Lecture Review

What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Passionate Biographer Talks about Getting to Know Her Subject

By Dona Munker, New York Correspondent

Janice P. Nimura, a BIO member, earned a Master’s Degree in East Asian studies at Columbia University.

Every serious biographer knows that only the most intense engagement with a subject can compel the writer to spend years in the archives and construct a narrative that has the energy it needs to carry both writer and reader across the finish line. Which is why, as Janice P. Nimura suggested to an audience at the City University of New York Graduate Center in October, biographers always long to “find a subject they can fall in love with.”

Speaking at the Fall 2019 Dorothy O. Helly Works-in-Progress Lecture, an event presented twice a year by the Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, Nimura offered her first book as an illustration of her point. Daughters of the Samurai (Norton, 2015), the story of three 19th-century Japanese girls sent by their government to the United States to learn Western ways and bring them back to Japan—Nimura’s husband is Japanese and she speaks the language—remembers researching it and telling it as an “ecstatic experience.” When the book was finished, she said, “I wanted to do it all over again—immediately!”

For several years, however, nothing appeared on the horizon and Nimura, who considers herself an impatient reader (“I have the attention span of a gnat”) and likes biographies to have “lots of fast narrative and be crammed with interesting bits of information,” was frustrated and discouraged. Then she came across the story of Elizabeth Blackwell (1821–1910), the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and her younger sister Emily (1826–1910), who was the third. In 1857, the two collaborated to found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children, a full-fledged hospital and the first to train and employ women doctors and nurses exclusively and be dedicated to serving the medical needs of women. (It is now New York University Downtown Hospital.)

Nimura had never heard of either, but she was drawn to stories of female partnerships and had always been interested in science and medicine. Moreover, the Blackwell sisters presented a golden opportunity, since Elizabeth had been written about only in incomplete, prettified accounts for adults and grade-schoolers and Emily was all but absent from the secondary literature.

Nimura was intrigued but also “terrified.” Here was no “bite-sized” story, like the subject of her first book. The Blackwell sisters came from a prominent abolitionist family of nine children; Antoinette Brown, the first American woman to be formally ordained as a minister by a major denomination, was their sister-in-law; another sister-in-law was the suffrage leader Lucy Stone; and their extended circle included many figures about whom volumes have been written. Since “they all wrote letters to each other,” the papers, all told, comprised hundreds of thousands of pages across multiple archives. Moreover, the sisters themselves weren’t exactly designed to warm the heart of a feminist biographer. Elizabeth was domineering and opinionated, and “didn’t like people and wasn’t interested in science,” but had been inspired by reading Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century to fight her way into medical school “in order to make a point”: if she graduated, “no one would be able to claim that she or any other woman couldn’t be a doctor.” She was also deeply conservative, didn’t approve of woman suffrage, and wanted medical schools to instruct all their students in Christian values, as well as medicine. Emily was more modest and self-effacing (and unlike her older sister, Nimura said, “she didn’t blow her own horn about her medical views”), as well as a more devoted medical practitioner, but there was also far less material about her, which made warming up to her difficult. Finally, in general, both dismissed most women as “a lot of ninnies.”

Fortunately, a passion for telling a life story doesn’t necessarily have to arise from a subject’s innate charms. As Nimura has pointed out elsewhere, “There’s the kind of love that overtakes you unexpectedly and the kind you cultivate, consciously.” With luck, if she drew a mental line around the territory she had to explore and “cultivated” it as though it were a plot of fertile soil in her research, she would come to know the sisters and their lives so intimately that she would have both the detailed information that propels a narrative forward and the enthusiasm that would make it the kind of biography she hoped to write.
For a while, as she “dug through piles of letters and watered the seeds of ideas,” she found herself fighting a persistent fear that the investment of so much time and toil wouldn’t pay off after all. Gradually, however, as scenes and events from letters and other research began to take shape, and as her subjects and their milieu took on greater life and immediacy from the increasingly detailed context that was forming in her mind, she felt more and more connected with “their moods, their doubts, their seven eccentric siblings.” Occasionally, to the annoyance of other researchers, she would even find herself “snorting out loud” over some characteristically sardonic remark, or “gasping” at a gruesome description of a medical procedure, or exulting in the discovery of an amusing anecdote about the indomitable Elizabeth’s storming of the male-only medical barricades. Now she craved opportunities to see what vivid details and scenes would emerge from her research and writing.

