Saturday, 22 May 2010

A Biographer’s Quest for Biographers

The titles of two books on the reading list, given me three months before the start of the MA in Biography course which I started in October 2009, immediately caught my eye.

One of them was Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill. I remember as a small boy being taken by my mother down to Woking Station to give comforts to troops returning from Dunkirk and recall the dejected face of the defeated poilus who were entrained for western ports for a futile attempt to return to France to continue the battle: I remember seeing from the top floor of my home the flames of blazing London reflected in the clouds over the eastern horizon during the Blitz; I remember the house with half the windows boarded up because a near miss had shattered them and there was not glass immediately available to repair them. I have then good cause to revere the man who led us from defeat to victory and to read with fascination the story of the man who wrote the magisterial Life.

The other was Nigel Hamilton's Biography: A Brief History, since I knew him as the biographer of Montgomery, Churchill's most successful general, and since as a history graduate I liked the idea of getting a feel for my new subject within a chronological framework. It also helped that, when I obtained a copy from the university library, I found it beautifully designed and printed, aspects which to me, a sometime typesetter and typographer, are particularly important.

After reading these books and before the academic year started I set out to talk to each of these men as I was considering doing as my final thesis something about the impact of technology on how biography gets written. In doing this I felt the first faint stirrings of the passion that drives biographers, that urge to find out, the thrill of the hunt, the tally-ho! when you first spy your quarry. No matter that the kill may come something of an anti-climax; no matter that, from the ninety enthralling minutes I spent with Sir Martin the only insight into his use of technology was his use of the fountain pen for writing and of the treasury tag for data storage; the quest is the thing, not the kill.

Over the first two of the four terms of the course I gradually developed the framework for my thesis. I believed that I could illustrate the impact of technology upon the creation of biographies in the manner described by Lytton Strachey in his Introduction to Eminent Victorians, in which he explained how he proposed to deal with the vast mass of material available about Victorians and their era; he would illuminate the whole by flashlighting a few isolated items. The wise biographer, he suggested, "will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity."

From the beginnings of life writing I tentatively chose The Epic of Gilgamesh from the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and Sinuhe from the western end. From classical times I chose something from Plutarch's Parallel Lives but then, because of my ignorance of Greek and because of something that I recalled from my interview with Nigel Hamilton, I took Suetonius' Twelve Caesars instead. From the era of the manuscript book I selected Robert of Shrewsbury's Vita Sanctae Winefredae (Life of St Winefred) and Jacobus de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), the latter translated by William Caxton and with the addition of a version of the former, making it the first piece of life writing about a Briton printed in English. There was no significant technical change in the book production process till the nineteenth century and the application of mechanical power to the printing process, and so a biography of William Caxton by another printer, William Blades, seemed a more relevant choice than any of the much better-known Victorian biographies. For the period when mechanical typesetting was being replaced by photosetting and letterpress printing by offset litho, nothing more appropriate than Martin Gilbert's Winston S Churchill could possibly be found, since the first of his volumes was produced by the older technology and the last by the newer. The ninth in this series again chose itself when I recalled that Nigel Hamilton had told me that he was having trouble having his latest work, American Caesars, accepted by his publishers because of its length and after I had googled that title and found that it is to be published in a couple of months' time, in July 2010. The tenth and final one may not have been published yet, since I am seeking something that will appear electronically only, thus rounding off my long-term goal of writing Life Writing from Clay Tablet to iTablet.

The enormity of this project did not really occur to me, but it certainly did to the course supervisor who suggested a much more restricted topic. I considered therefore narrowing my focus to the last quarter century, during which time the advent of the personal computer and of the internet, or rather the World Wide Web, has changed and is changing everything. My difficulty in accepting this stemmed from my inability how to construct a hundred-item bibliography about a topic about which so surprisingly little appears to have been written, if my experience in writing my first term's essay on blogging one's autobiography is a reliable guide.

This finally led to the radical decision to switch topics and to write on St Winifred for my thesis and on technology and its impact upon biography as my 6,000-word third-term essay. The decision was made with little over a month before the essay was due to be submitted. With just a fortnight to go, and with the disappointing results of my efforts to carry out sufficient meaningful interviews to write a satisfactory essay, I sat down and re-examined my options.

I started by writing the skeleton of the essay I would have liked to complete and which I had in fact already started. The title was Writers, Biographers and Technology: the USA and the UK Compared. This was followed by the section headings that follow naturally from such a title: Purpose, Method, Sources (printed), Sources (interviews), Writers and biographers compared, USA and UK compared, Conclusions and Appendices. The problem about the paucity of sources was compounded by the much greater problem about how to present my research data, all of which is stored on a database which cannot, I understand, be submitted with the essay as a vital and integral part of it.

I then thought about Martin Gilbert's In Search of Churchill and of A.J.A. Symons' The Quest for Corvo, about which I had given a presentation to my fellow students a month previously. In each of these books much if not most of the interest lies in the story of how the writers found or dug up the pieces of their respective jigsaw puzzles, rather than in the final picture when all the pieces had been assembled. This was a eureka! moment. A new title almost immediately presented itself: A Biographer's Quest for Biography Writers. This would detail what I have done in chronological order, describing the difficulties I encountered in seeking information and the manner in which I recorded what information I did find. This narrative, which would be relatively short, would be accompanied by a number of appendices which would principally be in tabular form.

The appendices that I then listed were these:

  • Responses: in alphabetical order, answers given to key questions, both in direct and indirect speech
  • Writers' Rooms: pics: 5 pages with the photos of the first 25 writers in the alphabetical list in the table created from The Guardian's series that appeared weekly 207-2009, plus what those writers say in their text about use of technology
  • Writers' Rooms: data 1: table with first 25 writers by name, with genre (and fiction/non-fiction), gender, age, first draft how done, type of computer, DOM/WHOT scale &c
  • Writers' Rooms: data 2: table with 100+ writers by name, with URLs of Guardian articles
  • Standard soliciting: the text of e-mails used in soliciting help, with comments about their relative success
  • Non-standard soliciting: outline of how this was done
  • UK e-mails: listed in chronological order of dispatch, with answer (if any, and short/long) with date
  • US e-mails: -do-
  • Structure of database tables
  • Tabular results: summaries by genre, gender, age and residence (UK/US)

This has been written so that it could form the first part of my essay, to be submitted in a fortnight. It is being posted to my blog today to give my supervisor an indication of what I propose in advance of our meeting on Tuesday. The essay would not contain the last paragraph with its list in precisely that form or position.

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