Thursday, December 27, 2007

One of the incidental pleasures of biography

I just got back from Christmas travels, so no time for a real post today. Instead, I offer you a couple of lines from Ron Powers's Mark Twain (2005) that serve as a good example of one most fun aspects of biography as a form. The lines describe Samuel Clemens's mother, Jane Clemens, whose mercurial husband had just died, more or less bankrupt, leaving her with a clutch of children to raise. Jane, who was (not unreasonably) never all that stable herself, began to withdraw from active participation in the lives of her children:
Jane Clemens, not yet forty-four, drew inward, wept frequently, became absorbed in omens and dreams. Her flame-colored hair was graying. She took up pipe-smoking, played cards, accumulated cats, and grew deeply absorbed in the color red.
It's just three lines full of throwaway detail, but they deliver an oddly effective suggestion of roundedness and reality, intriguing and suggestive. Their sidelong concision hints of John Aubrey's elliptical style. And instantly we move on, because, despite playing a prominent role in her son's life, Jane Clemens is not the focus of this biography, and it will take hundreds of pages to attempt to limn her son's character alone.

When you read lots of history and biography of a period, occasionally those little incidental portraits start to interconnect, as figures from the margins of one life turn up as central to another; eventually a satisfyingly subtle tapestry of interwoven lives begins to emerge. It's one of the best ways--and maybe the most fun way--I know to really begin to get the flavor of a period.

Finally, how would I fare in that sort of three-line capsule summary? Something like this, perhaps?
Levi, not yet thirty-four, shaved his head and spent ever more of his time reading and running alone. He took up martini-drinking, bought books compulsively, accumulated cats, and became deeply absorbed in the sometimes-pink shade of his wife's hair.
Hmm. Though that last bit may be an exaggeration, it's still clear that I need to get out more.

No comments:

Post a Comment