Asked if she consciously tries to retain a mental outline of the narrative she is working on, Nimura replied that in general she does not; rather, she prefers to let telling details determine the shape of the narrative. “I do less drawing back than honing in,” she said. “I prefer to focus more on the shiny things. When you do that, the story starts to emerge [by itself].” She has no doubt at all about that story’s importance. In a post-2016, post-#MeToo America, she told her listeners, the Blackwell sisters’ lives and achievements are more relevant than ever to both adult and YA readers. “Elizabeth,” she said, “chose medicine because she wanted to make the point that women could do anything they wanted if they had the talent for it. She believed that it was up to women to make civilization progress.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the suffragist Sara Bard Field and her “free-love” affair with the lawyer C. E. S. Wood. Her blog, Stalking the Elephant, is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

Deirdre Bair on Writing a Memoir of Beckett, Beauvoir, and Bair

By Dona Munker, TBC New York Correspondent 

Deirdre Bair, who has written six biographies, is currently writing about her experiences while researching and writing Beckett (1978) and Simone de Beauvoir (1990). At the fall 2017 Dorothy O. Helly Work-in-Progress Lecture, presented by New York’s Women Writing Women’s Lives Seminar, she talked about her reasons for doing so and the challenges for a seasoned biographer who decides to become part of the story.

Bair originally planned “a short book” about all her biographies but was unable to find a framework that would encompass them all and Beckett and Beauvoir generated more interest than any others. In addition, in the decades when they appeared, Bair had felt obligated to withhold some information her research uncovered, not only because people still living would have been hurt by it but because certain kinds of revelations were then considered “unseemly” for respectable biographies, especially of women. However, at this point, she explained, the passage of time and the shattering of cultural taboos have removed these constraints, and she now feels free to add to the public’s understanding of two major writers.

Much of the as-yet-untitled memoir will be about working with Beckett and Beauvoir in Paris, where they inhabited the same neighborhood and where Bair met and interviewed them regularly, either at home (Beauvoir) or in cafes, restaurants, and hotel lobbies (Beckett). The interview process with each, however, differed radically. Beckett, secretive and interview-averse, told Bair that he would “neither help nor hinder her,” but also forbade her to take notes. By contrast, at their first meeting Beauvoir “cheerfully” told her how they would work: Bair would take down everything she said and the result would be Beauvoir’s version of her life. “I remember how my head sank into my hands as I said, ‘Oh, dear, I think we’re finished before we even get started.’” 

Bair eventually succeeded in securing the book’s independence. Knowing that Beauvoir and Beckett detested one another, she told Beauvoir of Beckett’s promise to “neither help nor hinder.” After a long pause, Beauvoir reluctantly replied that “she supposed she would have to work that way as well.” Nevertheless, over the years Beauvoir persisted in trying to control what went into the book, at one point becoming so angry at Bair’s questions that she pushed her bodily out the door.

An important reason for casting the story of her first two biographies as a memoir, Bair said, is that when Beckett: A Biography was published in 1978, it drew ferocious attacks from male Beckett scholars infuriated that a young woman had beaten them to the draw. (“So you are the little girl,” one of them told her, “who stuck her hand in the cookie jar and ran off with all the goodies.”) Second-wave feminism was only starting to have an impact, and at first Bair was dismayed and confused by the attacks. Before long, however, she decided that having written “the best, most honest book I could” entitled her to hold her head high, ignore the unfair criticism, and get on with her life. She credits the warm encouragement of feminist friends with helping her move past the experience. Four decades after the fact, her intention is not to settle scores but to tell the story of her evolution as a feminist in those years, so that younger women, she explains, can understand “what some of us went through as our generation fought for the opportunities in life and work that we made possible for them to enjoy today.”

On the other hand, recounting that story in memoir form sets up a dilemma for a scholarly biographer and a former print journalist. As a biographer-storyteller, Bair has always maintained a balanced detachment, and inserting herself into the narrative raises the thorny question of how to write about herself without violating professional standards that she has hewed to all her life. How and when should she become part of the story? How should she write about her younger self? And how can she insure that the text “will be as factual and objective” as she can make it, even as it is based on her own memories? Above all, can she—or, indeed, should she—“bring the scrupulous objectivity and authorial distance” that she aimed for in her biographies “into a memoir of the fourteen most emotional years” of her life? 

To try and reconcile these competing claims, she told her listeners, she is consulting innovative literary memoirs like Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and reading countless biographies, autobiographies, and cultural essays in the hope of finding “points of light” to guide her in the creation of a satisfactory hybrid. She hasn’t found all the answers yet. Nevertheless, she said, in her new role as biographer-memoirist, she has taken comfort from the opening words of Rousseau’s Confessions: “I have resolved on an enterprise which has no imitator. My purpose is to display a portrait in every way true to nature, and the person I portray will be myself. Simply myself.”

Dona Munker is the writer and co-author (with Sattareh Farman Farmaian) of Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution. She is currently working on a book about the affair of Sara Bard Field and C. E. S. Wood. Her blog,“Stalking the Elephant,” is about how biographers imagine and tell other people’s lives.

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