The relation of the literary biographer to his subject has perhaps never been easy, and as posthumous biographical scrutiny has grown more intense, a premonitory shiver has been felt by many writers. Every great man has his disciples, says Wilde, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. Joyce describes the biographer, not much more winningly, as the biografiend. No one has any trouble understanding why T. S. Eliot and George Orwell both stipulated that no biography be written of them, at least with any help from their widows. The biographer is necessarily intrusive, a trespasser even when authorized. For while he is neither inimical nor in his judgments Rhadamanthine—and good will seems to be a prerequisite—he introduces an alien point of view, necessarily different from that mixture of self-recrimination and self-justification which the great writer, like lesser men and women, has made the subject of his lifelong conversation with himself.
Yet some parallactic correction of self-portraiture is warranted because the sense of ourselves which we have in isolation is to a large extent fabricated, an ennoblement or a debasement. Alone we can be braver and handsomer than others see us, and think of those perfect ripostes which somehow just failed—when we were at the party—to come to our lips. And alone, too, we can be more monstrous than we really are. Autobiography is essentially solitary, though there are examples, such as V.S. Pritchett’s autobiography, of almost total self-effacement in this form. But biography is essentially social. For the biographer, who himself represents the outside world, the social self is the real self, the self only comes to exist when juxtaposed with other people. The solitary self is a pressure upon the social self, or a repercussion of it, but it has no independent life. No doubt Robinson Crusoe would disagree, but the overstatement may encourage us. Besides Defoe, not Crusoe, wrote the book.
How intimately can we know the self of another person? When we read Boswell we are surprised in that decorous author to find that he believes he is rendering Johnson’s private life. He quotes Dr. Johnson’s remark that a man’s domestic privacies should be investigated because prudence and virtue may appear more conspicuously there than in incidents of vulgar greatness. But we are now only too well aware that the domestic life may yield examples of attributes other than prudence and virtue. Recent biographical speculations about Dr. Johnson himself offer such intimations. We can now see that Boswell dealt with a social privacy, the interrelation of one man with another in civilized appointed meetings. There are deeper levels of privacy, where propriety gives way to impropriety, where, if Katharine Balderston is right, Mrs. Thrale at Dr. Johnson’s earnest request whips his naked back, or, if Professor Balderston is wrong, other unseemly acts take place which we assume even if we can’t document.
Boswell tells us nothing of these. Partly, of course, because he didn’t share our estimation of the importance these further kinds of…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.