A General's Life: An Autobiography
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
The publishers of A General’s Life apparently agree with Humpty Dumpty. The title page describes the book as an autobiography but then contradicts itself by telling us that it is by two people. As it turns out, it is an autobiography of neither, for General Bradley wrote no part of it and, indeed, saw only the first 113 pages, and Clay Blair, who did write it, talks about himself only in the “collaborator’s foreword.” What we have here is a biography that has been written to sound like an autobiography.
There is, to be sure, no attempt to conceal the facts of the case. Mr. Blair tells us that Bradley had wanted to write the story of his life but that he “had never had a way with words,” his speeches and his memoir A Soldier’s Story having been written by others, and that he had, after an ineffectual beginning, abandoned the experiment. Some years later, his wife asked Mr. Blair to serve as collaborator in completing the project. He agreed, but after he had written the pre-World War II section and shown it to the general, Bradley died, and this confronted him, he writes, with “no small dilemma” about the form in which the work was to be continued.
After prolonged consideration, I decided to proceed in the autobiographical mode. By that time my own mind was so deeply immersed in Bradley’s that I thought like Bradley. I had at hand literally thousands of pages of Bradley’s transcribed words. By confining myself to these words or to official documents or correspondence, and introducing no views or opinions that I knew Bradley did not positively hold, I could reconstruct the war virtually in his own words. So I proceeded with painstaking care, double- or triple-checking other sources for every word I wrote.I feel certain that had Bradley lived to read the result he would not have made any substantial alterations or changes in emphasis.
This last may be true, but it doesn’t make the book an autobiography. Properly used, that term means the story of a person’s life, written by himself and as he chooses to write it. All of Mr. Blair’s double- and triple-checking is irrelevant. Autobiographies have nothing to do with accuracy. Some of them are tissues of lies, and the best of them are apt to be cunning combinations of truth and falsity, exaggeration and misrepresentation, self-justification and innuendo. Consider the Gedanken und Erinnerungen of Otto von Bismarck, which the chancellor dictated late in life, in large part to demonstrate…
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 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.