Is the biographer necessarily a vulture?

In 1878, Woolson wrote a poem called “To Certain Biographers” in which she condemned the vogue of tell-all biographies that exposed famous men’s vices and weaknesses. She wrote,

We give you
Scanty thanks for all your labors; yes,
Doubtless ye write truth, for barren places
Are upon the mountains; none the less
Are they mountains, and their silent grandeur
Scorns your petty skill, and rises far,
Far above you still when all is ended,
And your picture done.

Ouch! She believed, as did many, that the biographers of her day were basically like our paparazzi using their telephoto lenses to capture celebrities in their most embarrassing moments. Henry James famously ignited bonfires of letters in his later years, hoping to keep biographers at bay. His destruction of the dozens of letters Woolson wrote to him over the years has spawned plenty of lurid speculation. What was he hiding? What secrets did he reveal to her that he wanted to keep from the prying eyes of his future biographers? In his story “The Aspern Papers,” the former lover of a famous poet decides to burn his letters rather than give them to the biographer who lands on her doorstep. The poet’s lover never explains why she burned the letters. The mystery is as great as the mystery of what the letters themselves contained. The same is true in the case of Woolson and James, who destroyed their correspondence in order to maintain their privacy. We can lament their discretion, but can we blame them?

In one case, we do know what Woolson wished to hide by burning correspondence. Letters to her nephew marked “burn” have survived. They reveal her worries over her profligate brother, who was suffering from some sort of mental illness. The diary he kept of his final days, before committing suicide, was dutifully burned, however, by Woolson herself. Of course, I am curious about its contents. But I respect her decision to destroy it.

Now, if there was a cache of desperate love letters somewhere (and I don’t think they would have been to James), then I might feel guilty about exposing her innermost self to the prying eyes of readers. She did a pretty good job of hiding anything of that nature. But surely she experienced the pain and pleasure of love. (Anyone who has read her novels knows that she must have written from her own emotional experience.) In the absence of any firm evidence, I am left to wonder and speculate. (I will have to share some of my thoughts on that score in a future post.)

Is a biographer necessarily a vulture, preying upon the secrets of the dead? In a talk I gave in Trieste, Italy, last fall, I spoke about the difficulties of writing a biography of a woman who wanted above all to keep her personal life private from the public. I ended the talk with a line from James’s story “Daisy Miller” that sums up my reason for writing her biography and correcting the negative portrayals of her by some of James’s biographers: “She would have appreciated one’s esteem.” Her niece, the guardian of her memory well into the twentieth century, published not only Woolson’s stories but also letters and journals in an effort to remind the public of her legacy. She firmly believed she had a responsibility to her aunt, and I have come to feel that as well.

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  1. Well said, Anne. Oh, if only we had those private letters. Julia Ward Howe burned letters of her most difficult years with husband Samuel Gridley Howe, too. I guess we have what we have and can only speculate on the rest.

    At least, today’s scholars complicate rather than simplify subjects’ lives, and that I think is better than the white-washing sometimes applied in women’s biographies of the nineteenth century. As, for example, Howe’s glossing over Margaret Fuller’s complete relationship with Ossini, father of her child.

    I guess we should rejoice in what is available. As Louis Gottschalk wrote in Understanding History (1950):
    Most human affairs happen without leaving vestiges or records of any kind behind them. The past, having happened, has perished with only occasional traces. To begin with, although the absolute number of historical writings is staggering, only a small part of what happened in the past was ever observed…And only a part of what was observed in the past was remembered by those who observed it; only a part of what was remembered was recorded; only a part of what was recorded has survived; only a part of what has survived has come to historians’ attention; only a part of what has come to their attention is credible; only a part of what is credible has been grasped; and only a part of what has been grasped can be expounded or narrated by the historian [or biographer].

    I think you’re in good stead.

    About the profligate brother: VD perhaps?

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