Richard Holmes Explores the Value of “A Handshake across Time”

Richard Holmes

Holmes’s books have included a two-volume biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By Dona Munker

In fifty years of writing biography, the innovative and prolific Richard Holmes has become known to his fellow practitioners as “a biographer’s biographer” for his reflections on the art and craft of biography (Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer and Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer). At the 2014 annual Leon Levy Biography Lecture in New York, Holmes shared some insights with a rapt audience.

Holmes was about 18 when he decided to hike through the Cèvennes in an attempt to retrace the route Robert Louis Stevenson had taken with his donkey Modestine in 1878. Showing the audience a picture of two pages in a lined spiral notebook, he explained how he recorded factual, objective observations on one page, and on the opposite his own responses—“the subjective story, the dream story, the inner story of my pursuit.” In this way, his research notes became a mirror of past (the scientific evidence of Stevenson’s journey) and present (the biographer’s emotional responses to the evidence he recorded).

Holmes now views traveling to places where the subject lived and worked as the “physical and metaphysical pursuit” of a life, and an indispensable tool for a biographer, especially a literary biographer. Trying to discover the source of “that hope and creativity” that engenders art, however, requires not only discernment but a continuous balancing of circumspection and emotional empathy. The interior or spiritual life of a subject, he said, (“whether religious or not”) is “hidden” and therefore “far more delicate and difficult of access” than other areas of existence (including, Holmes observed rather pointedly, a subject’s sex life).

To penetrate the interior reality and bring it alive for both biographer and reader, Holmes said, the biographer must have the courage to draw not only on objective evidence but also on the subjective feelings and intuition that arise out of the writer’s own empathy for a subject’s emotional experience. And there is no substitute, he said, for being there.

As an example, he described an incident from the five years he spent searching for the sources of Shelley’s poetry (Shelley: The Pursuit, 1974). Puzzled by the fact that in “Adonais,” Shelley, an avowed atheist, envisions “a kind of immortality” for the poet John Keats, he nevertheless discovered archival evidence that the poet had earlier tried to write poems about his young son William, who had died of a fever in Rome. Fragments of those attempts eventually found their way into “Adonais.” However, Holmes continued to find the poem hard to reconcile with Shelley’s professed atheism.

Then, while reviewing photographs he had taken of the garden of the house in Italy where Shelley had played with his son, Holmes noticed the concealed figure of a small boy watching him curiously from among the trees. Several seconds passed before the startled biographer realized that the boy was not the ghost of William Shelley but the son of the house’s current Italian owners, come to see what he was doing.

Those seconds of surrender to an illusion, he said, brought home to him how strongly he empathized with Shelley’s overwhelming loss and grief and deepened Holmes’s understanding of the poet’s longing to repair such a loss. “I accepted his atheism intellectually,” he said. “…[But] I also realized that at some level, Shelley believed in some sort of creative immortality, [a belief] that he could only express in his poetry.”

Holmes’s moments of disorientation, he said, also revealed the fine line a biographer always has to walk between detachment and empathy. “That momentary illusion taught me that…the biographer can become far more emotionally involved with the subject than he realizes. That is a good and necessary thing, so long as he can finally step back.”

Years of both writing biography and teaching it (Holmes was the founding director of an MA program in biography at the University of East Anglia) have led him to think of biography as a collective effort that reaches not only across disciplines but also across generations, cultures, and different ways of life. “I believe passionately in the biographical form and its power of truth-telling and transformation in lives,” he told his listeners. “I also believe that it addresses the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery…the meeting of imaginative literature and those who write it, and science and those who make it.”

 Holmes used this image to illustrate  biography's "handshake across time." (Used by permission of Richard Holmes)


Holmes used this image to illustrate biography’s “handshake across time.”
(Used by permission of Richard Holmes)

Quoting Sylvia Plath, who said, “the novel is an open hand, poetry a clenched fist,” Holmes projected another image from one of his notebooks (“Number 209”), this one showing a drawing of two hands clasped in a handshake. “Biography, then, is a handshake across time…an act of friendship, a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open on both sides of that endless question about the mysteriousness of life. What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical inquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith.”

To see a video of Holmes’s lecture, go here.

Dona Munker, co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem Through the Islamic Revolution, is currently at work on a book about the twentieth-century American poet, suffragist, and free-lover Sara Bard Field. Some of her subjective responses to Richard Holmes’s lecture can be read on “Stalking the Elephant,” a blog about writing biography

Rich Variety of Biographies Highlight Fall Season

By James McGrath Morris
From the twerks of Miley Cyrus to the typography of Giambattista Bodoni, from the humor of Bill Cosby to the antics of Charlie Chaplin, from the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower to the rule of Joseph Stalin, the more than 100 biographies coming to bookstores this fall run the gamut of possibilities. While biography, like other segments of publishing, is navigating rough waters, writers keep producing a remarkably rich selection of works.

