Saturday, April 20, 2024

Quote of the Day (Peter Davison, on Criteria for ‘The Perfect Biographer’)

“If there were a perfect biographer, he or she would be the following: a real writer, one who understands how to construct and recount a labile and sensuous narrative; a master of research, in both documents and interviews; a person who is tactful in dealings with relatives, librarians, lovers, executors, children, parents, and editors; one who is so cannily devoted to the personality of the biographical subject as to pursue every true lead and abandon every false one; one who cares so deeply about the precision of the text as to check every fact again and again, every document, every photograph, every rumor. But, beyond the conscientious practice of these skills, the biographer's genius lies in having the sympathy and imagination to create the story of a life about which the subject’s ghost would say, ‘That’s as close to me as anybody else could be expected to get.’ The biographer’s worst temptation is to transform the subject into someone preferable to the original.”—American poet and editor Peter Davison (1928–2004), “To Edit a Life,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 1992

As a lifelong reader of biographies—and, now, a biographer myself—I read this passage by Davison with great interest, knowing just how difficult it is to meet all the qualities he mentions.

But, when I think of a biographer who changes how his subject is perceived, rendering him in all his complexity and in the context of his times, I think of Ron Chernow (pictured). 

He has made his greatest mark on American culture with a biography of Alexander Hamilton that helped inspire the long-running Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and has won the Pulitzer Prize for his life of Washington.

But even before that, I had been enthralled by Titan, his account of John D. Rockefeller, which built on his background as a financial journalist. In the process, he pierced the membrane of what he called “silence, mystery and evasion” surrounding this paradoxical billionaire.

(The image accompanying this post of Chernow was taken Sept. 13, 2004, by the U.S. Department of the Treasury—the institution founded by his subject Alexander Hamilton.)

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