Oct 7, 2009
A User’s Guide
(Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008)
Biography requires insight, argues Dr. Carl Rollyson in his latest book, Biography: A User’s Guide. To appreciate the person studied — to trust the subject of a biography — the biographer must know the subject so well as to be able to assess the subject’s self-honesty. Rollyson discusses this issue on pp. 164-168. The subject is Martha Gellhorn; the biographical form, her letters (collected by Caroline Moorehead); the example, a look at Hiss Case protagonists Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss.
Rollyson criticizes Moorehead as “ill equipped” to explore and analyze the nature of Gellhorn’s perception and trustworthiness. Moorehead fails (in his opinion) to question Gellhorn’s own accounts of her life and times. Rollyson, however, is quite ready to make pronouncements. When Gellhorn denies ever having an affair with H. G. Wells, “Moorehead drops the subject.” In contrast, Rollyson points out, “Wells himself wrote quite directly” about the affair.
His example from the Hiss Case is even more caustic and merits generous quote:
So, by all means, enjoy Gellhorn’s letters, but caveat emptor!… What about this passage on Alger Hiss, written on April 11, 1982:
The man is 77 now, and with hurt eyes, still trying to restore his good name. And though he doesn’t understand why Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon were out to kill him, I do; he was the very embodiment of everything they were not and could not be, the educated upper class American, an American gentleman; they hated him. It had nothing to do with Communism; it was like a private vendetta.
This passage can be easily turned on its head: Whittaker Chambers is dead, and the old lefties cannot let go of vilifying him. I know why: he was fat and conservative and worked for Time magazine and had none of Hiss’s elegance and education. How could someone as well spoken and with the right opinions possibly be a traitor?
Reducing history to such psychology and ideology is repugnant. There may be a grain of truth to it, but to make such explanations dominate, as Gellhorn does, makes her a very unreliable correspondent. Why didn’t Moorehead at least include an introduction that explored the nature of Gellhorn’s prejudices and blind spots? (p. 167)
One can only wish that Rollyson would examine the biographies of Chambers (by Sam Tanenhaus and Chambers himself) and Hiss (from Fred J. Cook, William Allen Jowitt, John Cabot Smith, and G. Edward White to son Tony Hiss and Alger Hiss himself).
All this is but one section of Biography: A User’s Guide. Rollyson also delves into topics like censorship, libel, fair use, public domain. He peppers the lot with examples from published biographies and assessments of the biographer’s art. His tone, while often sharp, is never strident, since the object of his criticism is always the refinement of biography, not the demeaning of others. (Much of the book comes from previously published articles, carefully worked into the book: the Gellhorn narrative comes from the now-defunct New York Sun.)
For anyone interested in writing biography, this book is a must-read: thanks to Ivan R. Dee for publishing it.