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Monday, September 19, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. THE TOIL OF BIOGRAPHY
This is the second week in a row that I’ve considered works of biography, and I must admit there’s something personal to it.
I myself am guilty of committing biography a number of times. My James Michael Liston – A Life (Victoria University Press, 2006) was a biography of Auckland’s Archbishop Liston. My Cardinal – The Life and Work of Reginald John Delargey (Pindar Publishers, 2008) was a biography of one of Liston’s colleagues. This year appears my Founders and Keepers (CPC Press 2011), a series of long biographical essays on, and interviews with, people who built up one diocese. Perhaps I should add that I also once ghost-wrote the autobiography of a local-body politician.
It’s for other people to say how good or bad my efforts are. I might indulge in a little self-publicity here, but I’m not going to stoop to self-praise. However, given that the three books I list are substantial works – approx. 400 pages each – and given that each at least aspires to be scholarly, I think I’m entitled to say that I know, from the inside, what researching and writing a biography entails.
Here are some of the tasks I have now undertaken on a number of occasions.
First, establishing the basic chronological facts of a person’s life – ferreting out birth and death certificates of family members; marriage certificates of parents; official documents related to appointments made and positions achieved; and wills related to property matters. All this entails trips to National Archives and other agencies where official documents are stored. I am talking quite a few weeks of work.
Then a general trawl through the secondary literature relating to the biography’s subject. Neither of the two clerics upon whom I wrote full-length biographies had yet had a whole book devoted to his life, although there was a detailed book about one short episode in Liston’s life – his trial for sedition in the 1920s. However, there were many church histories in which both men figured, not to mention the published memoirs of others and general history books. Trawling the secondary literature also entailed looking at works about the general state of the country – politically and socially – in the times these men lived, in order to place them in their context. It also meant finding specialist articles in refereed journals and unpublished theses and dissertations. I am talking many months of work.
Then there was what should be the central part of any real biographical research – the examination of essential primary materials, including the private and public papers of the person whose life was being written. Everything including memoranda, appointment diaries, personal diaries, drafts of articles and talks, private letters, contracts, official correspondence, directions to colleagues and subordinates and financial accounts. This part of research often involves great patience in deciphering difficult or faded handwriting. For both the men whose lives I undertook, there was a central core of private and public papers kept in one particular archive, but much more had to be found by travelling both this country and overseas to other archives and repositories. I am talking many, many months of work.
Then a survey of contemporaneous newspapers and other media to see how this person’s life was recorded or interpreted when he was alive, and how well this interpretation matched the life revealed in official correspondence and private papers. More months.
Then, given that my subjects survived into living memory, a series of interviews with friends and colleagues and known critics of the subjects to include an “oral history” component as well as gaining the immediacy of personal anecdote and reminiscence. Yet more months.
All this is listing only part of the biographical process, and not necessarily in order. One task will overlap another and basic documentation may still be unearthed when you’re well into reading the primary and secondary sources.
Research is not merely finding things out.
It is also about making copious notes, cross-referencing the notes that have been made, organizing them into some coherent system (usually in reference to significant aspects of the subject’s life), and producing a framework or skeleton outline of each chapter upon which the text will hang.
It is producing drafts of each chapter of the biography, and having them read and commented upon by trusted and qualified people. It is re-writing and modifying drafts already written, in the light of both readers’ comments and new material that has been found since the chapters were first written. It is dreading that something really important might turn up just after the final version has been submitted to the publishers.
It is also a process of frequent backing-and-filling. You complete, shall we say, a chapter on your subject’s childhood, and think you have finished with it. Then, halfway through researching some later part of your subject’s life, new materials about the childhood come to light. So back you go and recast parts of your opening chapter.
At a rough estimate, I would say that one year of full-time work is the barest minimum to produce anything like a genuine full-length documented biography of anybody. A more detailed biography will entail more time than this.
I repeat – I am not boasting that I did all this well. I am simply stating that I did it.
It has given me much clearer criteria to judge the worth of other people’s biographies. I distrust, for example, any biography that is light on primary source material and that seems to have been put together largely from secondary sources. Secondary sources are an essential part of the process. But the more they are relied on, the more likely an author is simply to repeat the mistakes and judgements of earlier writers. An absence of documentation – in the form of notes – is another reason to regard a biography as thin.
Everything I’ve said here is partly intended as a rebuke to those who think a “biography” means a one-page Wikipedia entry on somebody’s life. I’m also taking aim at those (a growing tribe among tertiary students) who think “research” means looking something up on-line. By all means look things up on-line, where much of value can be found, but only the feeblest of biographies will rely exclusively on what can be downloaded electronically. The real search for primary sources requires much physical tramping from place to place, much handling of physical documents.
But my main point reiterates something I took up in last week’s blog. There is so much toil involved in writing a true, detailed, documented biography, that the task should be one really worth doing. Is it worth doing if a detailed biography of the subject has already been written? Only if there are genuinely new things to say and only if new evidence has come to light of the sort that justifies more than a brief article.
Biographies of living persons are always partial and perishable things, because the life examined has not yet been fully lived. Biographies of the dead can, theoretically at any rate, be complete. Is the toil of documentation and research worth doing more than once if there is not some radical new viewpoint to express? I think not, especially if so much of that toil will lead merely to establishing material facts that have already been established.