Archives For Biographies

Writing a Biography

January 4, 2022 — 14 Comments

What kind of writer are you? A poet, journalist, essayist or, perhaps, a minimalist? (By “minimalist” I mean someone who writes the bare minimum they have to.)

Many readers of Mere Inkling are, in fact, writers in their own right. Even ignoring the profusion of texts ricocheting around the globe (which are, in fact, literary creations), a fair number of Mere Inkling subscribers have blogs of their own.

The preeminent position of physical letters as the medium for correspondence has been usurped by email. People still write to one another, but – to the woe of the struggling United States Postal Service – they do it digitally.

More serious writers gravitate toward a varieties of genres. Often we try our hands at the sort of literature we prefer reading. That’s why I seldom write poetry. (And, when I do, it’s usually because I’m consciously stretching myself.)

My poetic skills may be limited – you can decide for yourself – but I don’t experience any of the disappointment that befell C.S. Lewis when his poetic dreams were dashed.

Poets are fine. Until they become snobs. If they treat other genres with respect, they stand on an equal footing with everyone else. But when they claim primacy for their preference, they lose me. Consider “William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What’s So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

There’s a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don’t acknowledge the art form all that much, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn’t respect or – if only from a distance – admire the magic in it.*

I guess I am one of the Americans who doesn’t possess a special reverence for poetry. And, as for “admiring the magic in it,” please. Wait, I don’t desire to offend you poets out there. Unless, of course, you consider yourself better than everyone else. In that case, consider my words a gentle rebuke (and encouragement to consider the virtue of humility).  

I hope that everyone will read on, and forgive me for maligning “the highest form of artistic expression.”

A Less Honored Literary Genre

I write nonfiction, unsurprising for someone who is basically a historian. Theologically, I neglect the conjecture of systematic theological considerations and focus on what’s usually called “practical theology.” It too, is unpretentious, and intended to make sense to “regular” people.

Recent years have found me dabbling in the memoir, or versions of autobiography, as I consider the potential value of such documents to my descendants.

One arena I’ve never really considered is biography. I suspect it would be a comfortable literary form, for a historian. I mean, you’re simply telling the story of a single life, relating facts and explaining the context of various events. That doesn’t sound too challenging, does it?

I suppose almost anyone could write a biography. The question is, could we write a good one?

Writing a Biography

I have been thinking about this subject ever since my research for my previous post introduced me to the work of David Cecil,⁑ one of the Oxford Inklings who shared the company of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cecil wrote several biographies. At Internet Archives you can read his lives of William Cowper, Charles Lamb, or Max Beerbohm, or his two-volume biography of Lord Melbourne (1 and 2).

If those individuals don’t tickle your proverbial fancy, you might want to look at the book that piqued my interest: An Anthology of Modern Biography. In it, Cecil explores the work of sixteen biographers. One of the chapters is his own portrayal of the evangelical Anglican cleric, John Newton (an extract from his biography of Cowper).

What intrigues me most about the volume is not the biographical material itself. Rather, it is Cecil’s very informative introduction. Here is his opening, which may whet the interest of future biographers . . . one of whom could be you?

Biography is not an important form of literary art. But it has a special interest to the student of modern literature. For it is the only new form. We can talk of modern poetry and modern novels, but these are only new variations on old forms. . . . Not so biography.

Art is primarily the expression of the artist’s creative powers; he writes to express his personal vision; he chooses as his subject that which he thinks will best exhibit his particular talent.

Now this is not true of the biographer of the past. His aim was not artistic, it was useful; he wanted to give people information. If he was a man of literary talent . . . his book was a work of art. But even if it had not been, it would not have failed. For its primary purpose had been, not to give an artistic impression, but to tell the truth.

This desire for the truth over ostentation resonates with me. But, mind you, he is referring to biographers “of the past.” Now (the book was published in 1936), other influences are at work.

But for the typical modern biographer literature comes first. Mr. Lytton Strachey writes about Queen Victoria, not in order to give us information about her, but because he thinks her life an excellent subject for a work of art. . . .

He does not set out his facts . . . complete with reference and proof, he weaves them into a story, grouping them in order and proportion that will make his picture as vivid and entertaining as possible.

Cecil’s explanation for this transformation is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it yourself, whether or not you are interested in writing a biography yourself. The book is available here, and thanks to the Public Library of India, you can download a complete copy for free.

In a 1932 letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis contrasts biographies with the evidence from people’s daily lives. He shares with his lifelong friend a question this raises in his own minid.

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives – biographies, autobiographies, letters etc. – give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of the tragedies they all contain. What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives?

But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what a relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?

Biography. Considering trying it. And, Poetry, it’s not that bad, either.


* The article does include interesting information about Faulkner. It appears his disappointed poetic dream shifted him to more productive fields. This parallels C.S. Lewis’ literary career.

For all of [Faulkner’s] achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp – the man still fell short. And it wasn’t that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job.

