Comparing Living and Dead Subjects
After opening remarks by new BIO president Cathy Curtis, the conference began Saturday morning with the breakfast plenary session featuring Edmund and Sylvia Jukes Morris. The husband-and-wife team titled their talk “Dead Is Easier,” referring to which kind of subject presents fewer challenges for a biographer. Edmund’s dead subject was Theodore Roosevelt, whose life he chronicled in a three-volume biography. Sylvia’s dead subject was Edith Kermit Roosevelt, TR’s second wife. Turning to the living, Edmund wrote an authorized if unconventional biography of Ronald Reagan, spending time with the president during his second term. Sylvia, meanwhile, had a close relationship with her living subject Clare Booth Luce—so close that at one point Sylvia joined Luce in her sprawling bed to watch television.
The title of the talk, Edmund recalled, came from years ago when a New York Times reporter asked him which challenge he preferred: writing about a living subject or a dead one. Before he could respond, Sylvia called out from another room, “Dead is easier.”
In the plenary session, the two authors spent some time talking about how writing about the death of their subjects—in Sylvia’s case, Luce died while the author was still writing about her—affected them. While saying that he probably would not have liked Roosevelt when alive, given Theodore’s “bloodlust” and “bellicosity,” Edmund said that when it came time to write about the president’s death he felt a sense of bereavement. For her part, Sylvia cried as she wrote about Edith Kermit Roosevelt’s death. And the death of Luce, which happened after she and Sylvia had known each other for seven years, stirred different thoughts and feelings for the biographer. Sylvia explained: “I felt a thud in the chest, which was probably a combination of shock, grief, and apprehension; what should I do now about all the unanswered biographical questions?”
Edmund also had a long relationship with his living subject, Reagan, agreeing to write a life story about him in 1985. During the president’s years in the White House, his dementia was not apparent, Edmund said. Reading the 1993 letter in which Reagan publicly revealed his struggles, Edmund said he was filled with “overpowering sadness.” But that, he said, “quickly evaporated.” His writing of the Reagan book was still to come, and Edmund felt a need to accept what he called the “biographer’s challenge,” which he framed in the words of W. B. Yeats: “Cast a cold eye on life, on death.” Otherwise, Edmund thought, his book on Reagan would become sentimental “and consequently, untrustworthy.”
Spending time with his living subject, Edmund said, led him to appreciate Reagan’s sense of humor and the intelligence behind it. It also led Edmund to become a teacher of sorts to the president. When the two visited Reagan’s birthplace of Tampico, Illinois, after Reagan’s dementia took hold, the biographer had to point out the significance of buildings they saw. Edmund said, “I was instructing him in his own life.” Like other biographers, he came to know more about his subject’s life than his subject did.
Edmund had a different kind of intimacy with his dead subject and his family. While doing research at Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, New York, he found an envelope that contained a lock of hair from Roosevelt’s first wife, Alice. While fingering the hair, he felt a “creepy connection” to her. Edmund was particularly attracted to the love story of Alice and Theodore, and he felt a certain sense of anticipation when he reached the spot in the president’s diaries that led to his wedding night. Roosevelt left out details of the evening; Edmund assumed he did so knowing that some “beady-eyed biographer” would one day read the diary.
For Sylvia, one of the thrills of researching Edith Roosevelt’s life came when she read four letters TR had written to her. Before that, Sylvia said, she was “frustrated by a lack of information about Edith’s emotional life,” as she didn’t keep a diary. Sylvia learned that Edith had burned the correspondence between herself and her husband—except for the four letters that one of Edith’s daughters had convinced her to save. The letters gave Sylvia a sense of their private relationship.
Offering some general observations on biographers and their craft, Edmund stated that biographers should feel “the responsibility to resurrect the vital reality of the past.” And when it comes to dealing with the death of a biographer’s living subject, he suggested that a biographer embrace this dictum: “First, kill the widow.” That will eliminate her impulse to withhold disparaging information, Edmund explained. Another issue when dealing with an elderly subject is that their contemporaries are aging as well, which can present challenges when trying to question them for useful information.
Although both Sylvia and Edmund Morris had positive experiences writing about the living and the dead, Edmund concluded the session this way: “Alive or dead, biography is never easy.”
Holmes Shares “Biographical Parables”
For Saturday’s keynote address, Richard Holmes offered what he called parables for biographers, based on notes he had taken during his career that reflected his research and writing experiences (and filled more than 200 notebooks). The first parable Holmes called “Touchstones.” He quoted W. Somerset Maugham, who said, “There are three rules for writing biography; unfortunately, no one has discovered what they are.” Noting flexibility of biography as a genre when it comes to form or subjects, Holmes said, “there are no rules in that sense.” On the matter of subjects, he recalled the words of Samuel Johnson, who asserted “I could write the life of a broomstick.” Holmes also noted that everyone doesn’t necessarily have a warm spot in their heart for biographers; James Joyce once referred to them as “biografiends.”
Holmes called his second parable “Passports,” and he told the story of indicating his occupation on a passport as “writer” and a French inn owner interpreting it as “waiter.” As Holmes made adjustments and further misunderstandings ensued, he was finally accused of being a “table waiter with delusions of grandeur.” His larger point amidst the humor was that biographers needs humility, and they are waiters of a sort. They attend to their subjects and offer them “loyalty, patience, good humor, but not discretion. And usually, you have to clear up some kind of mess as you go along. And above all, you are not more important than your subject.” Holmes said one essential trait for biographers is “the rather strange ability to fall in love with your subject, then out of love again, as is necessary.”
Holmes went on to talk about how chance comes into play while doing research, as finding useful sources can sometimes come down to luck or someone’s whim. When looking at a subject’s private life, the facts can be especially hard to find. Holmes believes there is no such thing as a definitive biography and, he explained, biographers do not work in a vacuum—an idea reflected in a tale he told about researching the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Holmes found a cave in which the poet had carved his initials into the sandstone walls. Holmes realized that given the soft nature of the rock, the original initials could not have lasted over the centuries. Biographers before Holmes had found the cave and re-carved the initials. This re-carving by “unknown memorialists,” Holmes said, “was a symbol of the essentially cumulative practice of biography itself.”
In a parable he called “Range,” Holmes described the range of students who attended the MA program in biography and creative nonfiction that he established at the University of East Anglia. In age they spanned 21 to 71, and they came from various socioeconomic backgrounds and different countries. The students were exposed to people and circumstances they might not have otherwise experienced. Biography in general, Holmes said, “provides another time, another place, another identity.” Writing a biography lets an author step out of their own life, “and that stepping out of your own life allows you eventually to look back at your life.”
Holmes also discussed the importance of the first sentence in setting the tone and theme of a biography, citing several examples. One was from his biography of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “His bedroom window looked west, towards the setting sun.” The simple line foreshadowed, among other things, Shelley’s drowning death caused by a storm that came from the west as sunset approached. Holmes also read the first line from Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which described an anecdote the president liked to tell about the announcement of his birth. The line showed both Johnson’s penchant for telling tall tales and his sense that he was destined for greatness.
After finishing his parables, Holmes offered some closing thoughts on the skills and traits a good biographer needs. He framed it with the metaphor of a telescope and the person who peers through it. A telescope brings distant objects close, sometimes revealing the lesser stars. Using a telescope “requires patient observation, it needs timely adjustment, it keeps you up all night, and above all it requires a steady hand.” Holmes concluded with another metaphor, calling biography “a handshake across time, across cultures, across beliefs. . . .” And, he added, a handshake is also a symbol of honor and keeping one’s word.