By John A. Farrell
Did liberal scholarship, degrading the principle of truth with postmodern theory, pave the way for Donald Trump’s duplicity?
Biographer Nigel Hamilton, a former BIO president, proposed as much in a biting address that launched “Different Lives,” a three-day conference on biography at the University of Groningen in The Netherlands, in late September.
“The White House was won . . . by a real estate developer committed to a platform of misogyny, hatred of immigrants, opposition to federal government, and greed-obsessed fantasy as preferable to reality,” said Hamilton. “Americans . . . are now living with the worrying outcome of that election—especially its implications for the concept of truth.”
Trump’s “Orwellian suppression of truthfulness” has roots in postwar postmodern and deconstructionist theories, Hamilton contended. Laudably, he said, biographers have resisted the call.
Organized by Hans Renders’s team at the Biography Institute in Groningen, with support from BIO and the Biography Society in France, the conference lured biographers from four continents and 18 countries.
The keynote address was given by British biographer Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award. The Dutch Biography Prize was given to Onno Blom, for his book on artist and writer Jan Wolkers. And the conference attendees were treated, midway through the program, to author Nick Weber’s stately, successful defense of his Ph.D. thesis on the painter Piet Mondrian.
BIO member Carl Rollyson spoke on the art of presidential biography. Writers from Iran, Russia, and Vietnam reminded attendees to not take for granted the immeasurable value of artistic freedom. Lindie Koorts of South Africa and Spain’s Maria Jesus Gonzalez gave instructive talks on how contemporary political issues affect the choices and interpretations made by biographers in their two countries.
Hamilton addressed issues of truthfulness and politics as well. We are “now confronting the effects of American cultural decay” symbolized by “a reckless administration of willful know-nothings,” he said, in a talk titled “Truth, Lies, and Fake Truth: The Future of Biography.”
Drawing from his own writings and experience, and quoting from critic Michiko Kakutani’s book, The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, Hamilton traced a line from the more extreme forms of poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism—that paint history, political verities, and at times science as social constructions—to today’s “fake news” climate.
With a few exceptions, biographers have resisted, Hamilton said. In the discipline, “truth has remained a red line,” he contended, a reason that readers have turned to biography in its recent golden age, for its reliance on “verifiable facts.”
Biographers “hewed to what was biography’s lifeblood: non-fiction,” he said, and “were pressed to work harder than ever in their search of the truth about real individuals. Where footnotes and endnotes had once been considered de trop in biography, they now became mandatory.”
Biographers, resisting the lure of postmodern theory, are now “willing to work harder to find and authenticate sources, do new interviews, challenge and update earlier accounts—to do, in short, the intense forensic research . . . footnoted and endnoted, that had once been the prerogative of the academic historian.”
Joanny Moulin, the president of the Biography Society and a member of BIO’s Advisory Council, replied in part to Hamilton in his own talk on biography. “My take on biography is theoretical, because I am French,” he said wryly. Biographers may resist the extreme interpretations—and extreme criticism—of postmodern theory, Moulin said, but it is foolish to say that social constructs and other forces don’t guide the lives and choices of individuals.
Biographers cannot close their eyes to the implications and insights of modern theory, Moulin contended. The notion that we can “go back to the good old days—this is nonsense,” he said.
Lectures about the culture of biography in Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, and Indonesia were alternated by roundtables. During these discussions, there was a lively debate on propositions about censorship, the reception of biography, and the relationship between biography and history. Finally, David Veltman made some remarks about the political impact of artists’ biographies in Belgium.
This well-attended conference was prepared to the very detail by Hans Renders (another member of BIO’s Advisory Council), Madelon Nanninga-Franssen, and David Veltman. During the farewell dinner, they were frequently called upon to organize such an event again.
Below are reports on two of the panels that were offered at the Ninth Annual BIO Conference in May, written with assistance from John Grady. Each article continues on the BIO website. BIO members can read about seven more sessions in the July issue of The Biographer’s Craft; an archived copy is available in the Member Area.
You can see a photo gallery from the conference here.
Writing Multiple Lives
Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives, said she discovered that through a group biography she could dramatize her initial subject and anchor her in a community, a social circle. What tied together her three subjects—Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland—was that they “were women who knew everybody” and their sexuality.
“I didn’t set out to write collective biography,” Carla Kaplan said when she started work on Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance. From her earlier biography on Zora Neale Hurston, Kaplan knew that many white women had connections to Hurston and others in the renaissance. As Kaplan delved deeper into the relationships those women had with Hurston and each other, she found “extraordinary dead ends” on how to approach writing about a single white woman in that time, in that place. Finally, Kaplan decided, “I am going to have to write that book to read that book” on the complexities of the relationships of the “Miss Annes”—a collective nickname—of being hostesses, philanthropists, snubbers of convention, and more.
Likewise, Justin Spring in The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy had to work through “any number of false starts” to settle on how to proceed to write about six very different writers, who “were very much like the Americans of the ‘Lost Generation,’” in another era of “enormous American cultural ferment:” Paris after World War II.
