Archives For Lytton Strachey

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.