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Biography and the Narrator

A review of The Art of Biography by Paul Murray Kendall

In this little book, originally a series of lectures, Paul Murray Kendall attempts to redefine biography in the light of his own practice. An historian who has specialized in 15th Century figures—Richard III, Warwick, Louis XI—he is adept in the writing of lives that involve, as one of his reviewers puts it, “intelligent surmise.” In other words, confronted with a handful of documents—odd moments of personal history fortuitously preserved—he has been forced to make biographical bricks with very little straw. The modern biographer knows nothing of this: he is constantly pitchforking straw out of his workshop. Kendall’s book thus derives from specific experience, in spite of its all-embracing title; he is unable, from his place in the thin centuries, to grasp the dilemma of those who work in thicker times.

One consequence of this is that his lectures end by defining the “art” of which he speaks as non-art. For Kendall, biography is “coarse” and “tough.” This contrasts vividly with the words used by Lytton Strachey—“delicate” and “humane.” Biography, says Kendall, is a “showing” of facts, as if they were things on display under glass in a library. He distinctly does not want it to be a “telling.” He conceives of it as a kind of performing art—his definition reads “a simulation, in words, of a man’s life, from all that is known about that man”—a kind of mimicry. But to “simulate” we know is “to seek a false resemblance, as through imitation.” One readily understands this is all that can be done when historical facts are sparse. Modern biographers, because of their surfeit of material, do not need to simulate. For them certain traditional definitions are more serviceable. Sir Sydney Lee called biography “the truthful transmission of personality”; Sir Edmund Gosse spoke of it in a famous essay as “the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life.” One might, if one wished, read the word “psyche” for the word “soul.” The simplest definition might be that “a biography is the recounting of a life in narrative prose.” But it is precisely on the problem of narration that Kendall departs from some of his fellow craftsmen to espouse the old-fashioned chronicle. He is also singularly rigid in wanting modern biographers, faced say with Roosevelt’s papers at Hyde Park, or the voluminous documents of the abbreviated Kennedy era, or Churchill’s 90 years, to turn these in effect into chronicle-histories.

Kendall rejects psychology as beyond the capabilities of a biographer. To the argument that a “psychological speculation” is as valid as any other kind, Kendall rejoins “neither sort of speculation is valid for biography.” Yet when he describes his own difficulties with historical “gaps,” such as the absence of all information about King Richard’s years from ten to fifteen, he can discover only what his subject “in all probability” did at a certain place during this time. He is pleased that he filled the gap by describing the place. This however still tells us little about Richard. The lacuna remains; and when Kendall says he finally “concluded” that Richard “must have developed his feeling” for this region during this time, we wonder at the “must have,” and recognize that Kendall himself speculates. We can only reiterate that a speculation about a person’s psyche based on his behavior seems as valid, and perhaps even more valid, than a speculation upon the influence of a given place.

The weakest part of Kendall’s book seems to me to be his refusal to accept biography as narrative. He insists that a biographer cannot use narrative modes of fiction without harm to truth. “Biographical time and novelistic time do not mix,” Kendall writes thereby showing that he confuses both kinds of time. His argument is that “thematic groupings” of the events of a life distort human chronology; the subject is treated as if it were as “boneless as an oyster”; the materials of the life become “so much mud to be arbitrarily patted into cakes,” and the time-dimension of the subject is violated.

But the question at issue is neither biographical time nor human time, but that time which we know as narrative-time. The task of all story-tellers is to make the listener or the reader feel time’s passage. To enumerate the facts of a life chronologically, strange as it may seem, achieves an opposite effect: instead of time passing we are shown a miscellany of documents and events, some repetitive, the disordered clutter of existence that requires refashioning into orderly narrative. Leonard Woolf’s autobiography offers an illuminating illustration. Had he followed Kendall’s prescription, he would have given us a step-by-step account of Virginia Woolf’s nervous breakdowns in 1913, 1915, the 1920’s, the late 1950’s, each pigeon-holed in their proper year. Instead, when he reaches her first breakdown in 1913 he relates her entire medical history, moving forward and backward in time between 1913 and 1941. There is no question that we are thus made to grasp the full heroism of Mrs. Woolf’s struggle against the insanity that constantly threatened to engulf her creativity. The impact would have been greatly diluted had we been given the illnesses in their scattered chronological moments among the other events and personages of her life. By this I am not suggesting that the illnesses are not alluded to again in the proper progress of the narrative. Kendall constantly forces his reader in this book to feel that one biographical procedure necessarily excludes another, whereas the modern biographer does not hesitate to use both.

What is involved is an essential sorting and arranging of the story and I do not see how such a procedure renders the subject “boneless.” It is a way of working, like a sculptor who needs a frame on which to shape his clay. But of course Kendall has so little clay that he cannot, in his type of biography, use this kind of narrative. He must write the life of Louis XI admitting that he knows nothing about the king before his thirteenth year. I think it much wiser for the biographer to confess this, rather than to try to work up a factitious background. An introductory picture of the time, such as David Cecil gives us in his Melbourne, is perhaps the only useful course, as well as the only kind of verisimilitude possible.

The expository portions of Kendall’s book are an abbreviated lecture-view of biography in antiquity, the Middle Ages, the 15th Century, and English biography since the Elizabethan era. It is in his final pages that Kendall has his quarrel with these ideas which have had currency since Strachey. He scorns what he calls the “superbiography” without recognizing that it derives from super-archives, and that even with extraordinary melting down is still bound to be larger than many old biographies. He does not seem to grasp the supreme fact that the modern biographer’s constant struggle is against the irrelevant—so “relevant” does every scrap seem to the historian in the dim centuries. He joins Maurois in opposing the foreshadowing of events. He would have his readers pretend, when they pick up a life of Napoleon, that they have never heard of the man. It does not seem to occur to him that a reader’s grasp, in depth, of certain events is sometimes increased by anticipations. The “art” of biography resides precisely in an arrangement of factual material so that truth is enhanced.

On the subject of literary biography, that is the writing of lives of writers, Kendall is completely out of his element. He seems to have read few literary biographies and he is not conversant with the critical terminology or the difficult questions of the relations between a writer’s imagination and his life. The biographies he commends are mostly historical; and he seems unaware of the whole movement in America of which Van Wyck Brooks was the center.

The curious thing about these lectures is that after pages of vehement argument Kendall throws his “conjunction of science and literature” to the winds. He reverts to a mystique of biography, and one feels sympathy with him, for at the last, sentience triumphs over intellect. When he stands on the ground where Louis stood, he is trying to think and feel like an artist, and he cultivates this sense of the past.

“Philippe de Commynes describes the ground as it looked before the battle-fields of wheat and beans shimmering under a bitter July sun—and then the after-battle scene of dust-clouds hanging in the torrid air, dead men and horses strewn in farrows, the green-and-gold grain now smashed into the earth. On just such a July day I first climbed the ridge of Montlherv to gaze at the countryside below—and there stood the fields of wheat and beans shimmering in the sun. . . . Perhaps I am deceived in thinking that what then happened to me was more than a frisson, a literary thrill. I can but report that I felt a shock of recognition.”

This of course tells us little about the battle Louis fought, but it tells us a great deal about Kendall as historian, seeing the field helped him to learn, he says, “the probable movement of the armies.” No doubt it did. We look again, however, at that word “probably” and wonder that the man willing to use this word should have written this book: he displays in his peroration that empathy, omniscience and liberty of conjecture which in his preceding pages he has sought to banish from the craft and the art of biography.