As is so often true, I've found Wes Britton's comments in the latest exchange
particularly valuable. I agree with Wes that it would be helpful if biographers
presented their theories and speculations very openly as such. For example, I
surely wish that Justin Kaplan had more often noted his veneration of St.
Sigmund of Vienna. Excellent as Kaplan is, his life would be far stronger if he
didn't swallow Freud whole.
It's useful to remember that "definitive" biography is a myth. Every life is
"interpretative." Even if a biographer strives for "objectivity," every page
must reflect his or her assumptions, and those of the era, about what
matters. A biographer's view that the writing of Huckleberry Finn merits
more pages and deeper analysis than, say, Twain's relationship with Joe Goodman
is one that nearly all of us would agree with. Even so, it's a purely
Dumas Malone's 6-volume life of Thomas Jefferson was repeatedly called
"definitive." Yet Malone's work must strike many as hopelessly dated. For it
reflects the author's naive assumption that such trivia as Jefferson's
authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his years as minister to France,
his service as secretary of state and vice president, his eight presidential
years (the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark Expedition....) and his
founding of a university were more significant than his relationship with a
slave girl. How could Malone be so foolish? . . . Sarcasm aside, we can safely
assume that future studies of Jefferson will reflect the preoccupations of
their epochs as much as do the Sally-ridden books of our day.
Twain biography has always reflected its origins.
--If anything, Paine's life was a throwback to standard, ponderous,
3-volumes-that-speak-no-evil Victorian biographies.
--Writing in the '20s, Brooks gives us an utterly '20s Twain--a genius crippled
by the hell of Main Street, who ought to have fled to Paris to sit at the ample
feet of Gertrude Stein.
--In the '30s, DeVoto countered with a very Depression Era Twain who was
exuberantly suckled on American folk roots--a Twain who belongs with post office
murals, trails built by the CCC, and all the folk music lovingly gathered and
celebrated by the Lomaxes and Carl Sandburg.
And so on.
No one better understood than Twain himself how much our thoughts, feelings and
writing helplessly reflects our conditioning. He pointed out that German
illustrations of Tom and Huck inevitably make the boys look German, while in
Spanish editions they are Spanish. And he noted how much his own view of books
like Carlyle's French Revolution changed as he himself changed. He would hoot
at the idea that any biography of anyone could be "definitive."
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