On Choosing A Subject

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The biographer in between books is doubly vulnerable because biography seems to be everybody’s business. For the novelist, the plot of his next book is a private matter between himself and his typewriter—a happy secrecy, permitting conception without interference of seduction or extracurricular rape. With me at least, my last work is no sooner on the stands than letters come, suggesting a subject. The grandmothers of strangers are crying from the grave, it seems, for literary recognition; it is bewildering, the number of salty grandfathers, aunts and uncles that languish unappreciated. Telegrams propose a day and hour of appointment, when I can have the privilege of learning the circumstances and (irresistible) character of the deceased. Sometimes the subject is not decently dead but signs the telegram, in which case wires must be dispatched, stating regret and my plans for immediate departure to far places. Subjects have been known to ring my doorbell, unannounced, and standing upon the mat, all in the open air begin what salesmen call their pitch.

Rival publishers send tactful letters. (How gratified one would have been to receive them, twenty years ago!) If my publisher has not already made the suggestion, their own list could profitably include a biography of George Washington, Jane Addams, Edna Millay, Justice Brandeis, John Marshall, Roger Taney, Clara Schumann or old Judge Sewall of Massachusetts who sentenced the witches and repented. My own publisher, however, is not sleeping. He telephones from Boston with two suggestions, which he refers to as “ideas.” Two beauties, he says cheerfully. What is the matter, don’t I even want to hear the names?

I do not, and it is best to say so. The fact is that suggested subjects can be dangerous for the biographer, especially if they are forced and pushed, with rewards offered. Some literary forms do not lend themselves to commission-writing; the product emerges tasting of the shop, like fruits laid on, a hothouse breed, lacking the tang and scent of the native product. It is my contention (and it is not original) that an author’s books, no matter what his professed subject, are actually about the author. It does not follow that the product is egotistical; Boswell bore little likeness to Samuel Johnson. Yet, whatever form the writer chooses—fiction, poetry, biography—his books are written because he has something to discharge, some ghost within that struggles for release. In company with other writers, I am often asked if I am “with book,” or when I expect to “give birth.” There is reason for this tired witticism; in his book an author actually is discharging some part of himself. Could one imagine Carlyle’s French Revolution being conceived, as subject, by anyone but the author—Froude’s History of the Reign of Queen Elizabeth , Parkman’s Oregon Trail , De Voto’s Across the Wide Missouri? The very titles bear their author’s stamp. Here, nothing is machine-made. It is all done by hand, as we used to say of good millinery; its very faults are the craftsman’s and convey his message. These books proceed unevenly, like human beings, one moment prosy, the next moment dramatic. They are marked, in short, by that quality which beyond all qualities is difficult for the artist to achieve and impossible to counterfeit, the quality of life itself.