Where to Begin?

Where should a biography begin? Now that I am in the revision stage, more or less, I’ve gone back the start of it all, which I haven’t seen in two years. Typically a life story starts with birth and a discussion of the subject’s antecedents, particularly the parents and their lineages. Rather boring stuff, usually. Yet a certain degree of family history is expected and necessary. It’s like making the reader eat their vegetables before they get to dig in to the meat of the story.

Another way of beginning (particularly if you are writing about a woman) is to address her obvious difference from the traditional subjects of biography. Jean Strouse’s biography of Alice James (sister to Henry and William) begins with a quote from Alice: “When I am gone, pray don’t think of me simply as a creature who might have been something else, had neurotic science been born.” Then Strouse’s introduction explains why we should think of Alice James not as a failure or as a kind of “Shakespeare’s sister,” in Virginia Woolf’s famous construction, but as a writer and thinker in her own right. In essence, she argues that Alice lived as significant a conscious life as her brothers did, leaving a record of it in her diary rather than in published works.

Another approach to beginning a life story is simply to start with the end. Joel Matteson’s biography of Margaret Fuller focuses on his subject’s sensational death (a shipwreck off the coast of New York) and then argues against “the way that the death comes to be perceived as the life’s most relevant fact, even as its inevitable outcome.”

Either strategy would work for Woolson. I could start with a discussion of what she could have been, had she lived in another time, and then make a plea for understanding her on her own terms in her own time. Or, I could begin with her suicide (assuming that most readers who already know of her would remember that above all else) and then argue for the significance of her life. Her suicide certainly has the tendency of overshadowing her life. But I hesitate to begin on such a negative note. (Most of the biographical sketches out there start with her suicide, which is another reason not to.)

Some biographers start with a snapshot that draws the reader in to a key moment in the subject’s life before getting down to the genealogy. Think of it as an appetizer that makes the vegetables a bit more palatable. Rather than start with failure or death, I would rather begin with a snapshot that illuminates the central tensions of Woolson’s life—her conservatism and her eccentricity. She was both a daughter (raised to be a conventional woman) and an artist (by necessity a rule-breaker). Capturing these two sides of her character is the key, I believe, to taking her life on its own terms. Now, how best to do it?

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  1. I love the Benedict story about a family trip after Connie’s time at finishing school. She was wearing a new dress, that as I recall was her mother’s idea, coming down the hotel steps carrying her portable desk, stumbled and spilled ink all over the dress. You could do a lot with that!

  2. I vote for the snapshot.
    I think if you reread your blogs, you might find the clue.
    You’ve done a sterling job here.

  3. I love the way you lay out your problems and choices and musings about writing biography, regardless of the subject. Another way of beginning that you don’t mention is the one where the biographer morphs into a cultural historian and begins by trying to recreate the historical/cultural world into which the subject is born. Sometimes also the legal world or the technological world. In my experience this is mostly used as a method for “getting into it” by writers who have a whole lot less actual factual information about the subject than you do and therefore I don’t think it would interest you as a starting place.

    I mention this because I spent a number of years putting together what I would need to write a biography of a particular writer but when I unearthed two secrets about her life that she had spent her life hiding I felt so morally/ethically paralyzed by the problem of whether or not to tell that I abandoned the project. Someone else eventually wrote a bio of her — that biographer didn’t love her subject as I loved her — and had not discovered those secrets, or chose not to reveal them if she did, but in conversation with her she seemed not to know them.

    But the more I thought about those untold secrets the more I became completely unable to look at her life without incorporating in my vision those secrets and once that was done I couldn’t stop digging deeper and deeper into her very specific milieu and thought that I would have to start — if I ever actually wrote the book — with the milieu. I would have to turn that world into which she came into a hovering monster. So I think about the same issue you are thinking about here although I will not be productive in the way that you are being. And congratulations to you for that productivity.

    So — when I think of Constance Fenimore Woolson I think about the dead left-behind siblings in their abandoned graves in Connecticut. My subject was also a sibling death survivor. And I think about what Cleveland was like when they moved there (I’m a born Clevelander and have a particular interest in the city and its history and its culturally rich citizens, including Connie and Martha Wolfenstein and d.a. levy and Les Roberts and Alice and Phoebe Carey, two other sibling death survivors, and others. When I think of Connie my thoughts are always colored by my sense of her as a sibling death survivor.

    And yes, I know about the various attitudes toward child and infant mortality in the period of their deaths — but I have to think about what the specific attitudes of those in the Woolson family. What was Connie’s burden for having survived and what were the privileges she gained by their deaths? I find a kind of gloom permeating those of her short stories with which I am most familiar, a sort of — excuse me for using the word again — hovering over it all of gloom.

    For instance, in the colors I see in her Italian landscapes and those I see in Edith Wharton’s. . . .

    So — we all know that Connie spent much of her life with the flat surfaces over which she walked being covered with the glue that is depression, sucking her soles into the soft slimy muck. That awful depression. Any connection do I think, do you think, of the burden of survivor’s guilt?

