Flannery O’Connor wrote, “There won’t be any biographies of me because, for only one reason, lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy.” It’s true that the outward movements of Flannery O’Connor’s life aren’t as exciting as those of, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Davey Crockett or Catherine the Great. But such an inner life! As it turns out, her life has made surprisingly exciting copy for three major biographies and several minor ones. I’m in the process of adding to the minor ones. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that. I expect this to be an excellent book, but it’s a small book; the same size as the Saint Patrick bio, if you’ve seen that, and part of the same series–Thomas Nelson’s “Christian Encounters” series.
It’s daunting to be writing in the shadow of Brad Gooch’s excellent 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor and Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, which is a quadruple biography paralleling the lives of Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. At the moment, the Elie book isn’t just my favorite biography of Flannery O’Connor; it’s my favorite biography period.
The problem with biographies, however, is that people’s lives rarely conform to Aristotle’s rules for plot making. They get off to slow starts. They drag in the middle. They live another two or three decades beyond the climax of the story. The fiction writer has the luxury of making stuff up, but the honest and thorough biographer faces challenges if he or she wants to tell a compelling story. That’s what some readers love about biographies. They can’t wrap things up as neatly as fiction tends to do.
Let’s talk about biographies today. What are your favorites? Why are they your favorites? What are your thoughts on the limitations of biography as a mode of storytelling?
I don’t read many biographies. But if autobiographies count, my favorites are Benjamin Franklin’s) the earlier edition with the “errata” still present) and the very interesting Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.
I’m not sure why I don’t read biographies — probably just because my “to read” shelf has never had any on it? And since the queue has gotten deplorably long, I’m not sure I will ever finish the books that are already in it.
I really like Booker T. Washington’s autobiography _Up From Slavery_, because he tells his story in such a clear, simple, yet compelling way.
Another biography I never read all the way through but loved dipping into is William Manchester’s _The Last Lion_ about Winston Churchill.
And then there’s another work that I’m not sure whether you would call an official “biography,” but which is biographical in nature, and that’s _When Character Was King_ by Peggy Noonan. It’s a truly beautiful look at Ronald Reagan’s life, and the anecdotes it pieces together from people who knew him are just priceless. She writes like an angel. It changed my entire understanding of Ronald Reagan.
By contrast, I would strongly urge anyone NOT to waste their money on Edmund Morris’s disastrous _Dutch_. Apparently, he didn’t think Ronald Reagan was interesting enough for, you know, a real biography, so he decided to make half of it up. He makes up characters and puts himself in the story of Reagan’s life and goes off on these long-winded, egotistically artsy digressions, and it’s just insufferable. He makes sure the reader has the deuce of a time trying to figure out what is fact and what is fiction. It’s one of the most irresponsible pieces of work I’ve ever seen. Unless you need a doorstop, you don’t need it.
FT, like you I have only dipped into The Last Lion, but I loved it. As for Dutch, I skipped it for the same reasons you mentioned.
luaphacim, why do you say you prefer the edition of Ben Franklin with the errata still in?
My favorite is Harlan Hubbard by Wendell Berry. Berry knew and loved his subject, and it comes through in the writing—with almost a kind of sweetness and tenderness. Berry doesn’t have anything to prove about Harlan Hubbard (which I think can be a downfall in some biographies); Berry just likes Hubbard’s simple life and love of art, music, beauty, and the world.
Hitchcock once said that drama is life with the boring bits cut out . . . I guess that is one goal of biographies.
Saw your lovely wife yesterday . . . I think I’ve seen her 5 times since we’ve been back—always at the grocery store!
I like any biographies by Albert Marrin. He writes very accurate, but interesting biogaphies. You really get a feel for what the person was like.
Do autobiographies count? Surprised by Joy is an enduring favorite of mine.
“They have spoiled Whipsnade since then. Wallaby Wood,with the birds singing overhead and the bluebells underfoot and the Wallabies hopping all round one, was almost Eden come again.”
Hmmm… someday I will get the hang of HTML tags 🙂
I suppose a biography would be a particularly good way of story telling if dying was in some way the climax of the subject’s life (i.e. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, etc.). Just a thought…
I was undone by Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot. Jim Elliot’s death was truly the climax to a short life well lived.
Luaphacim, I loved The Classic Slave Narratives, especially that of Frederick Douglass. Raw, honest, and somewhat haunting…
My father and I greatly enjoyed John Adams, by David McCullough.
Is there a Chuck Norris biography? If there is, it’s my favorite. Even though I haven’t read it.
I’m astonished, Aaron, that you haven’t read Against All Odds: My Story, by Chuck Norris with Ken Abraham. It came out in the same catalog (B&H, Fall 2004) as The Bark of the Bog Owl. I secretly hoped that Chuck and I would run into each other at some B&H authors’ event. In my imaginary scenario we would realize that we had more in common than we realized, and would become instant friends. Then we would get our picture taken with me pretending to give Chuck a roundhouse kick. I actually own a copy of Against All Odds, and I think it’s signed, though I would have to take it out of its display case to be sure.
Display case? Are you joking? Please tell me that last post is fiction dripping with sarcasm that unfortunately came across in text as totally serious. 😐
All right, Patrick: just for you, I’m re-posting my comment with the untrue parts struck through.
I’m astonished, Aaron, thatyou haven’t read Against All Odds: My Story, by Chuck Norris with Ken Abraham. It came out in the same catalog (B&H, Fall 2004) as The Bark of the Bog Owl. I secretly hoped that Chuck and I would run into each other at some B&H authors’ event. In my imaginary scenario we would realize that we had more in common than we realized, and would become instant friends. Then we would get our picture taken with me pretending to give Chuck a roundhouse kick. I actually own a copy of Against All Odds, and I think it’s signed, though I would have to take it out of its display case to be sure.
Hope that helps.
Jonathan, I’m disappointed. One of the first rules I learned in the class Not Writing: A Class For Non-Writers was “Never ruin a good story with the facts.” I guess they teach actual writers something different. I hope you’ll un-edit the edited version to make it awesome again.
Thank you, Jonathan. That does help. 😀