Writing Biography

The whole concept of biography, that is, the writing of the story of one person’s life by some other person, is inextricably tied up in the very name of Samuel Johnson. A sizeable portion of the writing that Johnson did during his own life was biography. One of his earliest published works was biographical in nature — not a full biography but the partial story of a man’s life: a translation of Jeronimo Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, which is an account of Lobo’s travels in Ethiopia. Johnson published that when he was 26. Later in life he went on to write a biography of his friend Richard Savage (a fascinating but troubled poet who claimed he was born of nobility) in 1744, and finally his monumental Lives of the Poets, which he wrote when he was in his early 70s.

Johnson also wrote about the value of biography as a genre in one of the issues of The Rambler, a twice-weekly essay series that he published 1750-1752. The one on biography is number 60 (October 13, 1750), and he has some interesting observations:

  • Johnson sees a practical use for biography in that it provides the story of a single person’s life that the reader can — as we might put it today — “relate to.” He contrasts this with history (“the downfall of kingdoms, and revolutions of empires, are read with great tranquillity”). It is only in biography, Johnson says, that emotion is activated: “Our passions are therefore more strongly moved, in proportion as we can more readily adopt the pains or pleasures proposed to our minds, by recognising them as once our own, or considering them as naturally incident to our state of life.”
  • He thought that nearly anyone’s life could be the subject of a biography: “I have often thought that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful … We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.”
  • He knew well that the story of a person’s life was not just a chronology of facts: “But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from publick papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a man’s real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree, and ended with his funeral.”

I had the experience over the past three and a half years of co-authoring a biography of a standup comedian named Greg Giraldo. I learned some valuable lessons from that experience that I will depend on to help me with the writing of my bio of Johnson. His last point there, about chronology vs. character, may seem trite and obvious, and perhaps it is to more experienced biographers. I remember an early draft of the comedian book in which the text was written very mechanically: fact, quote to back it up, fact, quote to back it up, and so on. It was authoritative and accurate, but it didn’t really capture the essence of the man. That came only when we starting mining the interviews of people who knew Giraldo, weaving a story, and always being aware of how a single anecdote could in some cases tell you everything you wanted to know about this or that aspect of his character.

Part of the additional challenge with Johnson is that he is long dead, his writing is in a dense style that takes a little effort to discern — and, well, he lived three hundred years ago, and modern, non-scholarly readers will need some demonstration of relevancy before they decide they can finish off 200-plus pages, no matter how fascinating I find the man.

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