The art of biography: life stories, and more

August 26, 2008 at 12:05 am (books)

I was recently asked to take part in a program of book talks about biographies. This got me thinking about just what books rightly fall into that category. I didn’t have to think twice about some selections. I knew, for instance, that I would enjoy booktalking Kate Williams’s England’s Mistress, the story of Emma Hamilton’s rise from penury to fame – some would say notoriety – and wealth; and Eve LaPlante’s empathetic biography of her pious Puritan ancestor Samuel Sewall, who was, for his sins, a Salem Witch Judge.

Of course, biographies such as those mentioned above are never only about one individual: they also, of necessity , treat of that person’s relationships with others. (One could not, for instance, talk about Emma Hamilton’s life without also discussing her lover, that renowned hero of the Napoleonic Wars Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson.) In some cases, those “others” share equal importance in the narrative, in which case you have what A.S. Byatt has termed a “composite biography.” Some of the best nonfiction I’ve read in recent years falls into this category: American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever and Katie Roiphe’s deliciously gossipy Uncommon Arrangements are two examples.


And then there are the love stories. One that I especially cherish is A Venetian Affair by Andrea Di Robilant, an Italian journalist whose own distinguished lineage led him to unearth this compelling story. And then there is an astonishing story that’s come down to us from the Middle Ages: Heloise and Abelard, ably retold by James Burge.


Some of my favorite biographies serve to re-create the world inhabited by their subjects. One of Stephen Greenblatt’s aims in writing Will in the World was to demonstrate the way in which Shakespeare’s life and work were shaped by his environment. And so, in the pages of this book, the 16th century market town of Stratford-upon-Avon springs vividly and colorfully to life – not to mention the fascinating, often dangerous England beyond Stratford’s boundaries.

A welcome trend in recent years has been what I would call the short form biography. Many’s the time I’ve wanted to delve into someone’s life, only to be daunted by the 800-plus page tome (probably with minuscule print) lying heavily before me. The chief innovator in this area has been the Penguin Press, with their Penguin Lives series. Each entry is about 250 pages in length. What has been especially notable about these books is the deliberate pairing of author and subject: theologian Martin E. Marty writing about Martin Luther; historian John Keegan on Winston Churchill, and so forth.

Now there’s a new series of short biographical sketches, all of which issue from the pen of that prolific polymath,, Peter Ackroyd. I just read his Newton and greatly enjoyed it. Others in the series that have appeared so far are Chaucer and J.M.W. Turner.



Before writing Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American, Richard S. Tedlow ( a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and oh, yes, my brother) published Giants of Enterprise. This eminently readable volume profiles “Seven Business Innovators and the Empires They Built.” The subjects, each covered in discreet chapters of about sixty or seventy pages in length, are Andrew Carnegie, George Eastman, Henry Ford, Thomas J. Watson Sr., Charles Revson, Sam Walton, and Robert Noyce.


One biography has haunted me since I first read it in the late 1960’s, shortly after its publication in this country: Tolstoy, by Henri Troyat.

Still in print – many thanks, Grove Atlantic!

1 Comment

  1. Arrivederci, Napoli…parting thoughts « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] of Tales of the Decameron; the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the notorious and fascinating Emma Hamilton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the composers Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Gesualdo, to name […]

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