Day of Ideas
Tech & Innovation
Arts & Letters
Idealism & Practicality
Nature & Environment
Markets & Morals
Politics & Presidents
Atlantic Home Page
No one in their right mind wants to be profiled by a good writer. It’s like playing Russian roulette with your character. Just as a mirror, photo, or honest sketch inevitably shows us things about ourselves that we don’t like, how much more telling is a portrait in words, the subtlest of tools, aiming not only at surface but at essence? And no matter how skilled and well-intentioned, the writer will fail. Getting the subject wrong is guaranteed, because the essence of anyone is evanescent, a mystery even to himself. The egotistical will be disappointed, the modest appalled.
When I was a newspaper reporter, and much younger, I wrote plenty of bad ones. It is a standard assignment: profile the prominent figure passing through town. The challenge is usually perceived as an effort to wrangle access, an audience or an interview, and the forgettable story that typically follows consists of a faithful account of that brief encounter. This is still what passes for a profile in most magazines. It took me a while to learn that the encounter and interview were often the least valuable aspects of the story. What mattered far more was observation, research, and above all, insight. Personality and character are revealed less in words than in action. In some of the best profiles ever written the writer never talked to his subject.
That’s true of at least two of the writers below: Robert A. Caro, whose bit here about young Lyndon Baines Johnson is just a snippet from one of the best (though still-unfinished) biographies ever written of an American president; and Norman Mailer, who has said that after his friend Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, the subject of his profile, he hoped the playwright would invite him to dinner—“so that I could steal her”; the invitation never came. What matters most about any profile is not the subject per se but the way that subject is perceived by others, and ultimately by the writer. When you get the combination of a great subject and a great writer, the product isn’t just journalism or history—it’s art.
Thoreau (August 1862)
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Three months after Thoreau’s death, from tuberculosis, The Atlantic published a tribute to him by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson. The essay, offering an honest portrait of a difficult and unconventional but brilliant man, had previously been presented as the eulogy at Thoreau’s funeral.
Emerson (December 1904)
by Henry James Sr.
In a piece originally written in the late 1860s, but published in The Atlantic many years later, Henry James Sr.—the father of Henry James the novelist and William James the philosopher-psychologist—sought to explain just what it was about Emerson’s unassuming personality that carried such magnetism.
Robert Frost, Man and Myth (November 1966)
by James Dickey
In the course of reviewing a new Robert Frost biography, the poet James Dickey (whose best-selling novel, Deliverance, would be published four years later) dismantled the myth of Frost as kindly farmer-poet.
Marilyn Monroe (August 1973)
by Norman Mailer
In an excerpt from his then-forthcoming biography of Monroe, Norman Mailer offered a look at Monroe’s ill-starred marriage to the playwright Arthur Miller, the insecurities that plagued her, and her longing to be more than a sex goddess.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson (April 1982)
by Robert A. Caro
In 1982, the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Robert A. Caro profiled former President Lyndon Johnson as an uncannily driven twenty-eight-year-old first-time candidate for Congress.
American Everyman (November 2004)
by Walter Kirn
Two years ago, the novelist and critic Walter Kirn considered Warren Buffett as American symbol.