What a Biography Really Reveals

Even when a writer and her subject never meet, excavating a life can uncover hidden truths: Your weekly guide to the best in books

outline of two overlapping profiles with a face in the middle
The Atlantic

Earlier this month, the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author David McCullough died. Over five decades, he wrote many books about American history, including ones about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood, but he was especially known for two presidential biographies, Truman and John Adams. Both were best sellers and landmark achievements; both took him years to complete. Because of the level of commitment these projects required, McCullough always chose his subjects carefully: “It’s like picking a roommate,” he once said. He’s not alone in that sentiment. In a late-in-life memoir, James Atlas, another acclaimed biographer, concluded that what motivated him—more than the chance to brush up against the lives of the famous—was “long days in the company of someone I had never met but would come to know better than anyone else in the world.”

Biography is a strange project, because even when the biographer and her subject never meet, the work of excavating a life can reveal unseen facets of the historical context in which they lived. Although the author Katherine Rundell wrote about the poet John Donne centuries after his death, her recent book on his life and work manages to capture “his gift for riffing on infinity,” according to my colleague James Parker. And a good biography, like Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa’s recent one of George Floyd, can animate more than a single life: The authors marshal political analysis and personal history to plainly show that “America had been slowly killing George Floyd for decades,” Imbolo Mbue writes.

But biographies have limits—by definition, they’re always filtering a person (often one who can no longer speak for themselves) through another writer’s point of view. That’s why, even though Lili Anolik’s recent biography of Eve Babitz, Hollywood’s Eve, tells a compelling story about Babitz’s life, there’s still more to be discovered about the beloved writer in her own archives—and in her own voice. Through the boxes of drafts, letters, and photographs, a reader is treated to what Kevin Dettmar calls “an experience of watching Eve Babitz drafting, revising, perfecting, becoming,” something only the artist herself can deliver.

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What We’re Reading

A black-and-white close-up photo of David McCullough from the shoulders up; he is wearing a suit and tie and smiling gently.

Fred R. Conrad / New York Times / Redux

‘History is human’: Remembering David McCullough

“As loyal as he was to his typewriter, McCullough was exacting when it came to his subjects. He did not have to love them, but he did have to be able to live with them.”

An illustration of a tombstone with writing on it, like a page in a notebook

John Custer

Seven books grappling with what writers leave behind

“What might be the most moving rebuttal to [Janet] Malcolm’s ‘burglar’ portrait of the biographer is his account of trying to be fair and empathetic in his work. Upon receiving access to the papers of Delmore Schwartz (thoughtfully stewarded by his old friend, the critic Dwight Macdonald),  Atlas describes skimming the pages, finding treasures from W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot, among others, that would delight any literary biographer. But as he leaves the library, what he most looks forward to, he writes, is spending ‘long days in the company of someone I had never met but would come to know better than anyone else in the world.’”

overlapping reversed engraved images of John Donne, one in black and one in white, with halos surrounded by cupids and ornamental border on red background

Illustration by Paul Spella. Source: Bettmann / Getty; Heritage Images / Getty.

The unlovable, irresistible John Donne

Super-Infinite is the title of Katherine Rundell’s new biographical study of Donne. It sounds like an album by Monster Magnet. And indeed, Rundell responds to Donne in something of a heavy-metal, hyperbolizing register. Read the first stanza of ‘Love’s Growth,’ she promises us, and ‘all the oxygen in a five-mile radius rushes to greet you.’”

a portrait of george floyd

Tejumola Butler Adenuga

The America that killed George Floyd

“Samuels and Olorunnipa deserve every praise for presenting Floyd as the complex character that he was—what human isn’t? Both writers are Black men and could easily have diluted portions of the book that show Floyd’s many shortcomings and poor decision making, but they resisted the urge. The result is an expertly researched and excellent biography, a necessary and enlightening read for all.”

Photo booth pictures of Eve Babitz.

The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens

The ‘L.A. woman’ reveals herself

“I was overwhelmed with curiosity about what her papers might reveal. What could the personal documents of a writer who was so public about her private world teach us about her work? How much of that persona was a performance and how much a reflection of her real anxieties and ambitions?”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Emma Sarappo. The book she’s reading next is Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh.

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