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Biography

  • ... every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works, yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people's hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.

  • ... a biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many as a thousand.

  • Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people — the autobiographists and the biographists.

  • ... biography is essentially a collaborative art, the latest biographer collaborating with all those who wrote earlier.

  • ... the only people worth writing about are those about whom the last word cannot be said.

  • All biographers, no matter how sympathetic, end up using their subjects as mirrors to figure themselves out. I don't want to be anyone's mirror.

  • I have always hated biography, and more especially, autobiography. If biography, the writer invariably finds it necessary to plaster the subject with praises, flattery and adulation and to invest him with all the Christian graces. If autobiography, the same plan is followed, but the writer apologizes for it.

  • ... if I believed that the choice lay between a sacrifice of the completest order of biography and that of the inviolability of private epistolary correspondence, I could not hesitate for a moment. I would keep the old and precious privacy,--the inestimable right of every one who has a friend and can write to him, — I would keep our written confidence from being made biographical material, as anxiously as I would keep our spoken conversation from being noted down for the good of society.

  • All good biography, as all good fiction, comes down to the study of original sin, of our inherent disposition to choose death when we ought to choose life.

  • Just how difficult it is to write biography can be reckoned by anybody who sits down and considers just how many people know the real truth about his or her love affairs.

  • ... on the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken.

    • Penelope Fitzgerald,
    • in Terence Dooley, ed., So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald ()
  • ... biographies are a little like marriages: You only have room in your life for one or two.

    • Phyllis Rose,
    • in Jean Strouse, The New York Times Book Review ()
  • I have no leisure to think of style or of polish, or to select the best language, the best English — no time to shine as an authoress. I must just think aloud, so as not to keep the public waiting.

  • To be a biographer is a somewhat peculiar endeavor. It seems to me it requires not only the tact, patience, and thoroughness of a scholar but the stamina of a horse.

  • Writers should know when not to intervene, for very little of any life can be tidily explained and its seams made straight.

  • The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters his own changing self-image.

    • Doris Kearns Goodwin,
    • "Angles of Vision," in Marc Patcher, ed., Telling Lives: The Art and Craft of American Biography ()
  • After a person dies, his biographers feel free to give him a glittering list of intimate friends. Anecdotes are so much tastier spiced with expensive names.

  • Biography is an imaginative interaction between the writer and the subject.

  • Where the hero bled, you can wipe the sword, / Where he walked, you can plant a tree, / But landmarks do not make biography.

  • Biography is a dangerous undertaking — / Like building love's mansion from blueprints, / Or testing the blood-stream for germs of truth.

  • A woman's biography — with about eight famous historical exceptions — so often turns out to be the story of a man and the woman who helped his career.

    • Catherine Drinker Bowen,
    • in Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, eds., Notable American Women: The Modern Period ()
  • Biographers, by their very nature, want to know everything about everybody, dead or alive.

  • In writing biography, fact and fiction shouldn't be mixed. And if they are, the fiction parts should be printed in red ink, the fact parts in black ink.

  • I enjoy reading biographies because I want to know about the people who messed up the world.

  • I have always liked reading biographies. It is the ideal literary genre for someone too prim, like me, to acknowledge a gossipy interest in the living — don't you hate gossips, aren't they too awful? — but avid for any nuggets from the private lives of the dead because that is perfectly respectable, an altogether worthy and informative way of spending one's time.

  • ... biography cannot be separated from autobiography: that is, the life written about is inextricably entangled with the life of the biographer.

    • Linda Simon,
    • in Jack Heffron, ed., The Best Writing on Writing, vol. 2 ()
  • Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away.

  • There is nothing so interesting to people as other people.

  • Biography acts as an indirect introduction and a delightful accompaniment to history; it cements and fixes the important facts of science and literature, and makes real the great personalities concerned in them.

  • ... while it is certainly the biographer's business to describe the foibles, passions and idiosyncrasies which make his subject a person, his work will be very meagre if these individual traits are not also seen as part of a universal drama — for each man's life is also the story of Everyman.

  • The biographer's real business — if it is not too arrogant to say so — is simply this: to bring the dead to life.

  • Behind each biography there should always be a rich treasury of unformulated knowledge, a tapestry that has not been unrolled.

  • [On writing biography:] If you wish to see a person you must not start by seeing through him.

  • ... I do not think that one is likely to write a good biography unless one feels some sympathy with its subject ...

  • [On writing biography:] ... every human life is at once so complex and so simple, so perplexing and so clear, so superficial and so profound, that any attempt to present it as a unified, consistent whole, to enclose it within a rigid frame, inevitably tempts one to cheat or to falsify.

  • The best interviews — like the best biographies — should sing the strangeness and variety of the human race.

  • Writing biography is a paradoxical enterprise, at once solitary and communal.

  • To the biographer all lives bar none are dramatic constructions.

  • The best biographies leave their readers with a sense of having all but entered into a second life, and of having come to know another human being in some ways better than he knew himself.

    • Mary Cable,
    • "Saint-Gaudens and the Gilded Era," in The New York Times Book Review ()
  • The pleasure of reading biography, like that of reading letters, derives from the universal hunger to penetrate other lives.

  • Poring over fragments of other people's lives, peering into their bedrooms when they don't know we're there, we thrill to the glamour and the power of secret knowledge, partly detoxified but also heightened by being shared.

  • Nobody should be authorized to describe the dissolution of a man, still less to do so for money or sensationalism. In the name of human dignity, there should be a prohibition against baring the private lives of others.

  • The facts of life are to the biographer what the text of a novel is to the critic.

  • I got very keen on biography because I wanted to change it. I wanted to stretch the form. I think of it as a way of capturing souls.

    • Ann Wroe,
    • in Marilyn Johnson, The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries ()