Biographer Robert Massie wrote a wonderful piece last year in The New York Times about saying good-bye to his latest subject, Catherine the Great. After eight years of research and writing, the Russian queen had become Massie’s “friend.” The thought of leaving her and her world left him feeling bereft in a way peculiar to biographers.
Sure, other writers get immersed in their projects and feel weird and sad when their babies have to leave the nest and go out into the big world. But a biographer, I think, faces a unique challenge, a stranger sorrow.
Not only do we have to establish and document the verifiable facts about our subject’s life—it’s not fiction—but we have also to live that real life, get behind the eyes of that person who actually walked this earth.
It can be time travel with all the escapist allure of Owen Wilson’s forays with Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. But it can also be—should be—a daunting responsibility that can, often to the biographer’s surprise, make the ending of it all the harder.
A biographer worth the name has to assess and then judge the sum of another person’s life. No less. With humanity. And rigor. Sort of like God, only the person, if dead, has already gone to heaven or straight to hell.
Without that compassionate approach, there can be something predatory about biography. Parasitical. Feeding off the downside of another life to prop up your own.
Which means, for me at least, that when the time comes to say good-bye to the man or woman you’ve spent years getting to know, it’s important to feel that you’ve worked hard to be fair.
Your subject dies a second time, at your typing hands. While you sit at the laptop deathbed of this complicated, infuriating friend, it helps to believe – as it does with a real person — that you didn’t shirk the obligation to understand him or her as completely as possible.
Otherwise, the period of mourning described by Massie, already peculiar, risks becoming something more. The ghost of the biographer’s subject may come back to haunt, challenging the published book’s version of the real life, asking the biographer, with the plaintive tone of Scrooge’s Marley: Why didn’t you think harder? Why didn’t you feel deeper?
If that happens, you are stuck with your subjects until death do you both part.
MWF founding member Kate Buford is the author of two acclaimed biographies, The New York Times’ Notable Books Burt Lancaster: An American Life and Native American Son: The Life and Sporting Legend of Jim Thorpe. You can learn more about her here and on her website, and follow her on Twitter @katebuford.
Book hyperlinks courtesy of Fountain Bookstore, Richmond, Virginia.