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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