Biography has a challenge: how to represent a personality in writing when digital technology can do it so much better. Virginia Woolf, inevitably, had already understood this dilemma a hundred years ago.
‘Since we live in an age when a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters, and diaries, at every character from every angle, we must be prepared to admit contradictory versions of the same face. Biography will enlarge its scope by hanging up looking glasses at odd corners. And yet from all this diversity it will bring out, not a riot of confusion, but a richer unity.’1
Now it’s the same problem, new technology. The essence of the problem is how to show personality accurately, revealingly, interestingly in text when we have so many digital ways of experiencing people more directly. What is the point of representing someone with words when they can be re-enacted with video and audio?
Woolf noticed that modern biography is a by-product of the Gutenberg Parenthesis — the idea that the last five hundred years, when culture was dominated by books, were an anomaly — and that the parenthesis was ending. In her time radio and photography formed the main gulf between past and present (as books in the age of Gutenberg had done before). For us that gulf is made impassable by the internet. Books are no longer paramount.2
This means there is material about biographical subjects that never existed before. We can see and hear Margaret Thatcher in a way we never could with Benjamin Disraeli. He is trapped in letters, diaries, Hansard. She is vital and alive on YouTube. Just as the penny post gave Victorian biographers a new wealth of material, so recording technology and the internet will provide us with new sources — and new mediums — of insight. As we leave the Gutenberg Parenthesis, it will be increasingly difficult to create a vivid sense of personality within a book, when readers could otherwise watch or listen to their subjects.
The ending of the Gutenberg Parenthesis is undermining ideas of original and individual creation. Inside the Gutenberg Parenthesis we are concerned with the ideas of original individuals, and with a clear distinction between high and low (Friends vs free verse). Outside the parenthesis we are concerned with collective creations and are comfortable with a more holistic view of cultural status.
Around 1500, as printed books became available, standards about plagiarism and identifying authors with works changed. Entering the Gutenberg Parenthesis, we valued ‘original, independent, autonomous compositions — the individual achievement and the individual property of those who create them.’3 Once you put someone’s work between the covers of a book you have contained it, enclosed it, and the ownership of that book can be arrogated to an author.
Before the Parenthesis, the Church had a ‘monopoly on orthodox knowledge’. This ‘gave divine authority to the kinds of writings concerning spiritual life.’4 That is why English biography before Johnson, Walton, and Aubrey was hagiographic. Not only was the idea of a unique, individual author weaker, there was a monopoly on the sort of writing that got done.
This changed in the seventeenth century. Shakespeare’s First Folio was a new departure. Poetry had been treated like that before, but not plays, or playwrights. By the end of the eighteenth century, peoples’ cultural lives were conducted exclusively within the Gutenberg Parenthesis, and they ‘could not remember (or imagine) a time when they or their forebears had done differently.’5
Biography tracks this pattern. Walton was more revealing than previous biographers, writing about John Donne winding himself up in a sheet to be painted like he was dead. But all his lives were about good, solid Anglicans, often priests, during a century of religious war. Boswell was more revelatory. He may have been shy about sex, but massive amounts of material about Johnson — showing him in bad moods, being politically incorrect, describing his oddities and afflictions — created an unsparing portrait. Boswell could only have done what he did because of the cultural shift made possible by the Gutenberg Parenthesis.
Critics often say how weird it is that the seminal work of British biography is about a bad-mannered lexicographer. It is not so weird when you see it in the context of the Parenthesis. Johnson epitomises that culture. Just as society became concerned with the verifiability of texts — all those editions of Shakespeare — it became concerned with the verifiability of authors.
Boswell records more than once that Walton’s Lives, especially the Life of Donne, was one of Johnson’s favourite books. It may be from here that Johnson developed the technique of quoting letters directly in the narrative, as he does in the Life of Savage.6 Johnson was doing this to wrestle biography away from hagiographers and fictionalisers. He was bringing the standard of the Gutenberg Parenthesis to bear on the genre of biography: ‘original, independent, autonomous’.
Getting hold of the letters and diaries became the standard for exemplary biography. This is partly where biographers get their grasping, avaricious reputation from. Henry James’ story The Aspern Letters is a (rather tame and rather literary) thriller about the lengths a biographer will go to just to see a few old love letters.
Remarkably, though, letters are often saved only by the grace of God.