As TBC does twice a year, here is a discursive look at what is coming. A complete list is available here.

The first books to resonate with readers this fall are two September titles: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, by Karen Abbott (Harper) and Tennessee Williams: Made Pilgrimage of the Flesh by John Lahr (Norton). Also getting some notice is The Poet and the Vampyre: The Curse of Byron and the Birth of Literature’s Greatest Monsters by Andrew McConnell Stott (Pegasus). One of the cast members of this prosopography is Mary Shelley, who will be the subject of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon, coming out in February (Random House).

As usual, as the fall gets underway, political figures will be featured in a large share of the biographies. Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns have put together The Roosevelts: An Intimate History as a tie-in to the seven-part documentary airing on PBS this fall, which follows the Roosevelts for more than a century, from Theodore’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. Continue Reading…

Sex, Lies, and (No) Audiotape

20140815cover600x800-1

It’s rare when biographies and biographers make the front page of a national magazine — in this case it’s the September 5, 2014 issue of Newsweek. But don’t rush to celebrate just yet.  In a lengthy piece for the magazine, reporter David Cay Johnson  debunks the work of celebrity biographer C. David Heymann — author of juicy tell-alls on Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, and Liz Taylor, to name a few — finding that much of Heymann’s research turned out to be vapor trails.  It’s a cautionary tale of a “serial fabulist” and definitely worth a read.

 

Picture of a Life: Philip Short Explores the Biographer’s Craft

Philip Short

As a newspaper journalist and BBC correspondent, Short reported from Moscow, China, and Washington D.C.

More than four decades ago, while working as a freelance journalist in Malawi, Philip Short received a letter from Penguin: Would he be interested in writing a biography of Malawian president Hastings Banda, for the publisher’s series Political Giants of the 20th Century? Short readily agreed, adding now, “I suspect they had no idea that I was then 23 years old!”

Since that auspicious start, Short has a made his mark writing biographies of world leaders. His most recent book, Mitterand: A Study in Ambiguity, was published in the UK last fall and in April in the United States. With all his biographies, and with his next project on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, Short has chosen to focus on figures outside the Anglo-American sphere. TBC interviewed Short to get his perspective on what challenges that poses, and his general views of the craft of biography.
For Short, researching and writing the life story of foreign figures came out of his experience working as a reporter for the BBC. He said of his time as a journalist, “What fired me was getting to grips with another culture, with other ways of thinking, and of conveying to people at home what I thought of as ‘a particle of truth’ about a different society, which was not the same as the truth that most of my compatriots understood. That experience… has certainly influenced my approach to biography.”
Short added that he admires biographers who can write about their own country’s leaders, such as Charles Moore on Margaret Thatcher and Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson. “I wouldn’t do it myself,” he said. “When writer, subject, and readers are all from the same country, it’s a totally different exercise. The dimension of foreignness—of otherness—is missing.”
With two of his books—Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare—Short not only dealt with foreign leaders, but also ones vilified for their atrocious acts. Does dealing with such horrific subjects require any special distancing or raise other concerns? First, for Short, “writing about terrible things…is never fun.” But he also feels biographers and others need to closely examine the terms used to describe such men as Mao and Pol Pot and their actions. For instance, he backs away from the expression mass murderer, because “the term ‘murder’ is reserved for deliberate voluntary killing. In both China and Cambodia, most of those who died perished from starvation (the Great Leap Forward in China: upwards of 30 million dead) or starvation, overwork, and illness (Cambodia).

Continue Reading…

The Best Book May Not Win: Winner and Losers at Awards Time

By Steve Weinberg
We biographers covet awards for our books, as do novelists and poets and essayists and journalists from all media. After all, writers tend to receive little recognition and less cash.
My advice is not exactly to forget about awards, but something similar—relax, because most of us will never win and many of the “best” biographies, however that is measured, will not receive the prize recognition they deserve.
Michael Burgan asked me to write about awards partly because I have judged so many book, newspaper, magazine, and broadcast competitions. I have even received a few awards amidst my publication of eight books, although no awards that receive the most publicity—the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle medal.
I am here to say that choosing the winner from hundreds or thousands of candidates in a given year is a crapshoot, an exercise in “It all depends….” It depends on which other books have been entered, the political log rolling (not always, but sometimes), and the reading preferences of the judges who happen to have been chosen that year. (I concede that although I enter judging with an open mind, I’d much rather read Robert Caro’s next volume on the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson than a biography of a long-ago member of the Belgian royal family.)

Continue Reading…

Leavell’s Marianne Moore Wins Second Annual Plutarch

Linda Leavell’s Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) won the Plutarch Award for the best biography of 2013. The winner and the three finalists were revealed at a ceremony held at the closing of the fifth annual Compleat Biographer conference at UMass Boston on May 17.

 

Plutarch Award winner Linda Leavell poses with Barbara Lehman Smith, who served on the Plutarch Nomination Committee.

