises of Sexton almost allows the reader to find her comprehensible, if it weren't for those moments – like her sexual abuse of her daughter – which unravel the entire sympathetic fabric.

On the edges of even this virtuoso performance in biographical writing lies the chaotic tongue of confused meanings and impossible-to-reconcile disagreements about who Sexton was, what she meant, and why she did what she did. “I have been her kind,” Sexton writes, as an ostensible way to let her audiences know who she was. But do we ever, can we ever know another human being, except by kind? Perhaps Sexton was right to paint herself in comparative hues, to clothe herself in Language instead of trying to
be someone. Middlebrook, then, is stuck with the approximation of Sexton's Language, just as Holmes is stuck with approximation of place and Plutarch with an approximation of character. And yet, for Sexton, perhaps that is as telling a line in the face of the portrait as any.


“Language has nothing to do with rational thought,” (Middlebrook, 226) said Anne Sexton of her mysterious interaction with words. Though she appreciated the formalism of poetry – as opposed to journaling, for example – she was no beacon of reason and order. Where does she stand, then, where her biography in the constellation of biographies that make up our knowledge of lives gone past? Human beings are a species that loves order, and yet seems to suspect that this is a cruel, unrequited love. Plutarch's heroic efforts on behalf of Greek and Roman heroes amounts to an account – a
logos – that compels a sense of ancient virtue, but also shows how thin, unto transparency, the veil between fiction and our sense of history are. Holmes, too, fights the battle of biography, winning a more romantic, but less heroic victory with words, constructing a narrative of beauty and humor. Middlebrook's more modern, more immediate, more honest picture lives somewhere more paradox. Her logos knows that language is rational thought, even if – and indeed because – language has nothing to do with rational thought.


Clough, A.H. (2001).
Plutarch's Lives, (Ed., J. Dryden, Trans.). New York: The Modern Library. (Translation published 1683, original work published ca. 100 AD).

Holmes, R. (1985).
Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. New York: Vintage Books.

Middlebrook, D.W. (1991).
Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books.

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