Monday, August 29, 2011

Is Biography Possible?

I have read many excellent biographies and quite a few disappointing ones over the years. It seems to me that the biographer's job is made extremely challenging by the realization that, after all the facts and quotations and information, we are always left to wonder: what was he or she, the subject of the biography, really like?

Do we ever know another person, really? If we remain mysteries to ourselves, at least in part, we are generally mysteries to those who know us. I continue to discover surprising things about my wife and close friends after many years' association. The inner life has depths and layers that often remain obscure.

If I were to write the life story of someone I had never met and known at all, someone from another era, I would be flummoxed, as the Brits like to say. For to me, a biographer has to deal with the inner life of the subject, not just the public achievements. It's the upbringing, the family, the personal life that explains the behavior. Somehow, the more scholars dig into the life of Lincoln or Dickens or even Mark Twain, the more questions arise, the more complex these men seem. The same is true of Nixon and dozens of other more recent public figures: we think we know them, but do we ever, really?

While reading recently about Calvin Coolidge, for reasons known only to me--I can't explain it even to myself--I looked for a biography, and I found a book, by David Greenberg, that comes close. But his book, brief at 159 pages of text, admits that Silent Cal never opened up to anyone, never revealed himself. So we have to be content with a largely external portrait of a man who seems almost to have lacked an inner life.

My search for a biography of Coolidge in the full sense seems doomed. Yet the sources reveal many interesting anecdotes (some amusing) and facts, including the tragic loss of his teenage son in 1924. According to one scholar (Robert E. Gilbert), the rest of his life, and presidency, was marked by clinical depression.

I don't know how widely accepted this view is but it makes sense, helping to explain Coolidge's often odd, rude behavior. His icy reticence was the product of his New England upbringing, making him one of the most unlikely men to occupy the White House. He hated small talk, yet gave speeches, greeted guests (helped greatly by his wonderful First Lady, Grace), and held more press conference than any other president, before or since. He introduced the practice of talking to reporters; the fact that he said little on most occasions, and did so in his laconic style, made him the object of many jokes and much speculation.

When he died in 1933, Dorothy Parker quipped, "How can they tell?"

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