Monday, February 05, 2007

Reading and Writing Biographies

San Simeon

I have been on a biography kick for the last few months. I suppose I am trying to figure out the best way to write the biography I am working on. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, they say.

It turns out that there are two distinct forms of biographical narrative: one packed with information and details about a life and one that is short on detail, but long on narrative. The latter turns out to be a better read, but one that is soon forgotten. The former can be a chore to complete, but provides a more lasting understanding of a subject.

I just finished reading The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst by David Nasaw. As a native San Franciscan, I grew up with the name Hearst firmly imprinted on my mind. There was the San Francisco Examiner, owned by the Hearst family, the fabulous Hearst amphitheater at UC Berkeley where I got to sit in the first row when I was sixteen and stare lovingly at my idols, Loggins and Messina, and Hearst Avenue.

Then there was Patty, kidnapped out of her Berkeley apartment by the SLA. She turned into Tania, the armed revolutionary, and her father Randolph set up free food distribution centers in San Francisco as part of her ransom. When I was 16, I snagged two tickets to Patty’s trial, and watched her with a thrill throughout an afternoon’s testimony.

So I started to read The Chief thinking I knew a lot about William Randolph Hearst. I had actually learned about his father, George, not from watching Deadwood, where he is a recurring and despicable character, but through research on my book. (My subject, Isaias W. Hellman, ran for the Senate against George Hearst in 1887) George was an uneducated miner who made millions in the silver mines of Nevada, the gold mines of South Dakota, and the copper mines of Colorado.

I soon learned, however, that I knew nothing about the son. Some of the myths about the man are true: he was a boor, an autocrat, he turned into a reactionary in his later years and he did build a magnificent playhouse at San Simeon, which he lorded over with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, at his side.

Other myths aren’t true: he didn’t start the Spanish-American war; he didn’t invent yellow journalism, although his papers mastered the form; and he didn’t live an isolated and broken life like Charles Foster Kane, the protagonist of Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which is supposedly based on Hearst.

Nasaw did a wonderful job showing Hearst’s strength and weaknesses. He took 600+ pages to tell the story of Hearst’s life, so you see it is the kind of biography that provides every detail Nasaw can squeeze in. It took me five weeks to read this book, but I enjoyed it every time I picked it up. My biggest complaint is that Nasaw didn’t provide much historical context for Hearst’s life, which spanned the early days of the West, two world wars, and an anti-Communist crusade. He just assumed the reader would know the background of all these world events. That, or his editor told him to remove the information because the book was already too long.

I have just picked up Jason Roberts’ critically-acclaimed biography of James Holman, A Sense of the World, How a Blind Man Became the World’s Greatest Traveler. Now Roberts has done the exact opposite of what Nasaw did. He does not have a lot of information about the details of Holman’s life. He uses basic details of Holman’s life and extrapolates from there. For example, the distinguishing fact of Holman’s early childhood was that his father owned an apothecary shop. Roberts doesn’t know much about the family homestead, or what they ate or wore. So he goes off in a riff about apothecary shops in England in general.

He does the same for other elements of Holman’s life –there are riffs on serving in the British Navy in the early 19th century, what doctors usually did to treat blindness, etc., how most blind people learn to navigate. Roberts doesn’t know critical details about Holman’s life, so he circumvents these lapses by distracting the reader and talking about something else.

It works. It may not be classic biography, but it is a compelling read.

So that makes me ask, what is biography for? Is it to faithfully recreate a life, providing details that can bog a reader down? Or is it to entertain a reader and give a delightful, if slight, sense of a life?

I have been approaching my own biography with the sense I had to create a historical record and provide details that would illuminate the settling of California. Now I wonder.


makma said...

You occupy a unique position as a biographer since you are writing about an ancestor. Shouldn't that inform both the factual and narrative levels? Don't run away from it. It's one of the strengths of the book.

anna sklar said...

As a remarkable and wonderful combination of the narrative and detail filled biography, I recommend highly that you read Catherine Mulholland's biography of her grandfather -- the best about him, as well as about his friends, colleagues, and, of course, his real role in bringing water to L.A.

Frances said...

Yes I read that book and used it as source material. The man I am writing about, Isaias Hellman, was the largest shareholder of the privately-held water company of LA. Hellman worked closely with Mulholland, who was actually the one who convinced Hellman to sell to the city.