Interesting as the six were as individuals, Spring said, “these people were not coming together” as a possible group biography until he found a key in Alice B. Toklas’s second book on cooking, and their shared love of French cuisine. Among the subjects in The Gourmands’ Way is Julia Child, to many Americans the doyenne of the Gallic way with food.
Writing About the Vietnam War
Moderator Marc Leepson, a Vietnam War veteran, began the session by providing some background. The Vietnam War was the longest U.S. war before the twenty-first century and the country’s most controversial overseas war. After the war, Leepson said, “Nobody really wanted to talk about it” because of its divisive nature. But as panelists Kai Bird, Max Boot, and Heath Lee showed, there is a market today for certain biographies relating to the Vietnam War era, even if there are challenges in writing them.
For Bird, one challenge was getting one of his subjects, McGeorge Bundy, to open up about his involvement in the war. Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms looked at the role both Bundy brothers played in setting U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Bird, a former Vietnam War protester, wanted to explore how smart, liberal intellectuals came to get America into and then defend the war. He was able to meet with both Bundys. William, he said, “was much more of a gentleman and a scholar” and more generous with his time. On the other hand, Bird said, “I feared Mac Bundy”—a man Bird once considered a war criminal. McGeorge was sometimes dismissive of Bird’s questions. The Color of Truth came out in 1991, and Bird said he had no trouble getting it published, but he was still dealing with his own anger about the war as he wrote it.
Both Max Boot and Heath Lee are of a younger generation than Leepson and Bird; their experiences of the Vietnam War were not nearly as direct. Boot said that with younger writers of Vietnam books “you lose some of that sense of immediacy” that came from authors writing just after the war. “But,” he added, “I think what you gain is some more perspective.” Boot brought that perspective to his recent biography of Edward Lansdale, the first complete look at the life of a military officer and CIA agent who helped shape U.S. policy toward Vietnam. Lansdale often appeared as a character in other books about the war, and Boot said he was usually presented in a one-dimensional way, as a con artist or malevolent figure. Boot wanted to present Lansdale in a more balanced way, while still presenting his flaws.
Heath Lee’s Vietnam book, The League of Wives: The Untold Story of the Women Who Took on the President, the Pentagon and the Rest of the US Government to Bring Their Husbands Home, which will be published April 2, 2019, is a group biography of civilians who have been overlooked: the wives of American POWs/MIAs. While writing the book, she said, she came to “love the ladies,” but she knew a biographer should not fall in love with her subjects. She interviewed most of the women featured, and they were eager to share a story that had not been told before. Another major source was the diary of Sybil Stockdale, one of the key figures in the book.
Highlights of the 2018 BIO Conference: Holmes Keynote Address and Husband-and-Wife Team in Conversation
More than 225 established and aspiring biographers from three continents immersed themselves in their craft at the Ninth Annual Biographers International Organization Conference, held May 18 and 19, at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Along with the announcement of the Plutarch Award for 2018, conference highlights included a keynote address by Richard Holmes, winner of the 2018 BIO Award, and a discussion between Edmund Morris and Sylvia Jukes Morris, who shared their experiences writing about both living and dead subjects. [more]
Scenes from the 2018 BIO Conference:
Acclaimed literary biographer Richard Holmes will receive the 2018 BIO Award at BIO’s upcoming conference in New York and give the keynote speech on May 19. As a preview of that, James Atlas interviewed Holmes; you can read the interview here.
By Linda Leavell
“All biographies are group biographies. All lives are surrounded by a constellation of other lives,” said Susan Hertog, at a previous BIO Conference. “Every biographer must choose how much space to devote to each person.”
So why foreground several lives at once instead of making most of them secondary in a conventional biography or else subsuming them all in a history? What draws writers and readers to group biography? What particular challenges does group biography entail?
These are some of the questions to be addressed by the “Writing Multiple Lives” session at the 2018 BIO Conference in New York. The three panelists—Lisa Cohen, Carla Kaplan, and Justin Spring—generously gave a preview of their remarks.
Lisa Cohen, author of All We Know: Three Lives (2012), first planned to write a biography of Madge Garland, an influential fashion editor of British Vogue. But Cohen realized that even though she had enough material to write a whole book about Garland, “such a book would—ironically—not quite do her justice. And that it would not hold my interest.”
“I realized,” said Cohen, “that I had to grapple with the idea of ephemeral achievement more broadly. And that challenge also meant a different approach to the form of biography.”
All We Know juxtaposes Garland with two other lesbian women, Esther Murphy and Mercedes de Acosta, whose lives were both “central and marginal to their time.” The structure of the group biography allowed Cohen “to keep asking: what is failure and what is accomplishment?” Cohen never draws connections among the three lives explicitly. Rather, as in Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, she lets readers discover parallels on their own.
Carla Kaplan decided to write Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), because no such book existed when she looked for one. While the involvement of white men in the Harlem Renaissance is well documented, the many white women who “volunteered for blackness” were either obscured or dismissed.
Kaplan focused on the lives of six women, some with motives that were honorable and some not. But even if she did not like them, Kaplan “still wanted to treat them with respect.”
