Literary Guide: October, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image propertiesKenneth Silverman is a professor of English emeritus at New York University, where he directed The Biography Seminar. An amateur magician, he’s the author of “Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss” along with biographies of Edgar A. Poe, Samuel B. Morse and Cotton Mather. He’s now writing a biography of the avant-garde composer John Cage, and is working with The Jewish Museum on an upcoming Houdini exhibition.

How do you distinguish between biography
and history?

It’s a fine distinction. To me, the difference is that history is about what Napoleon did; biography is about what it meant to him. That’s the essential thing about biography — it’s not only about what the subject did, but how the subject felt about his or her
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life.

What sort of clues do you look for in your research so that you can infer how the
person felt at certain moments?

Essential to me are the person’s letters, diaries, and interviews. I would not attempt to write a biography without a lot of such information.

Why do biographers choose to write about subjects who have been written about previously?

It goes on and on and on. Different periods want to know different things about a subject — what you might have wanted to know about Fred Astaire 50 years ago is not the same thing that someone would want to know now. A second reason is that sometimes big caches of new information become available so a new biography makes sense. Certain subjects have been written about enough: Right now no one needs to do another biography of Virginia Woolf. Maybe in 50 years.

Are there basic tips you can share about the writing of biography?

Do very thorough research. You want to find every scrap of information about the subject that is available. And pray for some good luck.

Has the field of biography changed,with new technology and new media?

It has changed, but I don’t know if it’s because of the Internet. We have very good libraries — the Library of Congress, The New York Public Library, the British Museum. They make a lot of biographical material available.

But the Internet does make factual material easily available. And for earlier subjects the Internet is very useful.

For my biography of Cotton Mather I had to go to the library and get microfilms of his many sermons. They are now all available online.

There have been ugly developments in biography too, like the use of invented biographical characters and information. Here and much more so in England, some very fictionalized, misleading biographies have been published.

Do you agree, in any sense, with Bernard Malamud’s line that “All biography is fiction?”

I disagree 100 percent. When I write that John Cage says something, I quote what he said. Biography has reality — Sylvia Plath really did stick her head in the oven, Hemingway really did put a shotgun in his mouth and blow his head off. Good biographers write about real things that really happened.

Does the current heightened interest in memoir relate to interest in biography?
To me, the two forms are entirely unrelated. There have been combined biographies and memoirs, like Boswell’s biography of Samuel Johnson. What he writes about Johnson largely comes out of their relationship. Memoirists don’t have to do the huge research that serious biographers do. It’s very, very different.No alternate text on picture! - define alternate text in image properties

How do you choose your subjects?

That’s complicated. There are so many different reasons for choosing a subject. I guess that I always think of Hemingway’s bullfighters looking at the bulls from behind a barrier and deciding, I don’t like the way that one hooks or I like that one that’s a good bull for me. I pick a subject I think I can handle well. I couldn’t and wouldn’t write about the life of Emily Dickinson much as I love her poetry. Too difficult for me to write about someone who spent much of her life living in one room. That’s unlike Hemingway going from country to country, war to war — that I could handle. I like men and women who get around. And I only do Americans. I taught American literature for almost 40 years and feel that I understand something about the country.

After completing a biography of, say, Houdini, do you stay involved with the subject, always looking for
new information?

Somebody will need to do another Houdini biography pretty soon. It was very difficult for me to get a lot of information about him, as the information is very guarded. Many of the people who control it don’t want to lend it, don’t want you to see it. I know there’s a lot of Houdini information that I was denied access to. When it becomes available, someone will have to write another biography. Most biographers understand this sort of thing — that someone else will come along and outdo you.

What do you think of publishers’ interest in brief biographies?

These are interpretive books. There’s value if the interpretation is sharp. You don’t go to them for information but for cutting interpretation, when they are interpretively interesting. They can be judged for their understanding of the subject.

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