Many of Larkin’s letters were left for years in Monica Jones’ house in Leicester. The house was burgled and letters were found trampled all over the place. The week after the biographer took everything he could find, the house was more or less destroyed and the letters would have been lost.
The same is true of many other authors. Ninety-seven of Boswell’s letters to his friend and literary executor William Temple were discovered in a shop in Boulogne in 1857 by one Major Stone of the East India Company. The letters were being used as wrapping paper. Many others, of course, had already gone home with other shoppers.7
The fact that these things are kept at all is testament to the enduring desire for Fame. Not flimsy modern fame. Fame eternal. The sort of thing great poets and statesmen dream about. The Fame of Milton, Homer, and Charlie Chaplin. Larkin kept a diary from a young age. Johnson burnt what he didn’t want Boswell to get. This is all akin to Michael Heseltine’s diary with his plots for power or Churchill painstakingly preserving his archives (meticulous, even, about ephemera) — it is the habit of the ambitious, the egotistical, the historically minded, and the talented.
But letters are from a distant past. We are now moving to a digital culture where ‘sampling, remixing, borrowing, reshaping, appropriating and recontextualizing’ are now acceptable, even encouraged.8 Increasingly, texts become ‘a never-stopping ongoing process — blog, wiki, twitter, etc. — owing its existence not to a specially privileged author but to the contributions of very many proximate but unseen hands.’9 To some extent, the biographies of public people are being written and created online, perhaps to rival or supersede traditional biographies.
There’s a major implication for biography. The material that exists about a person’s life will no longer (primarily) be written in books or on paper. Video, audio, image, social, email, etc. will play an overwhelming role. A book like Ma’am Darling (US link) shows the potential for creating a kaleidoscopic life out of the myriad impressions people have of public figures — and the ways in which those impressions can be just as illustrative of the observer as they are of the subject. Hetty Saunders’ recent biography of J.A. Baker My House of Sky (US link) contains a large section of excellent photographs of Baker’s birdwatching equipment and notebooks. This photo essay is a parallel narrative of Baker’s life. This mirrors and builds on the way a book like Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats used facsimiles of Keats’ manuscripts to demonstrate that, rather than being a poet of inspiration, he was a detailed revisionist.10 There is no good substitute for these images, and there will be no good substitute for audio and video in the future.
When Johnson went to the coffee house, Boswell recorded him. Will we see something similar with Clubhouse? What about all the private messaging, the false personas, the incognito browsing? It seems at least possible that more and more of what is important about a person will be out of reach. How easily will we be able to pick apart the Straussian statements from the true statements? Without access to the private messages will future biographers be able to interpret public statements properly? We all know what Trump said on Twitter. The real story is what else was happening in real life as he was typing. Those materials may not be as accessible and may take much more sorting out to be meaningful.
As an example of how biography will struggle to accurately represent personality in the future, look at Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s personality was a key part of her foreign affairs policy. The role of her forceful personality in European negotiations is well known.
‘The following morning, Mrs Thatcher met Deng Xiaoping. Those present at the meeting were conscious of an air of unease and of two formidable individuals confronting one another. ‘They were mirror images’, recalled Percy Cradock. Robin Butler remembered ‘a great diatribe’ by Deng, with Mrs Thatcher being ‘pretty equally aggressive.’ Deng started hawking, and expectorating into the spittoon which was uncomfortably near to her; ‘She moved her legs. It threw her.’’11
This passage from Moore’s second volume is a useful illustration of the challenge of how personality be adequately shown today. That scene with Thatcher and Deng might not be recorded, but a thousand others are: conference speeches, television interviews, party political broadcasts, radio clips. Some are famous, such as her reading Francis of Assisi’s prayer on the steps of Downing Street. Many are not. Without some presentation of those sources, a book like Moore’s, although highly successful, will come to feel like a partial treatment of someone whose personality was so present on radio, television, magazines, and now the internet.
There is a clip from an interview where Mrs Thatcher, retired at this point, is asked to ‘make a little jump.’ The interviewer tells Thatcher this is a little gimmick she asks everyone to do. Thatcher replies:
‘I shouldn’t dream of doing that. Why should I? I see no significance whatsoever in making a jump up in the air. I made great leaps forward, not little jumps in studios.’
The interviewer laughs, and tells Thatcher there was a bet on whether she would do it. ‘Certainly not. Shouldn’t dream of it. I think it’s a silly thing to ask. It’s a puerile thing to ask, yes.’ The interviewer then tells Thatcher that Gorbachov had done the jump.