Plutarch Award winner Linda Leavell poses with Barbara Lehman Smith, who served on the Plutarch Nomination Committee.

“I’m truly humbled by this award, and I’m also humbled by my company here, the fellow nominees,” Leavell said after Plutarch Nominating Committee member Vanda Krefft opened the sealed envelope that contained the name of the winner. Leavell was a charter member of BIO and attended the first conference, which was also held at UMass Boston five years ago. “It was amazing to me, as I was writing a biography in Oklahoma and Arkansas, to have the opportunity to be with other biographers and meet people and talk about the things that I was doing and the things that they were doing, so I’m very grateful to this organization.”

Named after the Ancient Greek biographer, the prize is the genre’s equivalent of the Oscar, in that Biographers International Organization (BIO) members chose the winner by secret ballot from nominees selected by a committee of distinguished members of the craft.

The finalists for the 2013 Plutarch Award were:
  • Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (Knopf)
  • Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine Books)
  • Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (Random House)
This is the second year the Plutarch has been awarded. In 2013, the award was bestowed on Robert Caro for his The Passage of Power. 
A surprised and touched "Founding Father" receives his awards. To Morris's left is BIO president Brian Jay Jones. To his right are BIO board member Barbara Burkhardt and Will Swift.

A surprised and touched “Founding Father” receives his awards. To Morris’s left is BIO president Brian Jay Jones. To his right are BIO board member Barbara Burkhardt and Will Swift.

Prior to the Plutarch ceremonies, Board member Will Swift presented retiring President James McGrath Morris with the unique “Founding Father Award” for his role in “creating, supporting, and inspiring Biographers International Organization.” BIO’s Secretary Barbara Burkhardt followed by giving Morris a beautiful bound book of tributes from members of BIO.

The award and book were both a surprise to Morris, who gave a moist-eyed thank you to the crowd.Morris said, “I might have had the founding idea, but BIO is you and belongs to you.”  He is said to be currently hiding in Santa Fe, writing thank you notes.

Schiff Keynote Speech Highlights Fifth BIO Conference

More than 200 biographers, including ones from Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, attended the fifth annual Compleat Biographer Conference, held May 17 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. As at past conferences, one of the day’s highlights was the presentation of the BIO Award at the afternoon luncheon, which this year went to Stacy Schiff, author of Saint-Exupéry: A Life,A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Cleopatra: A Life and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage.

At the day’s luncheon, outgoing BIO President James McGrath Morris presented Schiff with the award, noting that her dedication to the craft of biography went far beyond the written page to her longstanding and ongoing support of BIO.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

Schiff delivers her keynote address to an appreciative audience.

In her keynote speech, Schiff addressed the two major problems biographers face: a paucity of information or an overabundance of it. She termed the latter “the haystack in the haystack” and said “nothing could be worse,” because “documentation is not revelation.” Writing about Franklin’s years as a diplomat in France, Schiff found voluminous material on him in various archives, though the information did not always reveal the essence of the man at the time.

Schiff recounted enduring the other extreme, the needle in the haystack, while researching Vera Nabokov and Cleopatra. Yet at times, she said, a lack of information, or what a subject leaves out of his or her own writings, can be telling. She believes that “the story lurks in the excisions, the elisions, the denials,” in information distorted or destroyed. The biographers’ challenge, Schiff said, is to find their subject’s voice, or rather, to “help their subject to find his voice, to coax him to speak, when he opts not to do so himself.”

Continue Reading…

Jones Becomes BIO’s Fourth President; Curtis Elected Vice President

BIO members selected Brian Jay Jones to serve as president and Cathy Curtis as vice president in an election that concluded on April 30.

Jones has been a BIO board member since 2009 and served as BIO’s secretary and vice president. He is the author of Jim Henson: The Biography and Washington Irving: An American Original.

Curtis, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, has been a board member since 2013 and served as chair of the Program Committee for the 2014 Compleat Biographer conference. Oxford University Press will publish her biography of Abstract Expressionist painter Grace Hartigan in 2015.

“BIO is an organization whose members are incredibly passionate about, and devoted to, the art and craft of biography,” said Jones. “It’s such a privilege to belong to an organization like that, and it’s an even greater honor to serve as its president. I appreciate our members entrusting me and Cathy Curtis with this opportunity, and we look forward to working together on behalf of BIO.”

“I am thrilled to be able to work with Brian as we enter a new era for BIO,” Curtis said. “One of my goals is to encourage all members to involve yourselves more fully in our unique organization and to discover the personal and professional rewards of collaborating with your fellow biographers.”

BIO members re-elected or elected to new terms on the board were Chip Bishop, Kate Buford, Barbara Burkhardt, Deirdre David, Gayle Feldman, Beverly Gray, Hans Renders, William Souder, and Will Swift.

More than 56 percent of active BIO members cast ballots.

The first order of business for the new board will be to select a new treasurer and secretary at its May 18 meeting.