These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” he told The Paris Review in 1956, “finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he’d long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

⁑ In the spirit of most colonials who shook off the reigns of monarchial rule, I tend to respect the Queen as a head of state, and disregard the affectations of an aristocracy they once “lorded” it over. Thus, I can take or leave Cecil’s normative citation as “Lord David Cecil.

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True or False? The Bible is so simple to understand that studying how to read it is just a waste of time.

Obviously, the answer to that question is a resounding “False.” While some might argue with me, every serious student of the Scriptures knows that probing its depths requires a variety of skills beyond simple faith.

Well, “simple faith” actually is essential for understanding God’s word, but it requires more than simply possessing faith to comprehend its meaning. If that were not true, then everyone being trained in seminaries and colleges to help others explore God’s word are wasting their time.

Exegesis—the focused study of biblical texts—is a core subject for Bible students. It goes deeper than secular “Bible as Literature” courses, and strives to interpret each passage as faithfully as possible. After all, Christians believe these words are inspired.

In 1952 C.S. Lewis wrote a letter in which he noted the value of knowledgeable instructors in understanding the Bible.

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him.

Bible Study Magazine had an exceptionally good issue several months ago. They provide online access to some of their articles, but sadly, not to the essay I wish to cite. It was written by Karen Jobes, a retired professor of “New Testament and Exegesis” from Wheaton College and Graduate School. She writes:

Different cultures’ writings function in particular ways and settings, and a given literary genre is signaled by textual clues—stock phrases or forms recognizable to anyone familiar with the literature of a given culture.

Jobes begins her article with an example. “Imagine you’re sitting down to read . . . The book in your hands begins, ‘Once upon a time.’” Western readers would know immediately what to anticipate in the pages that follow.

Then she raises a curious question. “Now imagine you’re a student taking a physics course. If your textbook began, ‘Once upon a time,’ you’d no doubt be confused by the phrase and wonder how you should understand it in a scientific context.”

Her article discusses the importance of properly recognizing the genre of what we are reading. This is a concept quite familiar to most readers of Mere Inkling. But what is unfamiliar to many, who have not had opportunity to study biblical exegesis, are the genres and guiding principles employed by Old and New Testament writers.

Reading the Gospels

In two brief pages, Dr. Jobes explains a fundamental principle that we spent weeks discussing in my seminary courses. Knowing the genre of the biblical text is the key to understanding it. Let’s look at the Gospels.

Mark . . . identifies his text as evangelion (“good news,” Mark 1:1), picking up the term Jesus himself used to describe his message (Mark 1:15). The early church came to refer to all four accounts of Jesus’ life using the same term, which survives today in English as “gospel,” a literary genre unique to accounts about Jesus.

The author points out a similarity between the Gospels and “an ancient Greek genre called bioi (“lives”). Rather than provide a day-by-day journal, these “biographies” focus on what is truly important in the perception of the writer.* John offers the prime Christian example of this, in devoting nearly forty percent of his Gospel to the final ten days of Jesus’ life.

C.S. Lewis’ Rules for Exegesis

Hundreds of people sought advice from the Oxford professor. Many asked questions about various Bible passages and religious doctrines. Lewis did his best to point them in the right direction, all the while explaining that he was not a trained theologian.

Within his letters, we find examples of his advice about how to understand the meaning of the Scriptures. “I take it as a first principle that we must not interpret any one part of Scripture so that it contradicts other parts, and specially we must not use an apostle’s teaching to contradict that of Our Lord.” He also wrote:

The two things one must not do are (a) to believe on the strength of Scripture or on any other evidence that God is in any way evil (In Him is no darkness at all) (b) to wipe off the slate any passage which seems to show that He is.

Behind the shocking passage be sure there lurks some great truth which you don’t understand. If one ever does come to understand it, one sees that it is good and just and gracious in ways we never dreamed of. Till then it must just be left on one side.

But why are baffling passages left in at all? Oh, because God speaks not only for us little ones but for the great sages and mystics who experience what we can only read about, and to whom all the words have therefore different (richer) contents.

Would not a revelation which contained nothing that you and I did not understand, be for that very reason rather suspect? To a child it would seem a contradiction to say both that his parents made him and God made him, yet we see how both can be true.

We began with a question, so it’s fitting to end with one.

True or False? Understanding the Bible is so challenging that we should postpone reading it until we become experts at exegesis?

The answer to this question is as obvious as the one with which we began. Don’t delay reading the Scriptures. Immerse yourself in God’s word. But, if you long to know them better, invest some time in learning how to best understand their full meaning.

_____

* In his biographical collection entitled Parallel Lives, the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (c. 46 – c. 122) expressly described the bioi genre.

In writing the Lives of Alexander the Great and of Cæsar the conqueror of Pompeius, which are contained in this book, I have before me such an abundance of materials, that I shall make no other preface than to beg the reader, if he finds any of their famous exploits recorded imperfectly, and with large excisions, not to regard this as a fault.

I am writing biography, not history; and often a man’s most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege.

Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes’ minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others.

The parchment shown above is the earliest copy of the Gospel According to John. Included on the recto (front) are John 18:32-33.