No doubt, biography has its weaknesses and five come readily to mind. For starters, there is the obvious risk that biographers can be captured by their sources. The biographer who is not vigilant can easily become the hagiographer because so many of the accounts of key events and crucial decisions are in the papers of the person who is the subject of the book. I think of The Last Love Song, a 2015 biography of Joan Didion that I recently read. The author, Tracy Daugherty, steered clear of outright celebrating her life but it took considerable work to maintain a modest skepticism because his sources were predominantly Didion’s account, in print, of her own actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Add to that basic problem the fact that, because biography is fueled by abundant sources, it is easier to write biographies of people (often white men of European extraction) with sufficient resources—economic, political, social, and cultural—to ensure that their papers and all their effects were preserved. Some lives are just set up for rich and lengthy biographical treatment (consider David McCullough’s John Adams), and these are the same folks who have had biographies written about them from the beginning of American history. The form thus systematically excludes people with fewer or different economic, political, social, and cultural resources.
Then there is the basic presumption of biography: individuals matter. That seems like an uncontroversial statement but take a couple of steps and you find yourself writing a “great man” narrative in which a single person changed the course of history. And sometimes that “great man” is a great woman. No doubt, Frances Perkins was a titan of her time and hugely influential. Yet when I read Kristen Downey’s biography, The Woman behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and the Minimum Wage, I came away with a sense that Perkins had single-handedly orchestrated the New Deal. That is the slippery slope of the biographical form. It is also a tendency that runs counter to interests in structure and big systems that has prevailed since the rise of Marxist history. What is the value of the individual when set against the economy? It is hard to write biography, and have it taken seriously, once that question is put.
Related to this risk of “great man” history is the tendency to fall into narrow or one-damned-thing-after-another history. In these biographical works the larger world disappears and the story unfolds across the days motivated more by what that person had for breakfast than the headlines of the Washington Post, social networks, or trends in custom and thought. David Garrow’s recent Rising Star, a soup-to-nuts biography of Barack Obama’s early life and political career, exemplifies this weakness. It is a no-detail-left-behind sort of book, and the result was, for many readers, that the meaning and context of Obama’s life was lost in the welter of personal facts.
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Interestingly enough, shortly after I wrote this post I started preparing for a podcast conversation with Catherine O’Donnell about her excellent new biography of Elizabeth Seton. McGandy’s was O’Donnell’s editor on the book.