‘You amaze me. I wonder what he thought of the politics of a free society if that’s what you asked him to do.’
The gimmick is, the interviewer tells her, just a way of showing another side of people, who are so used to talking and talking. ‘I wasn’t used to talking,’ Thatcher cuts her off, ‘I was used to doing. More than little jumps.’ She goes on to say, ‘No, no, no… to coin a phrase.’
In print, this starts to make Thatcher look like a P.G. Wodehouse character. But when you watch it, everything about her bristles with calm confidence. Her tone, her facial expressions, the way she hovers around in her chair. The defiance that characterised her career (never more so than after she left office) is immediate in the video in a way it can never be in transcript. She concludes by saying she won’t make the jump because she doesn’t want to lose the respect of the people whose respect she has kept for years. There is something old fashioned about this (being old fashioned was a key political strategy of Thatcher’s) — something defining. We can learn so much about who Thatcher was from watching the video that we cannot learn by reading about it. It provides all the rich contextual data of her tone, mood, and expression, not to mention the visual aesthetics of her clothes, hair, and jewellery.
None of this means we will not need the letters. Far from it. Without the emails, texts, and other modern equivalents of the thousands of letters people used to send — the private digital communications — we will get a very lopsided story. Larkin’s legacy is disputed, and James Booth’s biography is a masterclass in how to reassess a personality based on a full review of private letters. The interesting thing about digital communication is that while it is easier to lose — think of your teenage SMS messages lost to history, the abandoned WhatsApp profiles, the unused MySpace and MSM messenger accounts, and so many others — it is all duplicated.
Unlike with physical letters, in digital communication both parties have a full record. At least these days, all emails and messages are on a trail. For many figures — politicians especially — there will be protocols about how to preserve these things. But even without those, for most of the people we really want to know about, it will no longer be possible to unilaterally destroy what you don’t want your biographer to see. Copies can be made. Deleted items can often be recovered.
There might be more interesting revelations about the subjects of biography. There will almost certainly be more dirty fights to get the material. Gossip ought to be plentiful, whether it is about the subjects of biographies or the biographers themselves. The Cummings revelations about Boris, substantiated with WhatsApp messages, are a delicious hint of the future in this respect.
As Virginia Woolf said at the start of this essay, ‘we live in an age where a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters, and diaries, at every character from every angle’ — only now these cameras are proliferating digitally.12 The new project for biography will be to create a life out of increasingly digital materials, with some sense of unity, and with the ability to synthesise facts without succumbing to the creation of a fictional character — something people do about themselves online much more easily than before.
Woolf worried about biography. She thought it was too easy for biographers to slip into fiction as they sought to portray personalities. Biography must create characters without allowing fiction to creep in, and without letting a heaping up of facts create something so dull it becomes irrelevant. Too much personality, she worried, can scupper a biography. If we lack a way of integrating print and digital, and if we rely on public material without private emails, future readers of biography may feel that, rather than having too much personality in biography, we have too little.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 116-123 (p. 121).
L. O. Sauerberg, ‘The Encyclopedia and the Gutenberg Parenthesis’, Aktualitet - Litteratur, Kultur Og Medier, Bd. 4, nr. 2, marts 2010, https://tidsskrift.dk/aktualitet/article/view/112874
Tom Pettitt, ‘Before The Gutenberg Parenthesis: Elizabethan-american Compatibilities’, Plenary session at MIT, Folk Cultures and Digital Cultures, April 2007, p. 2.
L. O. Sauerberg, ‘The Encyclopedia and the Gutenberg Parenthesis’, Aktualitet - Litteratur, Kultur Og Medier, Bd. 4, nr. 2, marts 2010, https://tidsskrift.dk/aktualitet/article/view/112874, p. 4.
Pettitt, p. 8.
Johnson, Samuel, ‘The Life of Richard Savage’, in The Major Works, ed. by Donald Greene, (Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 128-165
Ian Hamilton, Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography (Pimlico, 1993), p. 76.
Pettitt, p. 1.
Sauerberg, p. 3.
Amy Lowell, John Keats, Volume II (Jonathan Cape, 1925), pp. 168-9.
Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants (Penguin, 2015), pp. 13-14.
Virginia Woolf, ‘The Art of Biography’, in Selected Essays, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 116-123 (p. 121).