Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reading Biography

I am in admiration of the biographer. The resolute step with which someone begins to commit days and long summer weeks, steady months and eventually years to the understanding of another human life has to be an act of faith. It certainly takes interest and little short of fascination to motivate and simultaneously reward the choice that must be repeatedly made to be about the elusive heart of another’s life. There needs as well to be a sense that the biographer’s own life is being sustained and brought to light the more it directs its focus on the mystery of another’s choices.

At some stage in the meticulous process, I imagine, a biographer acknowledges that there is reliable insight emerging. What becomes available to him or her after immersion in the questions of another time, another family, another education, another geography will make possible something worth saying about how someone became just this person and not another. How far to trust logical analysis, how far to trust intuitive grasp, how far to put into words creative vision and plausible hypothesis: these are the challenges – and delights – facing the biographer.

Almost a third of the way into a six-hundred-page life of Emily Dickinson, I am aware of understanding better not just another’s life, not just the biographer’ s task, but my personal history of loving a writer. That Alfred Habegger was the scholar who could bring Emily Dickinson into particular focus for me should have been evident from the title he had selected for his work: My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (2001). That opening line of Emily Dickinson’s expresses what I expected or at least hoped growing up – that what mystified me about the circumstances of my own life could be illuminated by what poets and other writers had written about their own.

And let me admit: I am in admiration of the reader of biographies. The resolute step with which someone begins to commit days and long summer weeks to the understanding of another human life has to be an act of faith. It certainly takes interest and little short of fascination to motivate and simultaneously reward the choice that must be repeatedly made to be about the elusive heart of another’s life. There needs as well to be a sense that the reader’s own life is being sustained and brought to light the more it directs its focus on the mystery of another’s choices.

Oh.

Isn’t that fundamentally what love is about as well?



Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson from Brooklyn Museum

3 comments:

Ur-spo said...

I haven't been a reader of biographies. I love fiction and short stories, history and nonfiction. however, a few biographies I have read have been striking. I am about to tackle a biography on Peter the Great.

Donald said...

The biographer who knows the craft will, I bet, keep a reader with the skills of the best fiction writer.

MperiodPress said...

I am quite taken with the title of ED's bio--My Wars are Laid Away in Books--and the different ways I see that. I wonder, her wars are laid away there, but what of her love? I bet that could not be contained--because of the dynamism you identify so well--"There needs as well to be a sense that [one]’s own life is being sustained and brought to light the more it directs its focus on the mystery of another’s choices."

Thank you for this thoughtful morsel as I begin my day.