Understanding biography as the heir to the novel As fiction decays into increasingly trivial self-indulgence, serious stories of consequential humans rise in importance.


A century ago, the novel was universally acknowledged as the greatest and most all-encompassing of literary genres, and writers seeking to understand the world around them naturally turned to it as the form best suited to their wide-ranging curiosity. But times have changed, and the expansive, richly detailed social chronicles of such novelists as Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy have lately given way to shrunken tales of private woe that are introverted to the point of self-obsession. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard," life is still big - it's the novel that got small.

Fortunately, the postmodern decline of the novel has been accompanied by the emergence of the large-scale biography as an independent work of narrative art.

This isn't to say that artful biographies weren't being written prior to the 20th century; James Boswell's "Life of Johnson," for ,, example, is the envy of anyone who has ever sought to tell the story of another person's life. But something remarkable has happened to biography in this century, and especially since World War II: it has acquired the narrative sweep that once belonged solely to the great 19th-century novelists.

Long dominated by stodgy scholars with dehydrated prose styles, serious biography today attracts accomplished professional writers with a taste for drama and a flair for characterization. As a result, intelligent people who read for pleasure are increasingly favoring it over contemporary fiction.

Why would anybody want to slog through a thinly disguised memoir of the lecherous urges of an assistant professor of creative writing when he could be reading about Harry Truman, Leonard Bernstein or Clare Boothe Luce instead?

I speak from prejudice - I'm currently at work on my first biography - but even after making due allowance for wishful thinking, it still seems to me that the ambitious author interested in exploring the endless complexities of human nature is now more likely to look not to fiction, but biography.

To prove my point, I recommend the following four books, all of which are readily available at your neighborhood bookstore, via amazon.com. or through other ordering services. I've read each one several times, and have been profoundly influenced by the varied ways in which their authors grapple with the challenge of sculpting a shapely narrative out of the myriad events of a crowded life.

Needless to say, this isn't anything like a complete list of my

favorite modern biographies. Several of the most striking examples of biography-as-art, including Leon Edel's "Henry James: A Life" and John Lahr's "Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr," are currently out of print. But all of the books discussed below are on my A-list, and if you haven't yet acquired the happy habit of reading serious biographies as if they were good novels, they'll show you what you're missing.

* The work of a lifetime. Many of the greatest biographies are the culmination of decades of study and reflection. W. Jackson Bate, a noted scholar of 18th-century literature, spent 30 years teaching a course at Harvard on "The Age of Johnson"; during that time, he wrote "The Achievement of Samuel Johnson" (1955) and edited four volumes of the Yale Edition of Johnson's collected works (as well as producing seven other books, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Keats). Yet all this, he later said, was mere preparation for the writing of "Samuel Johnson" (Counterpoint, 672 pages, $25), published in 1977.

Though Bate's masterpiece was written in the long shadow of the most celebrated of all biographies, Boswell's "Life of Johnson," it was immediately hailed as the definitive scholarly study of Johnson's life and work. Yet the most striking aspect of "Samuel Johnson" is not its impeccable scholarship, but the vigor with which Bate retells the well-known tale of how Johnson overcame the triple handicap of poverty, illness and a deep-seated insecurity that bordered at times on outright madness.

Better than any other biographer - including Boswell himself - Bate understood how Johnson's lifelong struggle for self-mastery made him a man of heroic moral stature: "One of the first effects he has on us is that we find ourselves catching, by contagion, something of his courage....Whatever we experience, we find Johnson has been there before us, and is meeting and returning home with us."

* Biography as a profession. It's common for authors to make a career out of writing one biography after another. Some of them are hacks - including certain well-known scholars who churn out more copy in a semester than W. Jackson Bate produced in a quarter-century - but others are writers of real distinction. William Manchester, who got his start 50 years ago at The Baltimore Sun, is a veteran journalist who has turned himself into an outstanding professional biographer, and among his most compulsively readable achievements is "American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964" (Laureleaf, 793 pages, $8.50, paper).

Far too many biographers write as if it were their sworn duty to prove that there is no such thing as a great man, but Manchester never makes that mistake, and "American Caesar" leaves no doubt that its subject was a gravely flawed giant: "MacArthur was like Julius Caesar: bold, aloof, austere, egostistical, willful. ... He was a great thundering paradox of a man, noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime."

* First-person biography. Boswell's "Life of Johnson" is the classic example of a biography written by an author who knew his subject personally. It's always hard for such writers to balance the competing claims of affection and honesty, but Anthony Tommasini does the near-impossible in "Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle" (W.W. Norton, 635 pages, $30). Thomson was one of America's foremost composers and music critics, and Tommasini, who knew him for a decade, tells his story with the fullness of comprehension only available to the biographer who has spent countless hours in the company of his subject: "In the end, I think [Thomson] felt that if the truth was to be told, it would best be told by a friend. ... This is what I have done, concerning not only his private affairs but also his professional machinations. Thomson was a complex character, by turns generous, loyal, affectionate, inexplicably petty, and sometimes downright mean."

* Biography and controversy. When Whittaker Chambers told the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948 that Alger Hiss had been a Soviet spy, he ignited a firestorm of controversy that raged until the publication last year of Sam Tanenhaus' acclaimed "Whittaker Chambers: A Biography" (Random House, 640 pages, $35). For a half-century, scholars, journalists and politicians wrangled endlessly over whether Chambers was telling the truth, and "Witness," his 1952 autobiography, only served to spur them on.

Tanenhaus, by contrast, chose not to write a tightly argued brief for the defense but a full-length portrait of the social milieu that produced Whittaker Chambers. The result was a book so gripping that readers of all political persuasions abandoned their preconceived views and allowed themselves to be caught up anew in Chambers' amazing story: "Some saw him as an exemplar of humble martyrdom, others as a monstrous egotist. His moral attitude at times recalled the stoic resignation of the ancient tragedians, at times the anti-heroism of Sartre and Beckett, at times the torment of the twice-born soul."

Four stories about larger-than-life people - all absorbing, all beautifully told, and all true. With books like that, who needs novels?

Terry Teachout, the music critic of Commentary, writes the "Front Row Center" column for Civilization, the magazine of the Library of Congress. His essays, articles and reviews appear in Time, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review and other publications. He edited "A Second Mencken Chrestomathy" and is currently writing "H. L. Mencken: A Life," to be published next year.

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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