    1. Thank you, Susan, for this. So many striking ideas here. I appreciate your taking the time to record them. Yes, the depression. I have been thinking a lot about that lately, and doing more research on it, which I wish I had done earlier. I think it explains a lot more about her life and personality than I had realized. I knew she wrestled with it, but it seems to have defined her–perhaps from birth, as you suggest. A sort of survivor’s guilt seems to permeate her life–not only from the death of the three sisters right after she was born but probably more significantly the two older sister (who had survived with her) who died when she was in her early teens. By the age of 14 she was suddenly the oldest surviving child, when she had been the sixth born!

      Your struggle about learning secrets is fascinating. How many biographers would salivate over the discovery. But I completely understand your decision to forgo the project. I have often thought about how Connie would feel to have her life written about. Probably not too happy. But given how much has already been said about her (much of it terribly unflattering and ill-informed) I think she would appreciate a fuller, more accurate portrait.

    2. Thank you, Susan, for this. So many striking ideas here. I appreciate your taking the time to record them. Yes, the depression. I have been thinking a lot about that lately, and doing more research on it, which I wish I had done earlier. I think it explains a lot more about her life and personality than I had realized. I knew she wrestled with it, but it seems to have defined herperhaps from birth, as you suggest. A sort of survivors guilt seems to permeate her lifenot only from the death of the three sisters right after she was born but probably more significantly the two older sister (who had survived with her) who died when she was in her early teens. By the age of 14 she was suddenly the oldest surviving child, when she had been the sixth born!

      Your struggle about learning secrets is fascinating. How many biographers would salivate over the discovery. But I completely understand your decision to forgo the project. I have often thought about how Connie would feel to have her life written about. Probably not too happy. But given how much has already been said about her (much of it terribly unflattering and ill-informed) I think she would appreciate a fuller, more accurate portrait. ________________________________________

  4. I liked the second approach you mention. The Alice James quote is very striking, and I know that I would have been eager to read a biography that begins that way. I am sure you would find an equally interesting Woolson quote (alternatively a quote from someone writing or talking about Woolson) that is relevant to this issue. I think it is very tempting and very human to attempt to imagine what writers and artists could have achieved had they lived in a different time period or under different circumstances. I think it is somewhat similar to the reader’s desire to imagine alternative chains of actions or even endings in literature. However, doing so to a great degree might distract us from appreciating what was actually there – what the writer or artist actually produced, or what actually happens in the novel.
    I therefore like your idea of “making a plea for understanding her on her own terms in her own time.” It reminds me of what Lyndall Gordon wrote about Isabel’s choice in A Private Life of Henry James: “Freedom was to find agency, however constraining the given conditions may be.” Clearly, Woolson was living under constraining circumstances, but was still able to write wonderful literature. After reading about her in our class, it seemed like she did her very best, given her depression, the losses she suffered, and the prejudice she met as a female writer. So, reminding the reader that she should be read and understood in her own context (which, of course, encompasses so much more than her depression), sounds like an excellent idea.

    1. Thank you, Karen, for your comments. It’s great to see that Woolson, James, and Gordon are sticking with you. The quote from Gordon is perfect! Thank you for reminding me of it.

  5. On second thought, I also read Alice James’s statement as a plea to the people who survive her to not only remember her for her poor physical and mental health. It seems like it’s always a challenge to decide how much room one wants to give to considerable health problems that a writer suffered from when reading her texts and/or life. After all, a person is so much more than her disease. When writing literary criticism, one can choose to ignore this aspect completely, but when writing a biography, it seems inevitable to address it to a smaller or larger extent. I am excited to see how you’ve chosen to balance this in your book.

  6. It’s enormously difficult, I think, to decide how, where, and when to include in a biography information about chronic health problems and how those problems were manifested in and had impact on the life of the subject. Can the person be separated from the chronic illness? Why is it that some people are transformed by illness and for others it is, although painful and life-changing, an on-going nuisance? Does the illness enhance what was already there or make the personality that was already there change “direction?”

    Here is an interesting discussion of “pathography”: http://shenandoahliterary.org/622/writing-while-ill-pathography-then-now/

    Thomas Larson opens his discussion of “Writing While Ill” with this quotation from Virginia Woolf:

    Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill,” with a doozy of a sentence.

    Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

  7. Thank you for sharing the beautiful Woolf quotation, and your thoughts. As you point out, people react to illness in so many ways. For some, it becomes an integral part of their identity, and the ways in which they deal with the illness can be a source of pride and dignity and an emblem of strength. Others do their uttermost to avoid identifying with the illness. It reminds me of an article I read just today. The journalist had interviewed four people who had been involved in severe accidents that resulted in various disabilities and chronic pain. One said that she was more likely to live a happy life after the accident than before because she was so much more appreciative of the people around her and what she had, being so close to losing it. One said that his life had not changed, except for his chronic pain. Yet another one said that she had become wiser after the accident, but that she would rather be a little less wiser and little happier. A psychologist pointed out that the image of the survivor who changes his life and grows after the accident is actually a burden for survivors who cannot or do not want to do so. If one asked people who suffered from mental illness or trauma the same questions as these people were asked, one would probably get an equally great variety of answers. Since we cannot ask Woolson, we have to look at what she wrote.

    It could also be interesting to explore whether the woman Woolson and the writer Woolson were affected in different ways, if one reads the two as separate entities.

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