The magnitude of research surprised her. “It was like writing six biographies—more really, because a couple of the women who’d been slated for the book just didn’t pan out. I didn’t feel I could bring them to life or make them interesting enough.”
She chose to write a group biography to allow her six women to “speak for themselves” whenever possible. They each needed “some space of their own.”
Justin Spring, author of The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (2017), compares writing a group biography to “composing an orchestral piece rather than a solo piece.”
Like Kaplan, he started with an idea—“the effect of French foodways and French culture on the American understanding of good food, wine, and fine dining”—and then chose six American writers who played a role in that phenomenon. The six contemporaries vary in their personalities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, and relationships to French cuisine, and “their lives were full of overlapping dramas (and a good deal of antagonism).”
“Each of the six lives has a specific dramatic arc,” Spring said, “and the period itself has a dramatic arc, and at the same time there is much that needed explaining both in the USA of that period and in France of that period—so getting it right took a lot of arranging, trimming, and rearranging.”
The session on “Writing Multiple Lives” at the 2018 BIO Conference will engage not only those writing or contemplating a group biography per se but also anyone whose work encompasses multiple lives.
Linda Leavell, the moderator of the panel, won the Plutarch Award for her biography of Marianne Moore. Her current project is a group biography of the Stieglitz Circle.
(Photos above, from left to right, by Vanessa Haney, Robin Hultgren, and Jason Puris)
On September 20 and 21, 2018, BIO will join the Biography Institute and the Biography Society in hosting the conference Different Lives: Global Perspectives on Biography in Public Cultures and Societies. This conference will take place in Groningen, the Netherlands, home of the Biography Institute, which is directed by BIO board member Hans Renders. The event will allow biographers to look beyond their own borders, explore how biography is practiced in other parts of the world, and discuss the cultural perspectives that guide biographers in their approach to the infinite complexity of the other.
With a mix of panel, roundtable, and public discussions, featuring speakers from many nations, this conference is designed to present the state of the art of biography from a wealth of different perspectives. Richard Holmes will deliver the keynote address, and BIO members participating include Carl Rollyson, John A. Farrell, and Nigel Hamilton. The latter will host a master class on Wednesday, September 19, for young biographers working on their first books.
Also on Wednesday, attendees can choose to explore two cultural sites in and around Groningen: Museum of Graphic Arts and Camp Westerbork, an exhibition depicting the Netherlands during World War II, focusing on the persecution of Jews.
Early-bird tickets for the conference are available until June 1, for 40 euros; after that, the price will rise to 60 euros. Attendees can also reserve a place at the conference dinner for 60 euros. If you require assistance in booking hotel or travel arrangements, email the conference board. Look for more information on the conference in future issues of TBC, and you can follow news of the event on Facebook at Different Lives Conference.
Biographers International Organization will convene on the weekend of May 18–20, in Manhattan, for three days of discussion, camaraderie, and exploration. “BIO is especially pleased that this year’s conference will be hosted by CUNY and the Leon Levy Center for Biography,” said program co-chairs Heath Lee and John Farrell. “The scope of expertise that these two organizations, devoted to biography, bring to the table is stunning.”
Registration for the conference will begin in late January. Current BIO members will receive an email with a link to the registration site to take advantage of an early-bird discount.
The conference starts on Friday, May 18, with guided tours of New York City research libraries, readings by authors, and a welcoming cocktail party at the Fabbri Mansion on East 95th Street.
The Saturday, May 19, sessions at the Leon Levy Center will begin with a plenary breakfast at which Edmund Morris (biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Beethoven, and Thomas Edison) and his wife, Sylvia Jukes Morris (biographer of Clare Boothe Luce and Edith Kermit Roosevelt), will share their views about the craft of biography as it pertains to writing about the living and the dead. They have titled their plenary talk: “Dead Is Easier.”
Other featured speakers include Griffin Dunne, the actor and filmmaker, in conversation with Stacy Schiff regarding Dunne’s film biography of his aunt, Joan Didion. James Atlas will be talking about “The Soul of a Biographer” with our 2018 BIO Award winner, who will give the luncheon address. We are particularly excited about this year’s winner, whom we will announce in February.
Joe Hagen, the biographer of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, will discuss the perils of difficult subjects with biographer Kitty Kelley, who has pierced the walls around Frank Sinatra, Jackie O, and other celebrities.
In the Saturday sessions, conference attendees will be able to select from 16 panels devoted to topics such as “Issues in Biography,” “The Craft,” “Basics,” and “The Biz,” and a number of roundtable discussions. The conference will also feature a panel about the interdisciplinary use of biography, a product of a new collaboration with the Community College Humanities Association.
Saturday ends with a reception at which BIO will convey the Plutarch Award for the Best Biography of 2017, as chosen by BIO members, with remarks from the winner.
For those interested in more intensive study of the craft, on Sunday morning, May 20, a series of workshops will be held on writing and the art and business of biography.
Look for more information on the conference in upcoming issues of TBC.