Are the best biographies necessarily sympathetic to their subjects? I had oddly never considered this idea until an unflattering life of Hemingway led the Scottish journalist Allen Massie to write in a recent issue of the Spectator:
“The best biographies are sympathetic. Their authors don’t gloss over their subjects’ failures and faults of character, but they don’t seek to do them down. The biographer who sets out to mock his subjects or diminish their achievements is likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy for them. Lytton Strachey’s four Eminent Victorians have survived his debunking, and Strachey now seems less than any of them. Conversely, and paradoxically, however, the admiring but scrupulous biographer may provoke a contrary response from the reader.”
After I read Massie’s comment, I thought about my favorite biographies, which include James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, Jean Strouse’s Alice James, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins, and William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory. All are sympathetic to their subjects. Yet there must be a good biography of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, though you could hardly write a “sympathetic” one. Have I missed the good, sympathetic biographies of those men? Or are the lives of tyrants the exceptions to Massie’s rule?
What books have you read that support or challenge Massie’s argument?
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.