Lori's Book Nook

Biographers’ Dilemma

Posted on: January 2, 2007

Just this morning, lying abed, cozy under my covers, two cats in attendance, a cup of coffee brought to me by my love, I finished reading Truly Wilde by Joan Schenkar. The scene was apt, as luxuriating in bed was one of Dolly Wilde’s greatest pleasures, as Schenkar illustrates by quoting Wilde’s letters.

But what a biography! Dolly Wilde was, by all (surviving) accounts, a very vivid woman who lived in the shadow of a truly (in)famous uncle, and died in a swirl of her own infamy. Could this woman’s life have been treated to the traditional biographical form? Being a playwright, Schenkar draws on her narrative proclivities to describe the virtually indescribable…a character who left only clues to her history, whose conversational style people remember, but not her bon mots

Schenkar describes her version of the biographic genre:

“In finding ways to tell her story, I allowed Dolly’s own passionate interests to guide me: her feel for inventive imagery turned me to the vivid enlargements that metaphor permits; her contempt for time gave me the intense concentration that thematic — rather than chronologic — treatment enables; her unalloyed romanticism lead me to the ‘recreations’ that make up the next chapter of this book, etc., etc. From time to time, I have used different styles of writing in different settings to suggest Dolly’s own changing — and very elusive — states of being.”

And it is effective. Dolly is now haunting my thoughts. Her social circle, I see now, has reached its tendrils out to me many times, in my reading about salons, in my interest in authors of her time. Virtually everyone involved in Dolly’s life is someone who was someone, or was connected to someone. For a quick overview, look at this loving tribute site to Natalie Clifford Barney & her women-centered literary and social salon of the early 1900s.

I will leave you with Joan Schenkar’s final words of her acknowledgements:

“And I thank everyone who has ever saved a scrap of handwriting, an old love letter, or a fragment of photograph from the half-forgotten life of an unusual woman in the hope that it might be important; in the hope that she might be important.”

With that in mind, the future of biography is both more overwhelming, and bleaker, in light of the changes in technology. Passwords to blog & email accounts lost, forgotten, or not able to be found in the event of death. Hard drives erased, backups corrupted.

Or worse, having to sift through all of the random tripe we spew every day, because it is so easy, electronically.

3 Responses to "Biographers’ Dilemma"

[…] was morning, I was lying abed (again) with a cup of coffee, brought to me by my man, and I picked up this book. Its 308 pages were done […]

Excellent post! Somehow I missed it first time through. “And bleaker”. Nice, makes me glad about stuff I have saved. Like the last letter my Mother sent me. Of course I didn’t know it would be the last, but, when my brother Danny read part of it at his daughters wedding (33 years after its’ writing) there was not a dry eye in the crowd and when my nephew thought it was his Mother’s handwriting I almost cried, it made “pack-rat” seem like a good thing.

Let’s open a bottle of wine, and toast the packrats the world over!

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