2018 BIO Conference Panel – The Soul of a Biographer

Although Percy Bysshe Shelley attended Cambridge and might have been expected to be recognized as a talent of his era, the poet was not well respected at his alma mater years after his death and was almost forgotten. But it was reading one of Shelley’s poems, “on a wet afternoon in a laundromat,” that set 2018 BIO Award-winner, Richard Holmes, off on his odyssey of writing Shelley: The Pursuit, starting his career as a biographer.

In a conversation with James Atlas, Holmes said that his own journey was made somewhat easier because he “inherited a folding company bed” used by the British military, so he had something to sleep on as he journeyed into another’s life.

Holmes said it was important to him to follow in Shelley’s footsteps, and later Coleridge’s and others, to have a better understanding of them as people and the world they inhabited. But, he added, that physical pursuit may not yield the expected results. In researching Robert Louis Stevenson, Holmes came upon a bridge that he thought Stevenson had crossed and written about. “I think I’m going to meet Stevenson,” he thought in crossing. But off in the distance, he finally noticed the original bridge, closed to traffic. Holmes realized, “I can’t do this”—meet Stevenson in this way. “The bridge is always broken.”

Holmes’s took away two important lessons from the Shelley and Stevenson experiences: “you only discovered what you have written after writing” and “accept what you don’t know.”

Atlas, describing his experience of dealing with novelist Saul Bellow as a living subject, said, “Dead is probably easier than Bellow.” On writing about a living character, he said, “I wouldn’t do that again.” Atlas added, “The more time I spent on [Bellow] I felt the less I knew him.”

After reading a section of Atlas’s Bellow: A Biography, Holmes said both writers “share a wonderful eye for detail” and the exchanges between the subject and biographer were telling about them as individuals and as author and subject.

Discussing his research process, Holmes described how he always takes notes in a notebook that is divided into right- and left-hand sides. The right is for facts and figures, while the left is for “your dreams,” he explained. And, “complex emotions should be included,” as they can provide the images used in writing.

Speaking from his experience as an educator in the United Kingdom, Holmes said it was important for biographers to differentiate between sympathy and empathy when examining and then writing about a person. Often, he said, “you fall in love with your subject and [later] fall out of love with him.” In short, the writer has to “start stepping back” to address the person as the subject.

Like other biographers, Holmes added, “you [can] learn a lot through journals” and notebooks kept by the subject that go beyond the words on paper. In the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Holmes’s research included facts, figures, dates, places, people, and even where Coleridge revealed a sense of humor through his tone of voice. “When he’s taking a lot of drugs, his writing gets large, vivid,” said Holmes.

As the session neared its end, Holmes returned to Shelley as a subject. He concluded, “I think the figurative is the allegory of life” and the writer needs to be aware of that in the work as a whole.”

In looking at the breadth of a work and how each scene or chapter comes together as a whole, Atlas said, “Footnotes are high on the list [because] I didn’t ever want to ruin the narrative [and its] forward propulsion,” but he wanted to add some interesting fact or observation. Footnotes are the answer to the question: “What do you do with gems you just can’t fit [in] anywhere?”

In looking at biographers as a group, Holmes said that they have changed their frame over time, becoming more autobiographical. For example, he said, The Life of Samuel Johnson could more accurately be titled, James Bosworth, My Life.

—John Grady